Product Inclusion: An Organization-Wide Mission, Not a Team GoalFeatured

“Core elements of our identities are formed by our encounters with inclusion and exclusion. We decide where we belong and where we’re outsiders. It shapes our sense of value and what we believe we can contribute. Exclusion, and the social rejection that often accompanies it, are universal human experiences. We all know how it feels when we don’t fit in.” —Kat Holmes Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes DesignAccording to Google, Product Inclusion is the practice of applying an inclusive lens throughout the entire product design and development process to create better products and accelerate business growth. Having spent most of my career in industrial and emerging tech markets, I had always regarded product inclusion as something that was the responsibility of product development teams and if they didn’t make it a priority, the rest of the organization would just have to assume that the product made, was inherently the most inclusive version built. Boy was I wrong. I came to realize Product Inclusion wasn’t just a task, process, or even a specific team’s responsibility. Insights like the one from Kat Holmes’s book Mismatch helped me discover the immense impact that Product Inclusion and strategy development can have throughout an organization. It’s a mindset, and for it to be resident in a company’s product experience, this ethos needs to be shared by just about everyone driving the organization forward. My own years of experience have now reinforced the idea that a customer-led organization should not be driven by the goals of any one team, but by a communal ethos shared across the entire organization. For both myself and my clients, I began working to eliminate any biases that reduce the usability and satisfaction of a positive customer experience. In short, I realized, as TechCrunch recently pointed out, that “Ideally, the most important driver of decisions isn’t one person or discipline in your organization—it should be your user.” So what does customer-led product development look like in 2021? Nike has created Nike Go FlyEase, a hands-free, slip-on sneaker built for athletes and casual outdoor enthusiasts alike.Spectrum’s Access App plays audio descriptions of hundreds of popular titles, all available from any mobile device—with the option of closed captions as well. Samsung’s 2021 product range of Neo QLED, MicroLED, and lifestyle TVs support Sign Language Zoom, which automatically recognizes and magnifies the sign language area for the hearing impaired by up to 200%. When this kind of approach is applied to an organization’s very culture, inclusion becomes a key tenet of decision-making not only across product development processes but also across the company’s teams and business overall. How can we make this happen? Open forums dedicated to employee feedback on inherent biases in the workplace and in the organization’s product strategy.“Innovation hubs” within the organization to test new ideas and allow a greater degree of cross-functional collaboration on future product improvements. Explicit expectations around accessibility, accountability, and responsibility when it comes to maintaining an inclusive workplace.Why does this approach to inclusion represent such an essential shift? None other than Sundar Pichai has observed that “A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.” In other words, building a community-minded workforce will create new channels of communication to address bias across gender, race, academic background, age, and more—both within the product development journey and across the internal culture of the firm. When people feel invested in an endeavor that they believe includes individuals like them, relatability and mutual respect arise naturally and serve as powerful allies. Four reasons this works:Leadership influences the cultural fabric of the organizationEstablishing a culture that encourages both neurodiversity and cross-team collaboration is a must in order to create more adaptive, inclusive features and user experiences. Annie Jean-Baptiste, Head of Product Inclusion at Google, identifies this as one of the key principles for product diversity: “When we think in silos, we build in silos.” Back in 2017, Tim Cook visited his alma mater to have a personal talk with students at Auburn University about diversity and inclusion. With over a billion people using more than 1.5 billion Apple devices worldwide, he said, “One of the reasons Apple products work really great…is that the people working on them are not only engineers and computer scientists, but artists and musicians. It’s this intersection of the liberal arts and humanities with technology that makes products that are magical.” This is the essence of how leadership can encourage innovation from the very top—by acknowledging that great ideas don’t come from one type of skill center, but across myriad spectrums and vastly different domains.Strategy influences a bias to actionStrategy is a continuous process, not a periodic one. Chief strategy officers are tasked with setting the company on an agile path of rapid and effective decision-making. Their influence can increase an organization’s ability to remain flexible, curious, and dynamic in its quest to achieve market leadership. Yet nobody wants to follow directions into unknown terrain from someone who seems hesitant or unsure, as that will only result in frustration and confusion. One great tactic, according to the Harvard Business Review, is to design with excluded and diverse communities, not for them. This ensures that your strategic roadmap is inclusive not only for the teams you build but also for the audiences that your products are meant to serve. Moreover, empathizing with historical users and existing employees allows you to understand first-hand the needs being met—and those being left unfulfilled. This, in turn, will lead you to improved, more impactful product and organizational experiences.Product development influences exclusion A brand’s product experience should provide relief for one or more user pain points. But when that relief is isolated to only specific segments of your audience—thereby excluding others with the same needs—then the product is being launched from a place (and impression) of limitation. In one of the examples above, we saw that Nike is due to launch its first-ever hands-free shoe, whose design was led by innovation engineers Haley Toelle and Tim Hopkins. As Toelle discussed their creative process on LinkedIn, she highlighted the symbiosis that was necessary internally to create a product that’s already garnering rave reviews in-market: “This is the result of design and engineering coming together to create a seamless, effortless, and visually simple (but mechanically complex) experience that allows all athletes access into everyday movement.” But what provoked such a dynamic concept? In 2012, Matthew Walzer, a US teenager with cerebral palsy, wrote to the sportswear giant asking for an accessible shoe design for those who struggle with tying laces. Nike subsequently invited him to collaborate in the design of Nike FlyEase technology in 2015. The moral of the story? The users you exclude can be your best source of inspiration in taking your product to the next level. Remember that for this to work, however, you need an internal commitment to solving those user pain points from the teams tasked with taking it forward. Otherwise, identifying a need is where the idea will start—and stop.Marketing influences brand resonance and user trustWhile marketing is seen as the critical tactic to capture audience attention, people often fail to realize that it can also build internal brand ambassadorship. In fact, content shared by employees receives 8x more engagement than content shared by brand channels. And when brand marketing is inclusive—in its messaging, its images, and its overall tone and voice—employees are more likely to become invested. Is it any surprise that they would get behind a product that was built for people like them? Probably not.In summary: Product inclusion is just good businessAccording to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 25.7 percent of U.S. adults, more than 1 in 4 people, have some form of disability including difficulties with vision, hearing, cognition, mobility, independent living, and self-care. That’s a huge market, right? Yet, many studies have shown that people with disabilities are frequently disappointed by their interactions with businesses — and they’re not afraid to show their disappointment by withholding their spending ability because the way the brand communicates with them, shows a clear lack of relatability in their needs as a prospective customer.The reality is, the more usable and adaptable a product is, the more users will want to buy them. But how do we get to that point of viral usability? It starts with the people tasked with building them and their choice to collectively commit to building products that serve many, and as well as the few. Product Inclusion needs be to part of the conversation when that first wireframe is drawn on a sketchpad (since COVID took away our coffee shop napkin scribble sections), and continue on with each iteration after it’s launched. Let’s hope that in 2021, inclusion moves from being an optional perspective to a necessary pillar in more “all-hands” meetings—because after all, shouldn’t all hands be represented? Chae O’Brien is the founder and Head of Client Strategy at Thought Bakery, a global marketing agency that helps B2B SaaS brands build personalized, growth marketing campaigns through empathy-powered content workshops.LinkedIn: