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Recognising and Overcoming Unconscious Bias in Digital Service Design 

Jaspreet Kaur

by Jaspreet Kaur, Senior Consultant at Cadence Innova  

In a fast-paced and ever-changing digital landscape, creating accessible and inclusive digital service design is no longer a mere ‘nice-to-have’, but a fundamental necessity. However, achieving this aim is often impeded by unconscious biases that can inadvertently influence the creative process, impacting design decisions in ways that are subtle yet significant, greatly affecting user experience as a result.  

Unconscious bias in service design can manifest in a variety of forms, from colour choices to interface layouts, ultimately creating barriers to access for various user groups. In a post Covid-19 landscape, where digital services have been accelerated to become an integral part of everyone’s daily lives, it is crucial to address these biases and ensure equitable access and usability for all.  
At Cadence Innova, we advocate for a set of fundamental principles we believe are crucial for designing and implementing technology that fosters positive social change. Organisations that focus on iteratively solving real problems and ensuring equitable representation lay the groundwork for meaningful progress. This approach, combined with meticulous expectation management, enables them to continuously evolve their digital footprint, thereby enhancing their capacity to serve the community more effectively. 

Building a Data-Based Big Picture, Not Stereotypes 

One significant obstacle to achieving inclusivity is the reliance on stereotypes or outdated persona research. Stereotyping can significantly hinder efforts to make digital services more accessible. In an increasingly diverse user landscape, designing based on stereotypes can result in services that are unintentionally exclusive. For instance, designers may assume that older adults are not tech-savvy and therefore simplify interfaces to the extent that it reduces functionality, alienating users who are perfectly comfortable with more complex functionalities.  

So, what’s the solution? The answer lies in adopting a data-driven design approach. By leveraging user analytics and research, service designers can craft experiences that cater to actual user needs, not assumed ones. Data can reveal insights into user behaviour, preferences, and pain points, serving as the foundation for informed design choices.   

While data-driven design offers a more accurate picture, it also presents challenges. The trade-off often lies in balancing the granularity of data with user privacy concerns. Upholding user privacy while harnessing data for comprehensive analysis poses a notable challenge, emphasising the need for a delicate balance between data-driven insights and user confidentiality. It’s essential to be transparent about data usage and ensure that privacy standards are upheld, even when diving deep into analytics. 

Serving Users with Non-Visible Disabilities 

Accessibility doesn’t just pertain to users with visible disabilities. Another crucial aspect to consider in digital service design is the provision for users with non-visible disabilities. Commonly, societal conditioning shapes our understanding of accessibility, leading to an unconscious bias where we primarily consider visible physical disabilities, such as those requiring wheelchairs or accommodations for blind individuals. In reality conditions like dyslexia, ADHD, or macular degeneration can have a more significant impact on how people interact with digital services.

The key to serving this diverse user base lies in adopting ‘universal design’ principles. These involve creating digital services that are inherently accessible to as many people as possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. By incorporating features like text-to-speech, adjustable fonts, alternative text for images and intuitive navigation, designers can cater to a broader range of users.  
Success here lies in incorporating these elements in a way that feels seamless and natural to all users, not just those with specific needs. A real-world example of inclusive design is the choice to install a ramp instead of stairs to bridge a height difference. The ramp ensures that the experience of moving between levels is accessible and consistent for all individuals. 

The Role of Tech in Fixing the Holistic System 

It’s tempting to think that modifying digital services to accommodate individual needs is the ultimate solution, but a process should only be changed to fix a problem, or to make it better for the end user, and this approach is neither scalable nor sustainable. Instead, the focus should be on holistic system improvements through iterative innovation. Incorporating inclusive practices at the onset of innovation – whether through established methods or emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning – ensures the development of systems capable of real-time adaptation to the unique needs of each user, as directed by the user themselves. 

There is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence will be a key part of this due to its scalability and low costs. These technologies can automate many aspects of personalisation, from adjusting text size based on user behaviour to offering real-time language translation. An innovative, iterative step that improves the system as a whole and creates a more inclusive digital environment. 

This system-wide approach is not without its own barriers. For one, they can require significant investment, both in terms of time and in resources. Moreover, there is the ever-present challenge of ensuring that these technologies do not inherit biases from their training data or their human creators, thereby perpetuating the cycle of exclusion we aim to break. By utilising programme tools such as Equality Impact assessments, we can anticipate overcoming these during the business case, discovery and design phases. 

It’s clear then that the process of addressing unconscious bias in digital service design is complex and nuanced. It requires a multifaceted approach that combines data-driven insights, a deep understanding of the diverse range of user needs, and the strategic, iterative application of technology. By embracing a data-driven methodology, including those with non-visible disabilities, and leveraging the power of technology to enact system-wide changes, we can move closer to creating digital services that are truly inclusive and accessible to all. 

About the Author

Jaspreet Kaur is a Senior Consultant with over fifteen years of cross-industry experience in Consulting. She is an expert in conceptual thinking, designing, implementing, and transforming digital services and operating models through a user-centric approach.

You can connect with Jaspreet on LinkedIn here

Cadence Innova is the go-to SME for public services transformation who discover, design, and deliver positive change to create sustainable impact on communities and individuals. Our mission is to inspire and enable our customers to deliver services that make peoples’ lives better, communities more connected, and enterprises more sustainable.