As a designer, team lead, or head of a design department, you’ve probably spent some time developing a design process. But at what point in your process do you stop to consider: “Are my designs promoting equity or impeding it?”

As designers at WGU Labs (Labs), we recently asked ourselves this question while working on the Equity Initiative at WGU. In this research initiative, we’re talking to students, faculty, and leadership to identify the systems and processes at WGU that contribute to inequities for racial/ethnic minority and low-income students. We will collaborate with these groups to design and enact a plan toward closing equity gaps.

This post shares the techniques we’ve learned so far in our ongoing journey to incorporate equity-centered design into our work.

What’s Equity-Centered Design?

Equity-Centered Design follows the traditional user-centered design (UCD) process but includes additional steps to move teams closer to an equity mindset. Karen Vazquez, a Learning Experience Designer at Labs, explains why changes to the existing design process are needed to help teams develop an equity-centered mindset.

“In the traditional design process,” she explains, “designers are taught to use empathy as an approach to gain a deep understanding of the problems and realities of their users. While this is a great first step, it doesn’t always consider equity. Instead, it focuses on the most prominent themes arising from the data, inadvertently emphasizing the needs of the majority, while unintentionally leaving out the perspectives and needs of people of different races, ethnic backgrounds, and income levels.”

Using this perspective as our guide, we realized that even our most sincere efforts to empathize would never fully place us in our participants’ experiences or completely allow us to understand the complexities of their identities. So we began looking at different ways to approach empathy. Here’s what our process looks like now:

Awareness and Humility Before Empathy

To develop the type of empathy that allows us to design products that will truly address our users’ needs, we discovered we must learn to develop awareness and humility first.

In our conversations with students, we gained awareness when we recognized how our own racial and cultural differences influenced how we live in the world. We then realized that once we acknowledged our perspective, we had to develop humility by taking a step back in our conversations to truly listen and honor other people’s experiences as valid, even if those perspectives might be different than our own.

Taking what we learned from awareness and humility as our starting points, we found that empathy came when we put in the work to learn and address any implicit biases we may have. As we opened our perspective, we saw that our approach to empathy changed. Instead of saying, “I understand,” we replied, “tell me more.”

So, what does this look like in action?

Here are some tips and advice we learned to incorporate awareness, humility, and empathy into our process.

Developing Awareness

Understand the identity and perspective you bring to the discussion. Susie Chen, PhD, Research Scientist at Labs explains: “People reflexively create assumptions about others based on their visible identities. . . . developing awareness of how others may see you and how you may see them based on these identities is a crucial component of having open, honest, and engaging conversations on equity.”

Pay attention to emotions and non-verbal cues. “After asking questions about race, I noticed that some interviewees would get quite uncomfortable or defensive,” says Amanda Johnson, Labs Design Manager, “When this happened, I reminded them that their feelings were valid, and that there were no right or wrong answers. ”If interviewees haven’t had many conversations like this before, we tried not to immediately react; we could help open them up by working to understand why they might be displaying these emotions.”

Fostering Humility

Be willing to change your approach. When we first started interviews, we noticed that at a certain point in our conversations interviewees would shut down. We didn’t initially anticipate this, but we knew that to understand the problem we needed to change the ways we were asking questions on race and class. Taking a step back and admitting that maybe our initial approach was ineffective allowed us to make meaningful changes in our process that led to a deeper understanding of the issues students were facing.

Put your own opinion aside. We talked with many students from different backgrounds and perspectives. Sometimes we would hear from students with opposite viewpoints than our own. Instead of labeling someone as wrong or right, putting our own judgements and opinions aside allowed us to understand the thinking and experiences behind why someone may have their views.

Practicing Empathy

Put in the work to learn. Empathy is not something to check-off a list as part of a process nor is it linear; it’s a continual learning process. In our case, it meant talking with experts to better understand the discomfort we sensed from some of our interviewees. We spoke with Jason Thompson, WGU’s Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He explained: “Discomfort is a normal, but essential part of the process of overcoming our biases and changing our perspectives. Ignoring the topic doesn’t make discomfort go away; it only gets better when you learn to work through your emotions and actively engage in the conversation.”

Empathy should lead to action, driving solutions and design. In our interviews, we ask students and stakeholders about possible solutions. We ask them about how students might feel about and respond to solutions and consider potential reactions ourselves. During the next phase of our project, we will test solutions with our participants to make sure they align with how they see the problem.

If we don’t consider the experiences of people whose lifestyles are different from our own, how will our products feel relevant to those communities?

Moving Forward

It can be tempting to think that after completing multiple projects or research studies we are qualified to make design decisions based on our own intuition, expertise, or experience. Developing awareness and fostering humility allows us to truly test our assumptions, listen to our users, and practice empathy. Design has tremendous impact in the way we approach problems and solve them, but it’s up to us to look at our processes, and humble ourselves as we acknowledge the flaws, and commit more fully to equitable design.

Karen Vazquez is the design lead for the Equity Initiative at WGU where she utilizes various research methods. Karen’s objectives fit naturally into Labs as she is passionate about Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) playing an important role to enhance human learning. Karen’s big curiosity for technology led her to be a robotics NASA award winner and collaborate in international tech projects. On her own time, she enjoys shogi, public speaking, yoga, and traveling.

Angela Lankford enjoys the opportunity she has each day to blend her passions for writing and education as a Senior Content Writer at WGU Labs. As a former college writing instructor, she utilizes her experiences in the classroom to ensure that the student voice and needs of the audience always shine through and guide her writing. In her free time, she loves reading, bingeing Netflix, crafting, writing young adult fiction, and attending community events.

Amanda Johnson is a Design Manager at WGU Labs where she leads the design team in creating user-centered solutions at the intersection of education and technology. She believes research and strategy should be the foundation of any project and is passionate about using research to understand how products can create better experiences for users. She is interested in the social impact of design and learning how design can be used as a tool to spark social change. When she is not designing, you can find her practicing yoga, traveling, or playing with her chiweenie.

Follow us on Twitter at @WGULabs and LinkedIn for more articles and interviews.