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Using Design Thinking to Increase Diversity and Inclusion in User Experience

[OPINION] We can use the tools we rely on as UX practitioners to design solutions to our org's D&I problem. Here's a case for applying design thinking inward at our company's.

Words by Amber Fields, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population, but occupy only 3% of design roles and only 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large companies (according to the 2019 AIGA Design Census).

Maurice Cherry pointed out this deficit and gap in March 2015 in his South By Southwest presentation, “Where are the Black Designers?” Five years later, we’re still asking the same question.

In all seriousness, where are the Black designers and researchers? I often ask myself this question because I have always been the only Black researcher and Black user experience practitioner on teams. Being Black in user experience is a perpetual “dinner, party of one.”You’ll have a seat at the table, but people will keep awkwardly asking, “Are you waiting for a friend?”

Black designers have been missing in action well before 2015. Cheryl Holmes Miller, one of the first Black graphic designers published in Print magazine, asked the question in 1987, Black Designers: Missing in Action. She concluded the following on how to solve for the lack of Black designers:

Corporations and design firms can recruit qualified Blacks for positions as art directors, creative directors and senior directors. In addition, corporations can support Black design firms with competitively priced, challenging design projects.

Trade associations and publications can aid in making qualified Black designers visible with public relations efforts, the publishing of current projects, as well as invitations to participate as lecturers and contest judges.

In the end, as Hugh Price states, it is up to the Black graphic designer to persevere, confident in what he or she has to offer.

“As a race, we can’t break down to despair and bitterness,” Price asserts. “We enrich the whole. Every talented minority that gets through the barricade brings talent to the whole enterprise, creating wealth and generating ideas. As you rise to the top, you are enriching the cumulative experience of the entire American people.”

We should all care that there are only 3% of Black designers in the field of user experience.

Black millennials are tech savvy and early adopters according to the Young, Connected and Black study by Nielsen in 2016.

In 2020, 48% of African American households shopped online—11% did so more than the average household (according to a Nielsen study).

What does that mean? Black people are the first to use it, do it, flip it and move it (in my Missy Elliot voice). That rings true across a broad array of products, especially during the pandemic. What exactly are we buying online? Clothes, health and beauty products, groceries and more.

There’s an accessibility quote used in design, “Nothing about us, without us.” If the products and the designs you are creating are meant to address the needs of consumers, more than likely, your online shoppers (yes, even during the pandemic) include Black consumers. Your team should reflect those consumers in order to build for them.

How do user experience professionals solve this problem?

1. Use what we have to get what we want

As user experience practitioners, we need to apply the same creative problem solving methods we use in our customer-facing work, in our diversity and inclusion work. These frameworks are built to explore and solve niche problems.

For the sake of argument, let’s use the process of design thinking.

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and create innovative solutions.

When employing design thinking, you're pulling together what's desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. Complex and multi-dimensional problems that require a collaborative methodology and involve gaining a deep understanding of humans is at the heart of design thinking.

That makes such a system a natural lens for diversity, equity, and inclusion work. We can confront those concerns with similar processes and methodologies—using the tools we normally use to uncover initial product development and consumer research questions.

A quick exercise:

Take a moment to think about your product and design team:

  • How often do you use design thinking as a method for exploratory problem solving?
  • How often do you collect insight from team members with different perspectives and agendas to the table?
  • How many people on your team are of different backgrounds, ethnicity, and gender?

You don’t have to answer, but keep the answer in the back of your mind.

Is your team colorful in perspectives and thought? How do you create those spaces and become aware of product and user blind spots?

Have you considered that the same methods used to solve product and user issues, can be used to address diversity and inclusion within your team?

If your team shares the same perspective on consumer needs and solutions, you could be missing an opportunity to be more inclusive and build more inclusive products during a pandemic.

We can also define and frame the design challenge by creating a point of view and asking “How Might We?”For example, taking the initial problem, a lack of Black designers, and turning the problem into an actionable question to be solved is the first step, “How might we amplify Black user experience talent for access and awareness for jobs in user experience?”

2. Partner with micro-communities

Invite a colorful group of designers, innovators, creators, and decision makers to brainstorm ideas and solutions in a design thinking session. Partnering with user experience micro-communities will allow you the opportunity to reach stand alone niche groups with a focus on improving the user experience field in a safe space.

Micro-communities, like Black User Experience Labs, have created a unique network of Black user experience talent ready to address the lack of Black creators in the field. These groups also create a safe space for relationship building with decision makers through design thinking workshops.

Focused design thinking events create awareness around design principle intent and the impact on Black designers (and users in general) through “How Might We” design thinking exercises.

Focusing on a specific user in a specific scenario creates awareness for micro-communities in design by giving everyone a seat at the table with interactive activities. Design thinking workshops also remove bullying and fear of workplace retaliation from conversations around improving diversity and inclusion in user experience.

3. Sponsor talent for access to user experience roles

Design thinking workshops can be used to develop and gather active solutions for increasing diversity and inclusion in user experience in real time. This gives user experience practitioners and decision makers a chance to act on improving their internal hiring process, employee retention activities, and building relationships with user experience professionals outside of their typical network.

The relationships cultivated through design thinking workshops allow practitioners to listen to diverse thoughts from designers and user experience practitioners. Decision makers are able to begin assessing the thought process and problem solving skills of user experience practitioners while solving social problems.

Hiring managers and decision makers can find candidates for niche projects requiring full-time contributors by creating relationships of allyship with micro-communities. When an ally elevates and encourages diversity in the field by using their own platform, inclusion becomes an actionable and measurable metric in the user experience field.


In order to advance diversity and inclusion in the user experience industry, consider focused Diversity & Inclusion design thinking workshops with micro-communities. If you’re not sure where to start, partner with micro-communities such as Black user experience Labs to host a design thinking workshop geared to uncovering blind spots in diversity and inclusion within your organization.

When solutions are created, leverage the network opportunities and relationships built on allyship with micro-communities to grant access and job opportunities for marginalized user experience professionals.

If the 2020 election taught us anything, representation matters. With access and sponsorship of marginalized groups, we can get things done. But first, you must include “the people” at the table to service “the people.”

Remember, “Nothing about us, without us.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Diversity & Inclusion focused design thinking workshops, become a member (allies welcomed) Black UX Labs. You can also follow them on Linkedin and Instagram @BlackUXLabs

Amber is a process driven UX (User Experience) Researcher & Moderator who enjoys solving real world problems for niche groups to create inclusive products. She is the founder of Black UX Labs, a network for Black UX practitioners working to create a path to success for UX professionals and decision-makers.

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