For those that haven’t been keeping track, I recently (October 2017) moved from Madison, WI to Brooklyn, NY, and the difference in the tech industry between the two cities has been really interesting. I’ve noticed something in particular that’s slightly disconcerting, so I wanted to take some time to explore it. Most job posts ask for/require prior experience in their specific industry, which I think is introducing (persisting) biases in the products we design.
Before we get too far down the rabbit hole, let’s touch briefly on the benefits of hiring product people that have industry experience:
I’m not saying only hire recent grads (anything but). What I am saying, though, is that having someone that’s new to your industry is going to create many opportunities for learning. They’re going to ask questions you’ve never heard before, they’re going to question why things are done they way they are. They’re going to frustrate you, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor to avoid blind spots.
Professional experience certainly has its merits, and it’s one of the most difficult things to explain to students/recent grads. The speed at which an organization can operate with a team of experts who have enough experience to manage themselves and foresee issues cannot be understated, which is why I emphasize to get experience however possible (side projects, volunteering, etc).
As much as one may try, nobody can fully escape/defeat their biases. Our brains have evolved heuristics for how we see the world and process information which makes it impossible to be bias-free; if we didn’t, getting through the day would be virtually impossible due to the amount of information and number of decisions we need to make. The best way to combat bias and its negative influence on your product is to build a diverse team and encourage radical candor.
A diverse team (both in terms of thought and background) allows everyone to see how others think and interpret information, and a culture of openness, honesty, and radical candor lets everyone feel comfortable calling out that bias. It’s important to do this without blame, though; people rarely hold biases (especially detrimental ones) on purpose. It’s a side effect of their upbringing, how they’ve been taught, the people they’ve been around, etc. There’s no need to make a big deal out of someone’s bias, but you can point them out so everyone can move forward. Walk boldly toward bias; do not shy away from it.
One of the most valuable skills a designer can have is the beginner mindset. Emotional intelligence and empathy are important for understanding the user (though empathy comes with caveats), but there are a few major advantages to thinking like a beginner:
There are things you can do to create a culture of the beginner mindset. Question everything, identify assumptions, and work through them. Keep an open mind, leave room for play, and leave egos at the door. Have a framework in place; make it formulaic and part of a consistent process so your team gets used to it.
Make sure you’re not personally falling into theory-induced blindness. Often times, newer/less experienced experts (e.g. doctors, lawyers, etc) are actually better than veterans due to more recent/up-to-date training and a willingness to question everything. Once someone develops a theory (however accurate it may be), they cling to it, missing information they otherwise see.
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