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November 16, 2020

Annie Jean-Baptiste of Google: Building for Everyone With Inclusive Products

Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower
“We all can find empathy, connect, and step outside of ourselves. The more we all push for that - products and services and marketing will continue to become more and more inclusive. I think it's appropriate, because the world is diversifying. It's globalizing. So we really need to step up to that.”
— Annie Jean-Baptiste, Head of Product Inclusion, Google

With the increased focus on social justice and equality, more companies are making a greater commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I).

In the D&I space, companies often focus on culture or product. However, Google is tackling both. With its product inclusion practice, Google is dedicated to building products that are accessible and inclusive of different groups, and this focus is transforming how employees work, collaborate, and think about creating tools that will be deployed to billions of users.

Annie Jean-Baptiste, head of product inclusion at Google and author of the book “Building For Everyone: Expand Your Market With Design Practices From Google's Product Inclusion Team,” joined a recent podcast episode of Unpacking the Digital Shelf, "Creating Inclusive Products."

Jean-Baptiste shared how Google has built its product inclusion team, how its efforts have reshaped the digital tools that so many people use every day, and how other businesses can build inclusivity into their products.

What Is Product Inclusion?

It is now more important than ever for brands to build their products with different users in mind and incorporate inclusivity throughout the entire development lifecycle — from the ideation and research phases to marketing and merchandising. Jean-Baptiste believes this ethos is at the heart of product inclusion.

“Product inclusion is all about bringing an inclusive lens throughout the product design process to build better products for everyone. It really leans into Google's mission of organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful,” she said.

“Whether you're five or 105 years old, you should feel seen, thought of, and uplifted when you use Google's products in the moments that matter for you most,” Jean-Baptiste added.

“No matter where in the world you live, who you love, what color your skin is, or any of the things that make a user who they are — they really are integral to how we think about product design and the output of the product design process. It's really about doing well and doing good,” she said.

The Origins of Product Inclusion at Google

Google began building its product inclusion practice about four years ago. It originally started as a side project for Jean-Baptiste, who worked in human resources at the time. Google allows employees to devote 20% of their time to doing something they feel passionate about, even if it is not their core role, so Jean-Baptiste decided to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

She later moved to Google's diversity team, helping its senior leaders develop an inclusion strategy for culture and representation for their product areas. Jean-Baptiste said that was when she realized Google had an opportunity to expand its approach.

"I realized … we were talking a lot about internal diversity, equity, inclusion; but we could also talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion as it relates to the billions of users all over the world who may not look, act, or think like the product teams that are making the products. So how do we make sure we bring those perspectives into the table? That's really where product inclusion started," she said.

How ‘Othering’ Unintentionally Impacts Product Development

Companies want to do the right thing, but that’s not often enough — they have to be intentional about their efforts and more aware of how their own blind spots can isolate or “other” different users. Jean-Baptiste, a former ballet dancer whose parents emigrated from Haiti, said she brings her own personal experience to bear in her role every day.

Jean-Baptiste said of her experience shopping for ballet tights as a dancer and only seeing peach-colored tights that didn’t match her skin tone, “You can tell the distinction with what it looks like on someone that it was made for, and made with them in mind, versus when something's not made with you in mind.”

“There have been points in my life where I definitely have felt excluded, and that might've been unintentional, but we have to move from the intent to the impact — what does that feel like when a kid picks up something that everyone has to wear and it's not made with them in mind? It feels ‘othering,’ and that's harmful,” she said.

“That’s where my passion comes from. It’s making sure the communities I'm a part of, but also communities that I care about and that I'm working to become a better ally to across multiple dimensions of diversity, have a voice and have their perspectives matter at key points in the product design process,” she added.

Even at Google, as its product inclusion team’s work got underway, the company uncovered some of its own unintentional blind spots that could potentially “other” their user base. The product inclusion team’s first project involved working with Google’s sensor team as it tested proximity sensors on cameras within the company’s smart home and mobile devices.

However, an all-white team of engineers and product developers were testing the cameras, which led to metrics that only represented white users. The product inclusion team began to collaborate with them to ensure the cameras were inclusive of a spectrum of skin tones.

