Who is doing the research work to recruit, observe, and understand the perspectives of users who, while they need mainstream technology solutions, also want to fulfill their basic survival, health, and safety needs? Users that societal systems have marginalized—whose voices have mostly been locked out or remain unrecognized?
Those of us who identify as members of such marginalized groups are more likely to consider the voice of the voiceless in our work. We, the authors of this article, grew up with and live around these voiceless people. In fact, they are our relatives and friends. As Black psychologists and researchers who are working in the field of User Experience, we feel compelled to share our experiences with you.
Acknowledging the Math
In the US, African American or Black and Hispanic, Latinx, or Latina / Latino people make up 13.5% and 18.5% of the US population , respectively, but in the User Experience industry, account for only 4% and 9% of UX researchers, respectively . When you examine these paltry numbers more deeply and also note the absence of company leadership from these two groups, among others, these statistics are even more alarming. We are a minority within a minority. This disproportionate representation makes it no surprise that most UX researchers feel their employers aren’t doing enough to ensure their research practices are equitable and inclusive of diverse perspectives . This really is both a talent and a leadership issue.
The unconscious tendency to gravitate toward others who are similar to us is called affinity bias. This can contribute to people’s decisions to interact with, hire, and promote only those who look like them and share similar beliefs and backgrounds. UX leaders are the architects and stewards of their company’s UX research practice. However, if they lack the cultural competence to adequately appreciate the lives of those who are different from them—such as users in the margins—we cannot expect these same leaders to appreciate the business contributions of talent in the margins. The result is a gross underestimation of the business value that these voices can contribute. Ultimately, this can negatively impact product innovation, product user experiences, and business profitability.
Understanding Our Influence
We joined forces to write this article because we can understand the cultural challenges, the brilliant perspectives, and the resounding opportunities for design and innovation that reside in the margins. Although these voices immediately resonate with many of us, it is apparent that, for an overwhelming number of our colleagues, they do not.
As we compared notes on our shared professional experiences as UX researchers, we discovered that a parallel exists between the role and influence of hip-hop artists on their audience and a similar opportunity that we have as UX researchers.
Growing up in New York City exposed us to the sights and sounds of hip-hop. During our after-school stroll down Jamaica Avenue in Queens, wearing our Catholic-school uniforms, we passed by the guy on the corner, selling incense and mix-tapes, shifting his attention from us as we walked by to LL Cool J, slowly driving by in a luxury convertible. When running with friends through Brownsville, Brooklyn, on a muggy summer night, we heard DJ Red Alert blasting out of the housing project’s windows on every block.
Remembering these experiences has reminded us that it was actually possible for our neighbor, cousin, or friend to tell our story on a national stage. Hip-hop’s global, cross-cultural, multi-industry impacts are evidence of the value of the stories these marginalized voices have shared with the world. As UX researchers, we also serve as storytellers, whose task is conveying the compelling stories of our users, their goals, and their experiences to our organization. We acknowledge that sharing our roots through storytelling creates a serendipitous relationship between hip-hop and User Experience.
As UX researchers, we are not only unpacking current human behavior but also informing the future about how human beings interact with products and ecosystems. Similar to hip-hop artists, UX researchers have the ability to inspire their audience by serving as the voice of the user through stories that illustrate their motivations, painpoints, and needs. We have the opportunity to use these stories to influence and inspire the creation of more inclusive, equitable futures.
Recognizing the Parallels Between Hip-Hop Culture and UX Research
Through our discussions and as we reflected on our childhood, we agreed that hip-hop has elevated the value coming from the margins to significantly influence countless industries around the world. We can leverage the parallels between hip-hop culture and UX research to justify the need for sensemaking from lived experiences to better inform product development.
We can also offer some high-level recommendations for bringing your UX research practice with historically marginalized communities future forward.
Sparked by a desire to share their personal stories, hip-hop pioneers seized the chance to own and control their narratives. They described—as others could not—their firsthand experiences of the struggles and strife of their community. These pioneers strummed a different chord, bringing a different type of emotion to the American music industry. Their stories literally hit different. Music was no longer limited to a one-dimensional depiction of relationships and hardships. Hip-hop illustrated the details of relationships and hardships through edgy, raw emotion. The stories of the effects of poverty, drugs, and crime were different from anything musicians had shared before.
