Simply put, there is no easy way to make sure your brand experience is diverse, inclusive and equitable. No five-step plan to boost your DEI image. No checklist you can consult to quickly make sure your efforts are immune to accusations of woke-washing.
Instead, if you want to deliver a brand experience that achieves DEI, then you must think of that effort as a never-ending journey, according to Bronwyn van der Merwe, APAC design lead at Accenture Interactive and general manager for Asia Pacific at the company’s design and innovation consultancy, Fjord.
"We as consumers are much more sensitive to organisations that are saying that they're doing something, but it's a very superficial or ineffectual way of addressing inclusion and diversity,” she says. “Inclusion and diversity is really a practice, as opposed to a destination. It's not somewhere you're ever going to get. It's a mindset—a way of working and a way of thinking that needs continual investment."
Moreover, in Van der Merwe’s opinion, brand experience has to start from the inside. Only organisations that are actually diverse and inclusive—and which use design processes that harness diversity and inclusion to achieve equity—can achieve diversity, inclusion and equity in the brand experience they deliver to external stakeholders.
That means starting with hiring and supporting diverse teams. “It's really two sides of the same coin,” she says. “If you have a diverse and inclusive workplace, you're much more likely to design and deliver diverse and inclusive experiences for customers, because the two things are generally a reflection of each other.”
Likewise, the importance of DEI has to be imbued from the top of the organisation, and must be embedded into the ways that organisation measures success, van der Merwe says. Accenture Interactive, for example, has developed a 360-degree value meter, which helps it to judge value beyond financial terms by looking at sustainability, inclusion, diversity, talent and other aspects of a decision.
"Right from our CEO down we have this mandate that we are looking at value in many different ways, and we are going to assess the work that we do with the clients and also the work that we do as individuals against a much more balanced scorecard,” she says. “That sort of clarity from the top down is really critical within organisations.”
Another part of having your house in order is promoting honest internal dialogue. “If people aren't aware of their own privileges, their own biases, their own cultural context, and what they consider normal—if they aren't thinking about this when they're coming to design products and services—then then they're not going to build inclusive products and services,” she warns.
Principle and process
Beyond that, companies need to make sure DEI is not an afterthought, but that it's actually built into every component of every project and every product and service, van der Merwe says. Principles, processes, guidelines and a system of checks and balances are necessary to help employees understand what ‘good’ looks like and to make sure nothing that goes out the door falls short. It’s about making sure that time and budget are built in and that people with the right expertise are in place to judge whether any output is fit for purpose.
"We really need to embed it in the culture of an organization,” she says. “We need to train people. We need to empower them. We need to give them the knowledge and the tools and information around this so that they can be the gatekeepers of responsible design, both internally in the employee experience, but also in any experiences that we're designing for end users.”
It may sound pat, but diverse and inclusive brand experience also requires a true understanding of who you're designing for. And van der Merwe believes this only comes from moving beyond quantitative data.
Investing in qualitative research, the kind that truly uncovers the needs, motivations, limitations and context of the end user, is required.
And it can’t stop there. In fact, Accenture involves end users in the design process in the work it does for clients, and advocates that more brands make this part of their practice when devising new products and services on their own.
"If we seek to really understand and include [customers] in the process, and then validate it with them, we're much more likely to create experiences that are much more inclusive and diverse,” van der Merwe says.
Van der Merwe advises thinking in terms of mindsets rather than demographics; it's critical to understand why people do things, not just what they do.
“When we think about using mindsets and qualitative data, it allows us to get to the ‘why’, and it allows us to get to a much more nuanced understanding of human beings and their needs and behaviors in a way that historical quant data just doesn't give us,” she says. “So as designers, when we use that more qualitative data and these mindsets, we're much more able to design experiences with that inclusion and diversity lens, which take into consideration peoples’ whys and their situation. And we combine that with quant data. But the two things together really help us to design better experiences.”
DIVERSE AND INCLUSIVE DESIGN: EXAMPLES
Bronwyn van der Merwe of Accenture Interactive and Fjord highlighted a few recent examples where building in DEI principles from the start resulted in projects that delivered DEI benefits in the end.
