Use this page to learn more about tackling one of the biggest obstacles we face when creating digital content, software and services – the way we think.
What is unconscious bias?
We create digital tools, campaigns and social media strategies that connect to people’s everyday lives. When this works well it communicates to the viewer, 'You are seen, you are heard, you matter'.
But our life experiences and the way we think can taint this. We embed our values into whatever we create, tweet, and post online, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Unconscious bias is also known as ‘implicit bias’. It's the social stereotypes we have about people who are different to us. For instance because of their race, gender, cultural background, body shape, sexual orientation and class or because they are disabled. It’s one of the biggest obstacles we face when creating digital content, software and services.
We can see this at work in:
decisions we make in committees
assumptions we make about who we’re trying to reach
when we ignore people we have no reason to ignore.
When we act on these biases, we tend to exclude people. As we exclude them, we strip them of their humanity and lose our empathy for them. This is known as 'othering' and it makes it easier for us to neglect people’s needs. It leads to alienation, discrimination, marginalisation and oppression.
It’s easy to approach a project with pure intentions but end up producing a final product that has a negative effect on people's lives.
Consider these examples.
An online chatbot that’s unable to recognise cultural references.
An information guide - on ‘how to reach specific communities’ - that uses language that stereotypes and generalises groups of people.
A social media campaign reinforcing negative views about a younger generation- or a specific struggle facing a community.
A digital tool isn’t accessible to the BSL community, because we assume ‘they wouldn’t be interested in the service’.
Each of these eliminates a whole group of people from engaging in society in the same way as everyone else. We want our digital innovation to improve people’s lives. So we must root out unconscious bias and base our projects in empathy and understanding.
Tackling unconscious bias in projects
The first place to start is to commit to discovering unconscious bias with some exercises.
Exploring your assumptions
Create a safe space for yourself and your team at the start of every project and run this activity.
Give everyone a post-it note to write, in private, a list of assumptions they have about the people they’re trying to reach with the project.
Ask everyone to be honest about what they’re thinking and to challenge it.
Allow each person a chance to follow up by reflecting on why they think what they think. Make sure you set aside time for this.
This helps stimulate a work culture of radical honesty, making space for bias to be talked about openly. By being curious about our assumptions, accepting we don’t need to provide answers, we’re better able to serve all our audiences.
Reflecting on your own needs first to help you think about others
Take these steps.
Build reflection time into the project for everyone working on it.
Encourage everyone to take a personal standpoint.
Tell them to be still and to be in the present.
Invite them to think about their own perspective. Ask them to privately list what project outcomes they’d want if they were going to be a participant in the project as opposed to running it.
Remember, the outcomes they've generated are not a list of possible outcomes for the project. The purpose of them thinking about their own needs is to create a state where they’re more able to empathise with other people's needs.
Now invite the team to think about what questions they’d ask people to make sure they get an unbiased set of needs to use for project outcomes.
Studies show that stress and tiredness may ‘increase the likelihood of decisions based on unconscious bias’. This exercise gives us a stress-free space to make sure we don't rush ahead and cause problems.
Co-design - the best way to reduce the impact of unconscious bias
When we create something for a community, we should include engagement with people from that community. Those who are most at risk of harm from unconscious bias.
When you plan user research, co-design or engagement activities take these steps.
Invite the right people to share their experiences to help shape the project.
Increase your chances of doing meaningful work by keeping engagement going. Invite people to progress meetings and involve them in decisions.
Ask them to check the decisions you’re making reflect what the community shared at the research stage.
Create a board of citizens, or experts, who can keep contributing.
At each stage create an environment in which everyone is confident to speak up.
For instance, start the project with an icebreaker, remind everyone it’s not a test and there are no ‘stupid questions’.
Co-designing helps to avoid unconscious bias. If done well, it means we can be held to account by the people we serve. It means we’ve listened to their expert voice, using it to improve the outcomes of the project in a truly collaborative process. And those we co-design with understand the process and don’t feel patronised or that they’ve been told what to think.
Challenges when dealing with unconscious bias
Many people start off in the wrong way when it comes to having conversations about unconscious bias. They hold these unhelpful viewpoints.
Some deny that unconscious bias has any presence in their own lives.
Some think that because it’s unconscious it’s not up to them to do anything about it.
Both of these viewpoints are wrong. To tackle unconscious bias in your organisation you’ll need to challenge this thinking.
These steps can help
Engage across your organisation with people who’re most often marginalised and hurt by unconscious bias. Trust what they say. Find examples of unconscious bias and the harm it causes.
Put safety mechanisms in place to help deal with hurt. People from marginalised groups may experience this as their colleagues reveal their unconscious biases.
Create ways for people to process their feelings of guilt as they uncover their unconscious bias. Make sure they don’t expect people from marginalised groups to deal with that guilt for them.
Find advocates or diversity champions to help embed this process across the organisation.