Time to touch the cake


There is no shortage of sticky subjects to circumvent these days. Whether you’re at the dinner table with opinionated family members, or doing everything you can to not make your blog post a political diatribe—times are tough.

It’s also June, which means it’s Pride Month. We love Pride month and what it stands for: a group (actually, several groups) of people, long-marginalized by society, celebrating a history of struggle and success, tragedy and triumph, overwhelming odds and overcoming obstacles. And damn, they look good doing it.

It’s been a long road for the LGBTQ community, and there’s still a lot of progress to be made. Marriage equality for same-sex couples is not even ten years old. Trans people are still prevented from using the restroom that matches their gender identity. Gay conversion therapy is still happening. Rates of LGBTQ homelessness, depression, and suicide are still markedly higher than other groups. And some people still think it’s cool to use the word “gay” in a derogatory fashion—it’s not.

And, to start off the month, the Supreme Court just set us on a course for a backward-looking, discriminatory future.

The Hateful Cake

You have probably heard about the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision by now. Essentially, two men in Colorado were planning their wedding. One of them went to a bakery that was known for creating excellent cakes. When the baker realized that the cake would be used in a same-sex wedding, he refused to accept their business.

Now, we have pretty strong safeguards against businesses behaving like this. It was not very long ago that businesses had the legal ability to deny service to specific groups of people. Discriminatory policies, we decided from a legal perspective, should not be a part of our society. In the United States, we have written laws meant to ensure talent is the reason someone is hired—not race, gender, or disability. In fact, one of our claims to fame here in the U.S. is equal protection under the law.

But, we know that, in all practicality, discrimination persists.

And a major reason discrimination persists is us—the people who make stuff.

This is not to suggest that everyone in user experience design, technical development, or any other creative field is ill-intentioned. Perhaps, though, we are too often unaware of the implicit biases which form our decisions.

Human Error

As human beings, we’re not exactly wired for getting outside of ourselves. Even empathy is born of a survival instinct, evolved to understand others at least enough to protect oneself.

We crave the familiar—people who were raised with relatable cultural traditions, economic prosperity, and outlook on what life should look like—and we shun what we do not understand.

From an evolutionary perspective, not trusting people who don’t fit your perception of normality used to be advantageous.

In the days before our cosmopolitan society, communities were smaller in population, but also larger in inclusivity. In order to survive, everyone had to work together towards common purposes of producing food, building shelters, and protecting the general population.

If someone in the community wanted to do something differently, it could threaten the delicate balance that allowed them to thrive—think Galileo subtly threatening the authority of Christian rulers with his crazy ideas about how the ‘heavens’ worked. And if one group’s method of living caused another to suffer, their survival could be at stake.

In time, ideas flow between groups. Small groups clash or come together to form larger ones. Culture changes. Children come of age in worlds their parents could not have imagined, straddling the old and new with their perceptions of normalcy.

Universal Functionality

Today, our communities are larger than ever before, but the groups with whom we share common goals are often smaller. Those of us living in cities, especially, tend to cling to our cliques. We may branch out, finding new connections among strangers, but the number of people who become like family tends to be much smaller.

We’re also more capable than we’ve ever been at understanding our differences in order to solve universal problems because the mechanics of our survival have changed since hunting-and-gathering and hiding in caves. As people who make things (interactive experiences, in this case) designed to function for people, the metaphor of cake begins to fail a bit. A cake doesn’t function, per se. It’s a symbol and a food, and arguably should be made for anyone and consumed by anyone, no matter their affiliation or beliefs. As empathetic designers who follow a credo of humanist values, we see this specific discrimination as wrong. But let’s strengthen the metaphor just to be more clear.

Remember the viral video of a soap dispenser that couldn’t sense dark-skinned hands?

One can only imagine that snafu occured because someone didn’t think to test the prototype sensor on darker skin.

Someone—a whole team of someones—didn’t think beyond themselves.

These oversights are made all the time, in almost every industry. Whether cake or soap, laws that might excuse exclusionary behavior or even just lazy design, we see as wrong headed.

So what can we do?

The solution to stopping weak, lazy, or biased design requires effort—thinking outside of yourself is hard?

You have to try and you have to practice.Furthermore, we can educate ourselves and be open to ideas that might strike us as strange at first.

‘Culture’ is is a strange beast. It’s a simultaneous force that isolates us and brings us together. It doesn’t change overnight. We have to create it, often slowly, with conscious decisions based in strength and sometimes courage.

Here’s a list of things you can do to help push you outside yourself a little bit more and make yourself a more informed and empathetic designer and citizen of the world.

1. Go to a new place.

Be an outsider. Be a minority. Be the person who stands out in the room. Go to a place where you are “the other” and reflect on how it makes you feel. Did people address you in terms familiar to you? Did people find your presence disturbing or upsetting? Did anyone want to welcome or talk to you? Learn to exist in a place that doesn’t cater to your expectations or doesn’t accept you for who you are. Think about how design choices you make might impact someone who doesn’t think like you. You will learn a lot about a different side of life—and even more about yourself.

2. Watch some (more) Netflix.

Try out a show that doesn’t necessarily cater to you. We tend to stick to programming that features people who we can relate to and stories we can picture ourselves in. Series which tell the stories of different cultures (not necessarily foreign) and experiences give you different terms to describe the world, and new eyes to see it with.

For example, the revamped seasons of Queer Eye provide a fantastic (or, dare we say, fabulous) primer to much more than “gay culture.” People from all walks of life and many different perspectives are featured. And, though the Fab 5 do tend to represent a rather narrow view of the LGBTQ community, the show does a LOT to help people—especially men—be more comfortable with themselves as well-rounded people rather than narrowly defined versions of what a man is “supposed” to be.

3. Respect people’s gender pronouns.

Don’t be a jerk. Call people by the pronoun of their choosing. If they tell you what they prefer: use it. If you don’t know: ask. This isn’t that hard. Sure, there are new words to learn, but a lot of us have lived through infinitesimal iterations of Apple OS10 so it shouldn’t be that hard to learn a few new terms.

4. Call out your friends. Call out yourself.

Toxic ideas about gender and sexuality are everywhere. They spread simply by an exchange of words. Often enough, they are not intended to be harmful; sometimes, they are. If someone you know says something that doesn’t feel right, tell them you’re not sure if what they said was okay. If you say something that, in retrospect, seems inappropriate, apologize! Recognize what you don’t know and be aware that the things you say have a broader impact on culture than you might think.

5. No more sexist comments.

It’s bad for business. You don’t need to diminish others to build yourself up—and, yes, that can be a big part of sexism. Respect women—including trans women. And, while you’re at it, respect everyone else too—even if you don’t understand them. Learn how to think beyond the harmful gender norms that are just about everywhere. This is not easy. Sexism can be intentional and unintentional, hostile and benevolent, and much more subtly prevalent than you might think. Read about it. Learn about it. Be respectful. Respect, tolerance, and understanding are all good for business.