Founder and CEO of Bumble Whitney Wolfe Herd in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Vivien Killilea / Getty … [+]
Getty Images for Bumble
The internet in the late 1990s was like Manhattan in the 1970s – not just because it was very dirty and lawless, but because it had the sticky neon intensity of a pawn shop that is open 24 hours a day. Suffice it to say that the internet wasn’t a place for children back then; Pop-up ads would address us like aggressive show promoters with inappropriate flyers on busy sidewalks.
Similar to Times Square in the 1990s, big brands finally recognized the economic opportunities of the World Wide Web. But even as larger commercial interests merged onto the information superhighway and key elements darted into the shadows, a systemic lack of technological diversity continued to shape our user experience.
From harassment on Twitter to easy access to pornography on Google, the Web 2.0 landscape reflects the interests of the men who informed them. Combine the nuances of these mainstream platforms with a variety of hook-up and sexting apps and it’s hard to tell Silicon Valley apart from a raunchy 1980s sex comedy. Revenge of the nerds indeed.
The tech industry is by far America’s most insidious expression of patriarchy to date. Apps like Tinder and Snapchat are far more than just symbols of the industry’s subdued misogyny. You instantly grasp America’s ingenuity and the limits of its social consciousness.
There are signals that technology is advancing in this regard, but not without challenges of its own. Almost unsurprisingly, Whitney Wolfe Herd, the former vice president of marketing at Tinder, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit after she left the company in 2014. When the dust settled, Herd launched Bumble, the women-centric social and dating app.
Bumble gained notoriety for repeating the deck of cards model that made Tinder a huge hit. Beyond the now common left / right swipe model, Herd added an extra friction that gives women more control over the dating experience: if both participants are straight, women have to take the first step after dating a man Bumblebee. Defying established gender dynamics through product design, Bumble suggests that greater diversity (in terms of gender, ethnicity, orientation, age, etc.) among executives would lead to technological innovations that could improve society by accommodating more pressing cultural interests will.
Apps that disproportionately solve the problems of young white men are backed by a venture capital ecosystem that looks just like them. The entire industrial stack – from investors to entrepreneurs to designers – can’t help but manifest their prejudices in the software that dictates our lives in ever more subtle ways every day.
Greater technical diversity would not only change who builds what. it would improve how we express ourselves through design. The modern web may no longer be Times Square in the 1970s, but the mood on Twitter isn’t all that different from Martin Scorcese’s film Taxi Driver. The problem isn’t the sketchy supporting characters – the answer folks, to give an online equivalent – that make DeNiro’s character seem well-matched by comparison. You are just a symptom; We have to deal with design choices that reward bad actors. First and foremost, we need to address the industrial power structure that leads to these user experiences.
Design decisions are like word decisions in that they can promote or inhibit behavior in differentiated ways. Regardless of how much a designer wants to make their product inclusive, the direction of these platforms is dictated by the lack of diversity in the companies they hire as well as the venture capital firms that the companies self-fund. Not only is Twitter more likely to offer more protection from harassment if the original product team is more diverse. The design language itself would be more inclusive and less aggressive.
A lack of technical diversity leads to a low upper limit for user experience design.
Have you ever signed up for a platform to be inundated with arrogant tasks as if they suddenly belong to you? As a former privileged young white guy in his twenties, this experience bears a remarkable resemblance to the stereotype of meeting a privileged young white guy in his twenties. The unsympathetic aggression with which these platforms ask you to do things on their timeline is depressingly arrogant.
Even if every design decision is streamlined to increase engagement, we can and should do better. The next time you get a push notification that’s a little too intrusive, or if you’re prompted to upload a profile picture right away, think how much less dominant the UX design could be if we had more tech variety.
Theo is the co-host of Techlash. This week’s guest, Lisa Marrone from Revel, explains the importance of building for underserved groups. Sign up for the newsletter and listen to the podcast on Spotify or wherever you get your shows.