Accenture worked with this New Zealand non-profit on bringing indigenous culture into a virtual experience in a meaningful way during the pandemic. Involving customers in the design process yielded a better understanding of the traditional and sacred practices of the Māori and Pacific people, leading to a site with an immersive audio experience simulating a traditional walk on to a marae. Even apart from the pandemic, the experience is also helping to open up access to rural areas and cities where TupuToa does not have a physical presence.
“This was designed with the end users very collaboratively, very inclusively,” van der Merwe says. “They were leading the way and telling us what they needed to create an inclusive environment for their culture in a digital world. The resulting experience is really incredibly moving, and has made a big difference to them in terms of the way that people interact.”
Hāpai Hapori administers funds in New Zealand for community development. Through design research and a partnership with Indigenous Design and Innovation Aotearoa (IDIA), Accenture spotted inequities and helped reposition Hāpai Hapori’s role within the philanthropic ecosystem to redress them.
"What we found was that a lot of the way in which that whole system was set up with quite a lot of inequalities,” van der Merwe says. “The way in which the government traditionally engaged with these communities was through initiatives run by very large charities, and those large charities have access to both the expertise and also the people and resources to make their applications for this funding. Whereas the smaller grassroots organisations—who are working directly with the communities, but might only be four or five people—they just don't have the resources to get access to the funding.
“We worked with the organisation to propose change to how different communities get access to funding. It's about the whole system and infrastructure not just the touchpoints of access. We can design those and improve those, but when you're talking about equality and inclusion, quite often we have to go much deeper than that, and address some of the fundamental system challenges as well.
"It was about working with people who had this lived experience, working in the community with these people, inviting them into the design process, and really making sure that the conversations with these indigenous people were informing the changes that we were proposing with the authorities and helping them to understand the importance of inclusion and advocacy in these projects.”
Accenture Interactive supported Good Return in scaling its efforts to support low-income families across Southeast Asia by developing a custom smartphone app, called My Money Tracker, and other tools. In the six months to June 2021, more than 10,000 users in Cambodia have accessed the app, and Good Return aims to reach more than 20,000 in the next two years.
"We actually went out into these Cambodian communities to understand and talk to and work with our end users,” van der Merwe says. “In this case it was predominantly women who had microbusinesses to help support their families and get out of poverty. And what we found is that these women, in a predominantly cash economy, didn't have access to banking. So what we designed with them was a digital tool…very much based on imagery as opposed to words, to help them understand where the flow of money is in their life.”
One of Accenture’s mantras for DEI in experience design is ‘impact over intent’. “You need to think about the unintended consequences of anything that you do,” van der Merwe says. “Whether you are causing harm intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn't matter. It's unacceptable either way.”
This goes not only for designing diverse and inclusive experiences but also for making sure those experiences don’t clash with intersecting goals such as sustainability. Accenture uses a life-centred approach, rather than just a human-centred approach, in evaluating proposals, van der Merwe says.
"If we focus too much just on human-centered, then we will necessarily sometimes have unintended consequences, for example on the planet,” she says. "However, we can design into products and services and experiences things that are beneficial for both human beings and for the planet, if we take the time and have the desire to do that. We can design it so that the default experience is better for the planet, or we can design it so that options are visible to the end user to choose something that is going to have a reduced environmental impact.”
One tricky aspect of DEI-conscious brand experience is what van der Merwe refers to as the inclusivity paradox. “The more that you try to delve deeper into niche groups with specific needs, the more that you may unintentionally risk excluding other groups,” she says. The perfect website for sight-impaired users, for example, is not ideal for many other users. “So as much as organisations would like to design experiences for all, sometimes it is not yet practical to do so. Therefore organisations do need to make decisions and tradeoffs.”
In the long run artificial intelligence and machine learning might make it easier to deliver personalised experiences, she adds. “But until we get to that sort of nirvana where we can do that, we would suggest that mixing qualitative insights and understanding different mindsets is the way to address this.”
The challenge in APAC
Brands worldwide are more aware then ever of the imperative of diverse and inclusive brand experience. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In Asia it may be particularly challenging for brands to achieve, given the region’s diversity across language, culture and socioeconomic level.
"There's always going to be headroom because we're in a constantly shifting world where attitudes and expectations around inclusion and diversity are changing rapidly, year by year, decade by decade, van der Merwe says. “So there's no end goal or marker where you can say, this organization is inclusive and diverse, versus not. It's not binary. It's a journey that is constantly evolving.”