We sat down with Nancy Douyon, design ethicist and product philosopher. Nancy has been a UI/UX designer (User Interface, User Experience) at Google, Uber, IBM, and Intel. She is an Emtrain Expert on Unconscious Bias. Nancy was interviewed in June 2020 by Laraine McKinnon, Emtrain’s Talent & Culture Strategist. This is a 4-part interview.
Laraine: Nancy, you had an extraordinary journey from being a kid in an inner-city Haitian community who spoke broken English to an influencer in Silicon Valley with impact across the world. What shaped your awareness of the need for inclusive design?
Nancy: I grew up in a household where my grandmother would visit from Haiti and look at grassy lawns in disgust because Americans can keep their lawns green but they didn’t grow vegetables on their lawns. And, in my broader American community, Americans were looking at Haitians in disgust because Haitians were still living archaically, like bathing using buckets of water in America because shower water was seen as wasteful.
I grew up in this weird state of these two cultures where I had to assume that whatever white people were doing has to be the correct way. That was the only thing I could do. I remember prejudiced comments I would make when I was in Haiti that I don’t believe anymore. I would say, “well, we’ve got to act like France and speak proper French. We can’t keep speaking our own broken language. We need to speak something that’s useful.” It was very, very backward thinking, but I had a clear understanding of what was superior when I was younger.
Later, when I was taking a human factors engineering class, I was being taught things like “Museums and Libraries, if properly designed, should echo, because when you hear yourself speak you’ll become subconscious and lower your voice.” It was seen as a way to control sound in a space.
And here I am, waving my hand. saying, “but is that true for Latinos? Because I really feel like if a Haitian walked into a room that echoed, I just can’t be sure they’d respond in lowering their octaves. If anything it would encourage music.”
I questioned a lot of things that seemed to have a non diverse data set. It might have sounded like a good point, but it’s what I would now call a first-world perspective.
At that point, I was traveling a bit and watching a bunch of cultures do all these things that made no sense to me. I was trying to figure out what’s correct—and not really getting it. So, I traveled more. I wanted to understand the common denominator amongst people, and what differentiated people.
In another example in my engineering class, I was taught that casinos are painted red to keep you alert and gambling longer. But when I spent time in India, I got a beautiful red dress made. I didn’t know red and gold were representative of celebratory weddings in India, and I was basically wearing a wedding dress in public. Utterly embarrassing. But what does that say about how people respond to colors internationally? For example, the colors pink and blue have been used as gender signifiers but is that a universal truth? Did you know, prior to 1940, two conflicting traditions coexisted in the U.S., the current tradition, and its opposite, i.e., ‘blue for girls, pink for boys.’
More and more, I started seeing and understanding that narrow assumptions were causing failures in technology. These differences in culture and design got me thinking—and I’d say “wait a minute, this doesn’t work there.”
Here I am, in this world of technology, feeling like I have a secret. That I know is real. I’m like “Folks! You are not the only people in this world. I know it feels like it because you got an education and went to the best of colleges but… we don’t represent the world”
Laraine: It sounds like a turning point for you – where you realized you had a unique perspective – true thought leadership.
Nancy: I began to understand that people are really controlled by their cultures, which I find fascinating.
I lived in Spain, for example, and this woman—I lived with her family at one point—said she was disgusted by me as an American because we played with our food: you see, Americans have pet rabbits and the rabbit should be eaten. She was so sure that this was the truth, the first meal she gave me was a dead rabbit just to prove a point. And I ate it, because I was like ‘I don’t care.’
It was a perfect example of how people want to attach themselves to some kind of value, some kind of truth.
That’s what led to this idea of the Nobility Complex, which I’ve presented at large tech conferences. I started seeing that people were saying things to validate themselves, or to make themselves feel better, or to pat themselves on the back without really understanding the problem.
Another example was during the 2010 Haitian earthquake. I was in Haiti the day before the earthquake, and my parents who live there, went missing during the crisis.
People in America who had heard about the earthquake started calling me and telling me, “oh my god, I feel horrible. I want to help. Where can I send clothes? Send me an address, or I’ll figure it out.”
I didn’t know how to explain to people: there’s no place to put clothes. That’s not even a priority. Things are breaking down. We have a cholera outbreak. My parents are missing. But I get it —you want me to help and be solution oriented—or really, what I’m hearing, is that you want me to soothe your pain. In my mind, you want me to find some way to make you feel okay. We naturally self serve.
And that was really strange to me, but I started seeing these patterns at work too. Where Silicon Valley employees would make decisions about how technology might work in Kenya, or in India, or in Brazil, we resorted to a charity mindset. I didn’t see how we were going to drop something off and assume that it’s going to work without turning our assumptions to questions.
I started seeing damages as well. I’ve personally not yet worked at a company that hasn’t caused some damage because they didn’t do their due diligence to think a little bit more about the user centric cultures.
For example, working at Uber, I did an Uber Eats User Experience courier study. The couriers are the ones that deliver your food. I brought in immigrants and my colleagues were a little overwhelmed. They were like, “Whoa. Some of these folks have language barriers.” And I said, “who do you think is delivering the food? We’ve got to consider the audiences that we’re building access for—they’re not going to be like us, look like us or act like us.”
It’s very important that we create a space where people want to listen to someone else’s story.
For me, it’s always been this idea of taking the invisible and making it visible, even for someone like myself. I felt very invisible growing up, because I didn’t have access to better education. No one in my community knew how to get me that access, so it led me to run away. Some people took a chance on me because I was in the right room at the right time. Those people, White and Black, said, “we don’t know what to do with you, but we hear that MIT is the best place to be,” so it worked out.
There was no way my parents would have known that. And so I’m very respectful to the world that I’m from, blue collar workers, and all. I’m very conscious of them because I don’t know who in the world of privilege is coming down and saying ‘here, have some access, let me fix your resume to help you get this job.’ I don’t see people in positions of privilege doing that.
But you know who is trying to do it: my community. We’re doing triple the work to make sure we’re helping ourselves. We’re trying to create legacy with very little resources. We’re trying to battle all these institutions who don’t recognize their role in all of this marginalization. I know when people look at my story they find it quite impressive that I’ve managed to get to all these places. It is impressive. And I’ve gone through hell to get to these places.
It’s a struggle because it often feels like I am not from this world. The thing keeping me in Tech is the fact that people are so strange. So I can be my own strange self being from another world. We can all be weird together. But hopefully, we can step aside from our selves and remember that we are the gatekeepers. Who will you let in?
Read Part 1 of Nancy’s interview to learn more about her background. Stay tuned for part 3 of our interview with Nancy Douyon on the power of inclusion.
Nancy Douyon is available for fireside chats on human centered design and workplace inclusion.