Highlighting the benefits of diversity in tech: my mission in 2015

In 2014 there was talk, lots of talk, about the lack of diversity in the leading tech firms. The big companies released (Microsoft, yesterday) their diversity numbers, were somewhat contrite, and vowed to do better. It might be that the problem in saying that they will try to do better is motivation. Attempts to try to do better seem to be made for the press’s benefit, because it “seems right” and is politically, morally and ethically correct. For businesses, that might not be a strong enough motivator.

My blog has focused on products in tech and what I’d like to do in 2015 is focus on cases where diversity could have helped improve a product, and help it better fit its target market. After all, the product-market fit is the current holy grail in Valley startups so it follows that a stronger, better fit can serve to drive adoption and success. That’s why I feel it makes sense to point out cases where the target market wasn’t reflected in the product team and where that caused friction and perhaps, in some cases, loss of income.

A few cases I noticed in 2014, from the very trivial to the bigger issues:

Twitter's unique game clock. Screen cap from June 20, 2014.

Twitter’s unique game clock. Screen cap from June 20, 2014.

  1. The World Cup on Twitter. Google said in its search summary of 2014 that the World Cup was the second most popular search term (after Robin Williams, respect!) of the year. The important matches in the Cup are the most-watched television events of the year and it makes sense that Twitter chose to create special channels and products in time for the event. Yet, in the first few days of matches, Twitter had no idea how to display game time and chose this rather awkward format of “34:00 P2” to denote the 34th minute of the second half. This is meaningless to any soccer fan who knows that soccer is played for 90 minutes and that the correct way to display the above time is 79:00. Did Twitter really have no Latin American or European soccer-loving fan on the World Cup team?
  2. Apple Health & women. The Atlantic wrote an interesting article about women and diversity in tech firms and how that influences product development. One of the examples they focused on was how Apple Health doesn’t track menstrual cycles. Women are asked asked about their cycle every time they go to the doctor. They’ve tracked it for years, first with a paper diary, then with calendars and now with dedicated apps. The Verge marked this absurdity by asking “is it really too much to ask that Apple treat women, and their health, with as much care as they’ve treated humanity’s sodium intake?” From the outside looking in this seems to be a case where there either wasn’t a woman on the product team at all or she wasn’t in a position of influence. In any case, the lack of menstrual cycle tracking in what is supposed to be a comprehensive health dashboard is ridiculous.
  3. Uber, women and safety. Uber has had a tumultuous year, with one of their problems being background checks on drivers and the problems that causes, the most serious ones being rape. Instead of being the safer transportation solution that many women wanted, Uber ended up ignoring that desire in their rush to expand to new markets. One of their competitors, She Rides, offers an interesting product solution to women passenger’s fears: female drivers. Could Uber have done this? Probably. By matching, by request, female passengers to female drivers, Uber could have made both feel more secure.
  4. Facebook’s Year in Review. Every year Facebook uses its wealth of information created by users to offer them a way to share the entire year by automatically creating a slideshow with what their algorithm thinks are special moments. What the product team for Year in Review failed to realize is that not every Facebook user had a special year. Some had an especially bad year and with Facebook’s decision to automatically create a Year in Review and present it to every user, there were bound to be some terrible user experiences. Eric Meyer wrote an incredibly touching and insightful post about how this product affected him. One of the common responses he received to that post, which he quoted in a follow up post (and denied) was “What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley brogrammers who’ve never known pain or even want?” His response, which I admire for its restraint, said that we cannot know what evils younger product developers have experienced. He goes on to say that imagining worst case scenarios is something every product team should be looking for. He’s absolutely right but I believe a more diverse team, one with, yes, more life experience and perhaps a bit older than the 20-something Facebookers, could have at least looked for a solution.

So there you have it, four examples where nationality, gender and age representation could have created a better product for the intended market. I’ll try to point more of these out as I see them and perhaps, eventually, Silicon Valley will realize that diversity doesn’t just “look better” but is actually beneficial to products, their users, and the bottom line.


Update: Intel announced yesterday that it would spend $300 million in the next three years to promote diversity at the company. That budget would be spent on attracting more women and minorities to technology, hiring more and retention. It will be interesting to see how this works for Intel and how many other tech companies will feel the pressure to do something similar

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