“Ticket to ride, white line highway
Tell all your friends, they can go my way
Pay your toll, sell your soul
Pound-for-pound it costs more than gold
The longer you stay, the more you pay
My white lines, go a long way
Either up your nose or through your vein
With nothing to gain except killing your brain”
Excerpt from: “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”—Melle Mel (1983)
Similarly, User Experience has always been rooted in appealing to or supporting people’s behavioral, cognitive, and physical characteristics. Users expect that product experiences should make them feel understood and acknowledged by their creators—through the presentation of information and the use of terminology, as well as the physical form and environmental context of product designs. Connecting and engaging with an audience of users requires positive perceptual experiences that encourage them to interact with a product or environment.
Hip-hop provides an ethnographic account of a challenging life in an urban setting, as told by the people who live there. Hip-hop artists conceived this art form to tell a melodic story that was culturally relevant to the people living that reality and created a unique opportunity for these storytellers to share their reality and connect its consumers to unorthodox human motivations, contexts, and actors. UX research, similar to hip-hop, leverages users’ stories to build meaningful narratives of their contextual motivations and challenges and serve as inputs to the design of product and service experiences.
“The thing about hip-hop is that it’s from the underground, ideas from the underbelly, from people who have mostly been locked out, who have not been recognized.”—Russell Simmons
Kenya was introduced to a young, African American woman who had recently been hired by an established US company with more than 50K employees. She had joined a team of approximately 30 user researchers. She was responsible for introducing research strategies and activities that would help the company understand how to serve a more diverse market.
Kudos to the company’s leadership for recognizing the opportunity and the need to hire someone who could effectively define and execute against the desired strategy. However, asking just one individual contributor to lead the charge in defining such as strategy, as well as gather and disseminate such insights is a tall order. How can we, in the spirit of improving the products and experiences we create, encourage stakeholders to place bigger bets on listening to historically marginalized or even ignored voices?
Our aim in writing this article is to inspire action and to spark conversations about how engaging and co-designing with marginalized groups should become a more common UX research practice. The mainstream influences of hip-hop music and culture demonstrate that, even when people have not directly experienced a narrative or interacted with its actors, they can appreciate the lived experiences that others are voicing from the margins. Despite their historically being ignored, these voices have grown louder and their influence more prevalent through the hip-hip platform. How might we leverage the user-research platform and elevate the voice of the voiceless in a similar way? How might we do so without distorting or degrading their story or misrepresenting its actors because of cultural ignorance?
It took courage to move hip-hop from the underground to the mainstream. Record-label executives, radio stations, and concert promoters took considerable risks in making hip-hop’s edgy perspectives more accessible. The demonstrated impact of hip-hop should embolden other industries to instill the voices and perspectives of marginalized communities into their product-development lifecycle. As UX researchers, it is our responsibility to cultivate diverse perspectives, converge on the common threads or themes that surface, and align with product-experience strategies.
All too often, UX researchers connect only with those users who are most accessible and ready to engage with us. Seldom do we invest in the resources or effort necessary to identify, locate, and engage individuals within communities who have been marginalized not only by our broader social systems but also by our UX research practices.
How might we start building a more inclusive, equitable UX research practice? We recommended starting here:
Recruit participants differently. Consider less conventional methods that enable you to gain access to the harder-to-reach populations within the 80%.
Invest in third-party partnerships. Seek partnerships that facilitate inclusive recruitment and trust-building.
Champion the building of user journeys. These user journeys should provide the foundations for equitable experiences and outcomes.
For our comrades who acquired their human-subject research skills within an academic setting, reflect back on the difficulties you faced in locating and engaging a particular target population when collecting data for your academic research. It’s all the same.
Adjunct Faculty Member, Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State
Morrisville, North Carolina, USA
Kenya holds a doctorate in Human Factors Psychology. After a more than 17-year career as a UX professional and leader of User Experience and analysis teams, she founded Lean Geeks. Her team at Lean Geeks partners with organizations on user- and consumer-research activities that span research definition, recruitment, execution, synthesis, and insights and solution-experience development. Read More
Real holds a doctorate in Cognitive Psychology. He is a design researcher with knowledge of self and foundations in the cognitive and learning sciences. He has led UX research efforts for Design Technology at AT&T and for Trust and Offline Risk at Airbnb. At Google, he drives the crossfunctional design of tools, frameworks, and methods to ensure that product development generates equitable experiences for all.