The tech industry needs to develop products keeping diversity and inclusion in mind, says Bridgett Rogers, project leader within Lenovo’s Product Diversity Office (PDO), a newly-developed department within the company that makes sure the products come out of the PC giant serve the global customers and not just a section of the society. Setup in 2019, the Product Diversity Office (PDO) is a collaborative effort by the PC and Smart Devices business unit and the Diversity and Inclusion office.
“We want to ensure that the technology is more of a helper and not something that is a barrier,” Rogers said in an interview with Indianexpress.com over a call from North Carolina. “As we are developing those products along the way, diversity and inclusion are embedded in that end-to-end process, so that when we launch a product it can be used by all.”
Diversity in the tech industry has been a problem for years. Despite all the initiatives being taken to fix these issues, there is often a bias towards a specific gender or race, completely ignoring women, transgenders and people of colour. This also reflects in the product design. Rogers’s job is to design products for a diverse customer base with minimum bias.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a cultural problem. I would say it’s more of an awareness. I think that the more people are aware and think about and understand that the customers of their products are global customers, they will begin to understand why it’s so important to think about diversity and inclusion,” explains Roger, whose team is tasked with ensuring Lenovo’s products keep diversity and inclusion in mind from the concept stage. Rogers says it’s the most challenging job.
So when the product is at the development stage, the product diversity team educates the designer on the importance of accessibility and explains things like high-risk technology areas like new form factors, facial recognition, voice user experience, etc “As the product is going through each phase of our development process, we ensure that there are test cases that are created with diversity and inclusion in mind,” Roger says.
“We think about how someone that may have low vision, limited use of their hands, with a different race and colour, or someone that has a speech impediment would interact with this technology. We test for things to get the feedback and figure out where we can tweak that along the way.”
When the product is developed it goes through testing again, this time the device is being tested by users. As Rogers explains, Lenovo runs internal beta programmes, a common practice in the industry known by the name of “dogfooding” where end-users are allowed to test the product without any explanation. “You just give them technology and see what their experience is. You ask them sometimes specific questions, you may ask them to complete a specific task, and then give your feedback on how easy it is or difficult it was to complete that task. And based on that, we are able to go back and tweak some pieces in the process before that product is actually launched,” she said.
But to make sure the product meets all the criteria laid out by the product diversity office, it gets reviewed by the Diversity by Design review board. The board consists of people from legal, HR, hardware, and research. Rogers says this review board has a lot of power in giving approval to a new product before it hits the market. The board meets on a monthly basis, depending on the status of the product in development.
“The board will make the decision of if there’s additional expert testing needed, if so, we will do that internally or we hire externally knowing someone specific in that type of technology area, or if additional testing is not needed, then that product just continues throughout its regular development process,” says Rogers.
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Rogers, who has been with Lenovo for 17 years, says the most difficult part of her job is to coordinate with the development team and make sure that the development process of a product does not exceed the timeline set by the team internally. The whole purpose of setting up the Product Diversity Office (POD) is to ensure the diversity is included as a design element in the product but that should not delay the release of the product.
Rogers cites the example of the development of ThinkReality X6 AR headset, where Lenovo’s user experience and design team spend additional time in designing the product. Before finalising the product, the design and user experience team had tested the product internally to get feedback. The team looked out for little details like different hairstyles or hair textures and whether a person wears glasses or not so that the headset remained in place and was comfortable for the end-user. Rogers says given that Lenovo’s employees are diverse and come from different countries, the feedback the design team got from within the company eventually helped the team make modifications.
In another example, Rogers remembers the first pilot project initiated by the diversity and inclusion team when it collaborated with the AI research team. Lenovo was in the process of launching an unstaffed store within the Lenovo offices where employees could use facial recognition as part of the checkout process. As part of the initiative, those who opted to volunteer had to submit their photographs. The whole point of the exercise, according to Rogers, was to validate the accuracy of the technology to ensure that it was inclusive. “They want it to ensure that African American, Indian and other people that have darker skin tones are a part of this validation, so that they can really validate the process and the technology to ensure that it would work accurately,” she said.
Accessibility tech is another area where the Product Diversity Office (PDO) takes a deep interest. Although Lenovo always had the accessibility group, the team now falls under the purview of Rogers and her team. Within Lenovo, thanks to the Product Diversity Office (PDO), the concept of empathy labs has been created that promote awareness within teams on how tech can become more accessible to people with disabilities. These empathy labs can be attended in person or online. The prime motto behind the empathy labs is to allow a person, who does not have a disability, to experience how to live a life with a disability of some kind.
The mainstreaming of assistive tech is already happening, with major companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft designing their products keeping in mind people with special needs. Still, the tech industry hasn’t fared well in addressing the needs of the disabled. “I would just say what’s lacking is awareness. We need to increase the awareness in people’s understanding of what we can do as individuals to improve accessibility for all the products and solutions that we’re delivering,” Rogers says.
Diversity and inclusion matter more than ever in tech. Big tech has always made products and services that centered around people who were white, male, and non-disabled. That needs to be changed and the change will only happen when tech brands start embracing diversity in product development. “When it comes to diversity and inclusion as a part of a development process, there are not a lot of standards or policies or practices that are out there for people to follow. I believe that Lenovo has the opportunity to grow by including diversity and inclusion in its product designs and processes,” she said.
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