Ash Huang: How Much Poison Is Acceptable in Our Technology?

Ash Huang

Photo credit: Helena Price

For an industry that complains about the inconvenience of waiting for a cab, doing laundry, or picking up takeout, we sure build a lot of suffering into our apps.

Virtual reality initially caused motion sickness in women because the equipment was developed and tested primarily by men. Interracial couples try to take photos together and fail because their phone’s white balance can’t capture both dark and light skin tones. People struggling with mental health issues, violence, or other trauma try to get help from Siri and Alexa but we’re only recently seeing that considered. All these stories and more, underscored by a rampant and constant harassment of women, people of color, people disabilities, those of Muslim and Jewish faiths, and LGBTQA—and tech’s bewilderment on how to help.

The Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters were conceived as services for all. And yet, they were unsurprisingly born prioritizing the needs of their creators: primarily able, young, white American men. While many of these companies are trying to march to a more inclusive tune, much of Silicon Valley still designs exclusively for that particular American man. The rest of us are an edge case, someone to deal with after the “majority,” and only if it’s convenient for this said “majority.”

It matters first because this “majority” falls apart if you look at data. Non-Hispanic white men are about 32% of the US population, and that ratio is shrinking. If you’re globally minded, that “majority” becomes just under 2.5% of the world population.

Sixty percent of the world lives in Asia. If we were serious about prioritizing the majority, we’d make apps for India and China first. Each of them has over a billion mobile phones in use, versus our paltry 328 million.

Of course, you can argue economics if you’re feeling feisty today. It’s far from impossible to build a business around these able white American men, even if they’re a minority. Affluent dudes who want to track their heart rate probably have enough capital and obsessive interest to keep a hundred more companies afloat. But building for a tight audience is very different approach from assuming your definition of “majority” is real. It manifests in real harm for that majority it lazily claims to serve.

A common pattern: how we report bad actors in our products. Instead of displaying reporting tools in context, we often hide a “report user” option in little gears or dot-dot-dot icons on the edge of a person’s profile. We hope it’s a tool that doesn’t see much use, and often hide it intentionally so support has fewer tickets to deal with. It’s easier for the company, and cuts down on visual clutter.

If you design with a white male majority in mind, the math is easy. Inconvenience the fewest number of people, allow an escape hatch for emergencies. But what happens when someone we consider an edge case actually receives a rape threat?

She has to navigate to the profile of her harasser and splash his details on her screen before getting anywhere near a report button. We force her to describe the incident in detail. Some stranger in support reviews her case. Days or weeks later, she might be told whether any action’s been taken, and she’s reminded of the event all over again.

All the while, that harasser likely continues his trolling spree on other victims, unfettered.

How does the math change if we consider her experience not as secondary, but as a primary concern? Chipotle makes the news when two people in Manhattan get food poisoning, and yet tech is still hesitant to crack down on harassment that potentially affects millions of users. Do we decide to poison a few so we can squeeze 40 square pixels out of the interface, have one less icon to deal with on our detail pages?

We are all humans and have universal needs, but carelessly designing for an assumed majority ends in palpable frustration and pain for real people. If we’re going to use majority as an excuse not to deal with our users’ pain, let’s at least define the majority correctly, not as what’s comfortable for us. Better yet, let’s have more nuance when we build for human beings and understand the true magnitude of what we create.


❔ Whois

Ash Huang is an artist, author, and designer. Her essays have been featured in Fast Company, Offscreen Magazine, and Lean Out. Her first novel, The Firesteel, won First Place for Literary Fiction in the 3rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published e-book Awards. She works on Adobe 😄 in San Francisco.

Twitter / Instagram  / ashsmash.com

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