Have you ever used an app or product and come across a fundamental feature that was either hard to access or somehow more confusing than helpful? These are surprisingly common problems caused by a similar root issue.
When companies create products and experiences, they are often focused on a set of considerations: goals, budget, resources, timing, etc. But often one ingredient is missing: their audience — not just through research but through the direct makeup of the team designing the product.
Building New Features Through Mixed Perspectives
Representation comes in many forms: gender, sexual orientation, race, age, upbringing and more. Depending on the product, some criteria may or may not be relevant. What's important is that you build your team around the audience you're trying to cultivate, both now and in the future. As the chief architect of your customers' experience, you want to make sure your team can anticipate all the possible problems and provide unique solutions people might encounter. As head of product at Albert, an L.A.-based money app that helps people manage their financial lives, this idea of representation is important to me. That's why we've sought to build a balanced team that includes experts in personal finance, but also people who might not have known how to budget before. Our audience tends to skew slightly female, and, while I don't represent all women, I'm proud to lead design in a world where women fill less than 11% of design leadership roles across industries, despite representing 54% of designers.
Empathy and research will always be key to product design, but they can't replace representation. Without having stand-ins for your audience on your team, it's hard to know if you've covered the nuances in addition to missing the blind spots.
To achieve that at Albert, we aim to hire a cross section of our target audience: people who understand what it's like living as a young adult with limited access and experience with financial tools, as well as true personal finance experts. Fortunately for Los Angeles tech companies, this city has a huge pool of diverse, creative talent to hire and embed in product teams.
Assembling Representation in the Right Places
L.A.'s landscape offers so much to help companies achieve strong teams. It's a tapestry of SoCal born and bred as well as transplants from across the U.S. and the world, who bring influences from across the globe. These different backgrounds create a local ecosystem of potential representation. For Albert, financial needs like living costs and spending habits inherently vary by region, and that breadth of experiences in L.A. talent helps us stay relevant for a broad audience.
To find that perfect mix of representation, it's important to know what role you want each background to play in the product process and then source talent accordingly. I've found that the sweet spot is leaving the user experience up to the non-experts, the deep inner-workings to the experts, and the content to a collaboration between the two.
We want to make sure the core and operations of our experiences come from the experts who know what our target audience needs. The non-experts who can relate to our audiences play a crucial role catering the experience and the delivery, based on what they know will be most accessible to them.
Working on Albert's investing feature illustrated this for me personally. Our goal is to make investing approachable for those who feel overwhelmed at even the thought of taking control of their finances. To make it as easy as possible to get started, we have people on our team who are deeply experienced with the investing landscape, but it has been just as important to have team members who know nothing about investing.
For the deeply experienced, it's hard to know what needs more context. For the beginners, it's hard to know what's important to focus on or where to begin. Using investment lingo like ETFs and stock tickers would seem like a foreign language to our audience. Trying to teach technical aspects upfront doesn't solve our goal of making investing more approachable, and may even heighten the sense that it's overwhelming. Rather than trying to force it, we can get creative with new investing experiences that are easier to relate to as someone just starting out.
Those on our team who were newer to investing concepts gave critical feedback on what may be difficult to approach and what could make it more relatable—in this case, it was introducing themes like "sustainability," "technology," "biotech," and "women-led companies." On the flip side, without the experts on our team, we wouldn't know what kind of investing would actually be most appropriate for our audience. It's the teamwork that helps us make better, fresher products.
The Business Case for Inclusion
This is just scratching the surface of how important well-rounded representation is for making successful products. When working entirely from a place of empathy, decisions can be made on assumptions. With research, assumptions become educated guesses based on what users tell you. But, with your audience embedded within your teams, that information becomes fact from personal experience. Red flags can be raised quickly and easily internally instead of waiting to hear from your audience.
Product teams absolutely can and should include people that don't look like their target audience. It's an important piece to having good balance and perspective. But ultimately, you risk missing the mark on multiple fronts without representation. Companies nationwide are finally putting more action behind their words when it comes to embracing diversity within their ranks, and Los Angeles has a unique local ecosystem of talents of all varieties that no business based here should miss out on.
No matter what industry you're in—representation matters.
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