Three Secrets to Designing a Bias-Free App

Your customer base is diverse—but is your development team building apps accessible to all?

Every Tuesday, Facebook offers its employees a lesson in empathy. When they log in to the social network's mobile app, employees can choose to use a simulated 2G connection for one hour.

The point of 2G Tuesdays is not to frustrate those who design, build and market Facebook's products. Rather, the goal is to open their eyes to the limitations experienced by users with slow connections—and, ultimately, to make Facebook more accessible for its billions of users around the world.

Developers' blind spots and potential biases—everything from regional bandwidth bottlenecks to cultural and ethnic differences to accessibility issues—can affect an app's ability to attract as wide an audience as possible. Designing apps in a way that reduces biases requires tapping into people, technology and background research, just as Facebook engineers do every Tuesday.

People: Diverse Teams Bring New Perspectives to the Table

Assembling development teams with an eye toward adding new viewpoints and experiences makes it less likely that apps will fall victim to hidden biases.

“The more diverse you can make your team, the better," says Laura Mather, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Talent Sonar, which creates software tools to improve and diversify the hiring process. Every developer brings his or her own perspective to a project, and narrow perspectives “get baked into an app, sometimes to the detriment of users," Mather says, which is how the blind spots occur. "When you have a team with very similar members, it leads to overconfidence—people can make poor decisions."

At best, apps with hidden biases will turn off audiences you might want to reach. At worst, noninclusive apps could trigger lawsuits and attention from advocacy groups and the media. Last year, visually impaired customers sued salad chain Sweetgreen, alleging that the company's mobile app wasn't compatible with screen-reading tools.

Diverse development perspectives can help app developers boost the chances that their apps will achieve global success. Several years ago, Marcelo Eduardo, founding partner of New York City-based digital agency Work & Co, found himself on a project team focused squarely on optimizing features for the iOS platform.

“I was the only one with an Android phone," says the native Brazilian, who told other team members that Android devices are more popular in many developing countries because they're far less expensive than iPhones and iPads. The team recognized that the app's features needed to be designed equally around both operating systems.

QA and UX Testing to Leave the Echo Chamber

Staffing development teams with an eye toward diversity can uncover subtle biases in app development, Eduardo says. For example, a depiction of a person in a native costume may be considered playful by some but smack of racism in certain cultures. Additionally, since development teams can't cover every diversity base, QA (quality assurance) and UX (user experience) testing is used to fill the gaps and uncover hidden biases.

“Testing is not all about bugs," Mather says. Soliciting feedback about users' overall experiences with an app—even to the extent of whether the app makes users feel comfortable and respected—“gets you out of that echo chamber," she explains.

When designing Marriott International's mobile app, the Work & Co team tested it with outside QA teams in several countries and in different languages to catch potentially confusing or noninclusive features.

“We look for QA teams that can focus on cognitive aspects—people who come from a psychology or arts background who can focus on the app experience," Eduardo says.

Designing apps for accessibility involves not only QA, but also collaboration between users and the app-development teams. At Work & Co, the process starts by reviewing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by WC3 (World Wide Web Consortium) to determine the types of accessibility that the app needs to provide. During the app design phase, development and QA teams consider features like color contrast and font size. Work & Cos's internal QA teams use accessibility checker tools, such as SortSite and AInspector, to double-check their work. An internal wiki also helps Work & Co share accessibility design best practices.

Research: Uncovering the App Audience

Research is another good tool to supplement insights from a diverse development team and various QA testers. Jeremy Browning, product manager at Brooklyn-based mobile app developer Prolific Interactive, says customer research is critical to understanding how to design an app and what features it should offer.

“We try to understand the people who will engage with the app, not just who'll engage with the marketing," Browning says. Recently, the firm worked with a customer developing an app that helps users earn gift cards. The development process started with the assumption that older, financially comfortable consumers would be the primary audience. But focus groups uncovered enthusiasm for the app among lower-income millennials—a clue that changed both the marketing and the feature design for the app.

The value of talking to potential users, Browning says, is that developers and marketers can unearth subtle cues that can help them make their apps as inclusive as possible. Even simply using screenshots that show people of color can create a welcoming experience within an app.

“It's a small thing, but it's important to reflect the full spectrum of humanity," he maintains.

Christine Kent
By Christine Kent | August 23, 2017