The UX Design of Oppressive Systems

Are you wondering where the time and place is for you to speak in all of this? Maybe you should realize that it is the time to listen.

“UX design is the process of designing products that are useful, easy to use, and delightful to interact with.” — What is UX design

Hi, I’m Phyllis. I like to think in analogies. In order to explain what is happening in the news and all over every social media platform’s feed, I’m looking at the UX design, not of software products, but of society and its systems.

When many of the systematic structures we engage with now were established, they were designed with a user in mind: a wealthy, white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied male beneficiary. We fail ourselves by being shocked when these systems work exactly how they were designed to. We fail ourselves by being naive enough to think that any issue that we come across is a mistake of the system rather than the intent of the system.

Our institutions are designed with a user in mind. Unfortunately, a lot of the world is just now waking up to one of the user’s being people like me-a person of several marginalized identities. At best, I am actively ignored by the design. At worst, I am malignantly targeted by it.

I will start by saying that you do not get to be applauded for what is right. You are not doing anything special or going above and beyond by exercising basic empathy and self-education. That is the standard. Just because the standard has failed to be met for so long, anchoring bias should not work in your ego’s favor to put you on a pedestal for exercising human decency.

On the note of human decency, do not share images, videos, or graphic depictions of any victims or protestors. For one, you are endangering the safety of protestors and activists by publicizing them without their consent, possibly exposing them to being targeted online and in-person. Furthermore, René Jameson put it well:

“You can do anti-racist work without relying on the shock factor, without relying on trauma porn, and the white obsession with Black bodies being in pain…We need implicit bias training, we need restrictive force policies, we need an overhaul of the state of policing, we need more social workers, we need a lot of things. But apparently, videos of murder are not moving enough, are not evidence enough, so let’s drop that and try something that works.”

“So what can I do?”

When a company designs a product poorly, they do not go back to the team that campaigned for this poor design and ask them to come up with yet another one. They’d be gambling in hopes for a different outcome from the same methods which didn’t work already.

Who did the design fail? The user.

Who voiced their negative experience of the design? The user.

Who are you trying to change the design for? The user.

In that vein, whose voice should be sought out when oppression is at play? … you guessed it! The oppressed.

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A superficial understanding of the real issue at hand is how you get pandering and commercial ads that portray a can of soda as the answer to world peace. These are our real lives. The images and videos that appear on your feed are our families, our partners, our neighbors, and our closest friends. These are our daily lived experiences. For many of us, this is not a viral hashtag. Our identities are not a trend although popular media may lead you to believe otherwise. If you’re shocked right now, take a moment to realize that shock is a privilege. You’re removed enough from the experience to be able to see it in this way for the first time, or the first time in a long time. The ability to have ever been silent about the mistreatment, murder, or violation of the human rights of an innocent person is not something I can even call a privilege. These are the painful experiences that we’ve been trying to bring to the forefront all along. Turn your shock into support by uplifting those who can speak on these topics, not by speaking on their behalf.

What does that look like?

  • Sharing written, spoken, and visual expressions from marginalized people while acknowledging that no single person (including myself) or platform is the spokesperson (page 75) for everyone affected but it is a valid perspective.
  • Financially supporting organizations doing the work while acknowledging that non-profits also have their flaws. Financially supporting Black-owned businesses by investing in them in their initiation and purchasing from them in their growth. Financially supporting friends, coworkers, teammates, and family members who are in need without needing them to ask via poverty porn first.
  • Advocating for BIPOC every day, not only when it’s trending and convenient. Integrity is defined as a firm adherence to moral values. It is easy to adhere to moral values when they garner celebration reacts on Linkedin or retweets on Twitter. However, integrity is remaining in those moral values when they cause tension in your marriage, negativity in your workplace, or backlash in your groupchat. Consistently speak up where we cannot, such as at your family’s dinner table when your relative holds a problematic view; when we cannot, such as when our voices are actively being filtered out by institutions, websites, and peer groups; and how we cannot when our messages are tone-policed and labeled as aggressive, bossy, entitled, or demanding.

People are biased to listen to those like themselves. This means that your voice in educating those around you who perpetuate harmful values will go much farther than having the victims engage in the emotional labor of also being the educators. It is emotionally taxing to live like this, let alone be expected to teach others about it, especially when some feel entitled to being comforted in the process.

“Not knowing what to do isn’t an excuse for inaction and silence. Start with a small step, then another, then make the steps larger. Action in spite of discomfort is what we need to start seeing from people (myself included).” — Austin Belcak

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This is a common depiction of the design process. Michelle Obama said, “It’s not going to happen with one president or one vote.” These perils will not end in one lifetime but we cannot spend our lifetime doing nothing. We are where we are today because of those who dared to act before us and we must continue to believe in progress with our deeds rather than accepting things as they are. This is how I think we can engage in this process when approaching social reform:

  • Empathize: I think we’ve covered that.
  • Define: There is a lot online right now that explicitly outlines the issues at hand.
  • Ideate: But it is not enough to see the issues, we must also move forward. No answer is the only right answer. This is a complex issue within complex systems requiring complex analysis and ideas.
  • Prototype: Within those ideas, define what would work, how, why, for who, and within what constraints. What your local middle school can do to address this looks very different from what the ACLU can do to address this.
  • Test: Because we are breaking how things have been for what they could and should be, we must see if our proposed solutions are viable and meaningful.
  • Implement: Consequences accumulate over time and progress is made by small, consistent actions. Once you see that something continues to show potential, do it and scale it.

These are turbulent issues that have no perfect resolutions. You may not be the best ally right now or maybe you haven’t been an ally at all. Nonetheless, I do believe that we ALL have room to grow while taking full responsibility for our mistakes along the way. I, too, have had to be put in my place on several issues and have taken time to educate myself on history, philosophy, and current events even as a Black person. This is why I emphasize that no single individual is the authority on everything. You and I have access to the very same resource that I used to find the information embedded throughout this article:

“It must be nice to feel so safe that you have to invent new ways to put yourself in danger.” — Rudy Francisco

It may feel scary for you to speak up and have others judge you for standing up for what is right but the safety of having these issues be optional and behind a screen is an option many of us do not have. Discomfort is not an excuse for ignorance. It is not enough to only engage when it feels good while so many of us can never disengage from these injustices. It is not enough to not be racist when being actively anti-racist is required. The world we live in was setup to cater to certain types of people. It was built on progressing some at the expense and destruction of others. You benefit from the ways in which these systems were designed to enhance, promote, or comfort you and as a result, are responsible for dismantling their current structures and redesigning the whole experience for people who should’ve been included from the beginning of time.

Although it can feel uncomfortable to start to engage with this, do not abstain from what is right because you cannot do it perfectly.

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“Allyship is NOT a one-time thing…It’s important to care, but it’s more important to put in effort. Allyship is a challenge, a privilege, and a responsibility.” — David Rosenstein

I welcome constructive criticism and respectful feedback on any of the views expressed here. Remember to avoid faulty logic and attacks or biases when engaging in these critical dialogues.

Written by

Product manager | Leading with empathy.

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