Subsequent projects have involved making sure Google Assistant could answer questions about race and gender in culturally sensitive and inclusive ways. Before the team’s involvement, the technology unfairly ascribed certain professions to certain genders. The team also flagged that Google Assistant did not fully understand the importance of Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month.

Creating a Process for Product Inclusivity

Jean-Baptiste and her team are making significant progress in clarifying the internal process for product inclusivity. The team has collaborated across the business to ensure product inclusivity is incorporated throughout the ideation, user research, design, user testing, and marketing phases of development.

Jean-Baptiste thinks the ideation phase is a key place to start because it is much harder to retroactively go back and fix a product to ensure it meets the needs of a broad range of users.

Most teams do user research, however, it is key to include diverse perspectives in that research phase. In the testing phase, establishing a diverse testing audience becomes crucial. With marketing, the company has focused on understanding the nuances of different audiences in different markets.

Jean-Baptiste said the most critical thing is to holistically embed inclusivity and multiple perspectives into every part of the product design process.

“It really behooves people to think about asking ‘Who else?’ and to think about building with an inclusive lens from the beginning or as early as possible, because it'll just make the process a lot easier,” she said.

A Road Map for Building More Inclusively at Your Company

As more companies focus on inclusivity, Jean-Baptiste said they can do several things to make their efforts more impactful.

Step 1: Build Representative Teams

Companies can start by making an intentional effort to build more representative teams across multiple dimensions of diversity. Jean-Baptiste admitted this is hard to do, but it is important for companies to consider and try at the outset.

“Of course, you should be working to get to a team that is reflective of the world around you, but in the interim, you can be really intentional about building more inclusively — and you have to think through at what points you need to bring other voices in,” Jean-Baptiste said.

Step 2: Identify Processes That Most Need an Inclusive Lens

In her book, Jean-Baptiste discussed how her team has created a 20-point process and resources that align with each of them to ensure Google is building inclusively.

However, this may not transfer in the same way to every company. Instead, companies may want to think about the specific point in the process that a more inclusive lens will be the most impactful.

“What are the points where disproportionally, if you do bring in that inclusive lens, (it) will lend to a more inclusive outcome?” Baptiste said.

Step 3: Consider Intersectionality

Though companies often begin their process with a target user in mind, that starting point can also serve to find other potential users for their products.

“It's not bad to start with a target consumer … but you need to understand what use cases there are and what needs you're fulfilling. But then how do you broaden the circle to make sure that you can grow who can use the product?” Jean-Baptiste said.

“Have you thought about women of color? Have you thought about LGBTQ women? Have you thought about women with disabilities? Have you thought about women who don't live in the U.S. if you live in the U.S.? Have you thought about women who speak English as a second language?"
— Annie Jean-Baptiste, Head of Product Inclusion, Google

"So even within a target market, you can expand it because you can start to think intersectionally. We all have our own experiences and backgrounds, and we forget that there is more than just one model of a target consumer,” she said.

Step 4: Educate to Build Buy-In

It’s also important for companies to build an inclusive framework throughout their organizations. Google has done this with its “Learning on the Loo” initiative where the company posts educational materials in employee bathrooms. Google also holds lightning talks, which are 10-minute introductions to a particular topic in a quick, insightful, and clear manner.

“You have to spend time to help people have a shared framework and a shared language around what you're talking about when you're introducing something new,” Jean-Baptiste said.

Step 5: Start Small

Product inclusion is a marathon with a constantly moving goal post based on a wide range of new user needs that may emerge. Jean-Baptiste believes it is important to start small and collaborate with a few key stakeholders to build buy-in for these efforts.

“Think of one part of your organization where you think you could make a difference. Start with a few people there and prove that out,” she said. “Once you have one example of it positively affecting that team, other teams will hear about it or you can bring it to them.”

“It's not something that has to be this big, audacious, scary thing,” Jean-Baptiste added. “It's really about saying, ‘here's our process and here are points in the process where we could bring in more perspectives.’”

Listen to the full podcast episode to hear Jean-Baptiste dig into the principles and processes in her book, and how they apply to brand manufacturers at a time when connecting deeply with each and every targeted consumer is vital to your brand success.