21 Oct The Social Implications of UX
It is easy to assume that the field of UX is solely involved in technology and business efficiency. Although this is true, UX influences much more than what users or businesses consume. The usability of technology and processes can also have great social effects. Many of the social controversies in the past couple of years could have been avoided with proper UX design.
A common UX problem that has grown in the past decade is the Digital Divide gap. A report published by the Gerontological Society of America describes the Digital Divide as “the significant inequities in respect to who can access, use, and benefit from [emerging technology]1.” The study goes in depth about the factors that limit older generation’s ability to use technology to its full potential. Some factors in this study included education, race, and class. For example, elderly populations from lower social classes tend to have more trouble leveraging technology for healthcare, transportation, and communication. In comparison, wealthy elderly populations are generally more adept to incorporating newer technologies in their lives. Although there are social implications within the elderly age group, the Digital Divide primarily focuses on the inter-generational gap. Younger generations have grown up in the digital age and learn and adapt faster to new technology. Older generations struggle to learn and adapt as technology is being tailored toward younger generations. UX professionals will need to focus attention to this growing digital and informational inequality.
Perhaps the most evident example of UX’s social impacts comes from facial recognition and AI. The New York Times reported that facial recognition software is astoundingly accurate with white males, with nearly a 99% success rate. However, for people of color and other genders, success rates plummet. There are nearly 35% more errors when dark skinned females use the same software2. Implicit bias seems to be inherent in these new technologies and stems from ignorance from developers and designers. Implicit bias is defined as “the subconscious set of values or beliefs that are accepted without any critical thought3.” When predominantly white, male designers create technology such as facial recognition, they are the over-represented demographic for that technology. New technology offers copious opportunity to enhance the world, yet designers must be aware of how the technology may affect others. Technology can only discriminate as the result of human intervention, therefore, UX designers must be cognizant and active to create inclusive UX experiences. All designers must realize the impact of their work. They must stress the importance of racial and gender representations, so the implicit bias of other developers is challenged.
As new technology emerges, UX will have to evolve alongside it. It’s easy to see from the examples above that even with good intentions, technology can foster inequality if it is not designed correctly. Comprehensive training, diverse designers, and unbiased testing is necessary to ensure that future technology and business promote an inclusive world.
- Fang, M.L., Canham, S., Battersby, L., Sixsmith, J., Wada, M., Sixsmith, A. (2018). Exploring privilege in the digital divide: Implications for theory, policy, and practice. The Gerontological Society of America, 59(1), 1-15. doi:10.1093/geront/gny037.