We use sidewalks every day. And the curb cut—that tiny slope that seamlessly connects the sidewalk to the street—is a core design element we all enjoy and value. But here’s the thing: They were scarce until the 1960s, when activists in wheelchairs took protest signs and sledgehammers to sidewalks around the country to demand inclusive infrastructure.
These design actions from historically overlooked voices affected positive change for everyone who uses sidewalks—literally paving the way for more inclusive and convenient transportation experiences. But what if cities had accounted for everyone who would be using sidewalks at the start of the design process, and users historically on the margins—like those wheelchair activists—had not only been considered, but invited to participate in the design conversation? What other valuable experience benefits might we all enjoy? This inclusive and collaborative approach can make all the difference—and it’s called equity-centered design.
Designers have used a human-centered approach—which places insights about individual end users at the center of the innovation process—for more than half a century. Though well-intended, this methodology has a foundational flaw: It can miss important nuance between the “what” and the “who” (and, for that matter, the “how”) at the center.
If the “what” of human insights is rightly centered in the typical design process, the “who”/“how” is often limited to formally trained designers and clients. These “actors” typically gather data (e.g., interviews), synthesize insights, and then design for groups. But not with or by them. The result can be an outcome informed by equal parts insular worldviews and assumptions, making for generic results with big blind spots—like a sidewalk that doesn’t account for the 6.8 million Americans who use mobility devices to cross the street.
But we know that the human experience is anything but generic. It’s nuanced, textured, and diverse—and that’s what equity-centered design seeks to consider.
Equity-centered design (or ECD) contrasts with human-centered design in the selection of—and engagement with—its design target. The lived experiences of who you are problem-solving for—and how you do it—are intentionally considered in constructing the design process. It seeks to limit assumptions by increasing representation across the design process and considering systems of oppression that have caused many populations to be historically overlooked. The collaborative design process invites community members to the table to actively participate from the start.
ECD processes are constantly evolving as we continue to learn with and from those around us, but the purpose remains constant: to allow for an approach in which traditionally marginalized voices lead the conversation to drive more inclusive and innovative results.
By throwing light into those shadows of traditional design thinking, ECD can improve both the experience for your end users and your relationship with them—helping you to connect and build trust with traditionally ignored communities and make a lasting and meaningful impact across audiences. On top of that, a patchwork of voices makes more room for unconventional and inventive thinking, which often leads to a more creative end result. Here’s what that can look like in practice.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have faced decades of underfunding and underinvesting. To put that into perspective, together, the wealth of the 10 largest universities is 95 times greater than the total wealth of the 107 HBCUs that exist today. These institutions are at a dramatic financial disadvantage—and in 2020, the pandemic only exacerbated these deficits by forcing them to take on the costly transition to online learning.
To help, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) stepped in with an initiative to train more than 2,500 faculty across HBCUs to develop online curriculum. But they soon encountered problems. Yes, they could get the material online—but they learned that current learning management system experiences could be unintuitive for students and cumbersome for instructors, creating a frustrating process for tracking student progress and providing necessary support. On top of all that, these digital systems were not well equipped to tap into the rich culture and community that HBCUs are founded on.
That’s where equity-centered design came in. In partnership with our team at Deloitte Ethos as well as representatives from nine HBCUs, UNCF saw the opportunity to create HBCUv: a new virtual community learning platform designed to build community, increase graduation rates, and improve student retention across HBCUs.
Representation, inclusion, and participation were central tenets of the design process from the beginning. Our design team’s makeup was 90% racially and ethnically diverse, 61% Black, and 28% HBCU alumni. As we co-created this new platform, we frequently came together in a safe space that encouraged reflection and conversation around everything from program necessities to our own lived experiences and biases—and how acknowledging and interrogating those biases could strengthen our product. In our research phase, we also took time to understand the legacy of our HBCU partners through extensive research, personal connections, and campus visits. All of this is shaping the landscape of HBCUv.
“This isn’t just about getting more classes online; it’s about providing a safe space for Black joy and expression, giving students an opportunity to find their ‘tribe’ of people, and inspiring students of all ages by showing them Black leaders who are part of the same HBCU legacy,” said Julian Thompson, director of strategy for UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building. “HBCUv will do this by embedding the culture, community, and commitment to Black excellence embodied by HBCUs into a unique online experience that will form the foundation of the future of Black education.”
That’s the power of equity-centered design.
Emergence and adaptability are operational tenets of equity-centered design: It’s a process that must be responsive to both organizational and situational context. As such, your ECD process should be constructed around your unique team, the historical and social systems operating around the problem you seek to solve, and the communities you aim to work with. Perhaps even more importantly, it should evolve in response to what you uncover along the way. This nimble approach makes space for the magic to happen.
So how can your company avoid tripping over the metaphorical sidewalks and get straight to the curb cuts? Consider the following key principles:
- Acknowledge your lens and mitigate the impact of your biases.
- Respect the history that came before you.
- Center lived experiences.
- Operate with humility, empathy, and continuous learning.
- Design with diverse co-creators at the table.
- Build community capacity.
- Situate the solution within an ecosystem.
As you move to adopt these principles, talk to your colleagues about what they mean to both your team and your brand. Discuss what it looks like to put them into action in your design process and hold each other accountable along the way. Next, identify the communities you need to connect with and turn your process into a creative and collaborative one by inviting representatives to co-research, co-design, and co-operate.
The outcomes of using equity-centered design will show in your bottom line, but it goes further than that: If you design with the margins, it will strengthen the experience across the spectrum of your audience. And that’s a powerful step toward a more inclusive world.
Great work requires an even better team. This article was produced in collaboration with Clare Seekins, Nick Chan, Cameron Absher, and Jiani Sapathy.