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This week on Awkward Silences, Senior UX Researcher at Google Zoë Glas, stopped by for a thought-provoking conversation about why having a seat at the table isn’t enough, and the importance of inclusion and belonging in UX research. Zoë walks us through her journey diving deep into religious differences as one of her main topics of interest, and shares advice on how UX researchers can navigate factors like gender, religion, and politics more intentionally.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging
- Why religion is an overlooked topic in UX research
- Attitudes and behaviors related to religion
- Tips for researchers on how to address inclusion from a UX perspective
- [00:01:41] The ‘I’ in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)
- [00:04:05] Forget about equity, this episode is about diversity and inclusion
- [00:07:48] Applying inclusion to UX research
- [00:10:56] How to start difficult conversations around inclusion
- [00:13:25] Why Zoë is interested in UX research on religion
- [00:20:38] How to keep your bias in check as a researcher
- [00:25:09] Zoe shares how she addresses religion from a UX perspective
- [00:27:11] Why it’s so hard to talk about religion at work
About our guest
Zoë Glas is a Senior UX Researcher at Google. She specializes in gathering and triangulating qualitative and quantitative data to improve amazing products. She has a Master’s degree in Natural Resource Social Science from Purdue University and a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Biology from the University of Montana. Zoe has been published extensively in several international journals, including Sage journals, Society & Natural Resources, and Human Dimensions of Wildlife.
[00:00:00] Zoë Glas: Be aware that you might hit a trigger, and I think especially with religion, which, again, can have a lot of trauma, don’t be afraid to ask somebody else to be in that room with you and if someone comes at you in a way that really is uncomfortable, then that person can take over or can cut off the conversation if it’s no longer moving in a productive direction.
[00:00:22] Erin May: This is Erin May.
[00:00:24] John-Henry Forster: I’m John-Henry Forster, and this is Awkward Silences.
[00:00:29] Zoë: Silences. Good.
[00:00:37] Erin: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today we’re here with Zoë Glas. She’s a senior UX researcher at Google and focused on privacy, safety, and security working on that team. They have a cute tagline. “Keep everyone safe at scale.” Thanks for joining us today. Really excited for our topic, which is why inclusion is actually more important than diversity, so excited to get into that. Thanks for joining us.
[00:01:04] Zoë: Thank you. So great to be here. Okay. JH, you are, too?
[00:01:07] John-Henry: Yes, I’m definitely guilty of probably lumping all the DEI stuff together in my head, and so I’m actually very excited to break this down a little bit.
[00:01:14] Erin: Excellent. Well, on that note, Zoë, you do hear DEI, what’s the other one that’s in the acronym, sometimes?
[00:01:21] Zoë: B, belonging. Don’t worry. We’ll get there.
[00:01:23] Erin: Belonging. We’ll get there.
[00:01:24] John-Henry: Okay, good.
[00:01:25] Erin: There are committees and there are departments focused on these things, and it’s become trendy, hopefully, largely in positive ways to focus on DEI but let’s break it apart. What are each of the letters, what does it mean, and what are we talking about when we talk about DEI?
[00:01:41] Zoë: Yes. I think everyone has a different version of this that we’re starting to adopt and certainly, there are so many great thought articles going back and forth about why we should be focusing on one versus the other. I’ll certainly present my perspective on this. D is the easy one, it’s diversity, and I think we focus on this a ton because it’s actually relatively easy.
I don’t want to say it’s easy but relatively easy. It has a checklist, right? Apple recently came under fire for being really committed to DEI, but their board is still very largely White and very large male and it makes for very clickbaity LinkedIn articles that say, “Hey, you clearly don’t walk the walk. Look at all these pictures of people that look the same,” and then if you stop looking the same, you’re like, “Check, we’re diverse. We’ve done it.”
It’s an easy win, and it’s an easy way to avoid criticism. I totally understand that, and it’s still a very, very good thing. The more we represent the people that we are creating for, the better. We do this as researchers all the time, but we do want to get past that into the rest of it, so there is equity, there is inclusion, and then there’s belonging. I think inclusion, for me, is the next step, which is that everyone is actually invited to the table.
They’re not just at the party, but for anybody who has kids, you’re thinking everyone in the first grade has to be invited to the party. Your kid does not like everyone they had to invite me to the party, but they were included, and it’s a great step, especially for kids who are just learning how to interact with each other and meet people for the first time.
That doesn’t mean they got the hug or that they got the good, bouncy ball in the gift bag or whatever else. It just means they had the opportunity to show up and that they might still have to do a ton more work to be accepted at that party, so the final for me is belonging, which is that “Hey, I actually want to be here. I want to give you a good, bouncy ball. I want to hear what you have to say and to build for you intentionally,” and that takes a lot longer because we have to be a lot more aware of ourselves, of what our companies are doing, of how that interacts with other people and how we even think about and approach the world.
Who do we want to make our friends with? Who do we want to elevate to the best pieces? That one’s really hard. As a company, as any company, we’re really pretty far from that at this point, making some good strides, but we have a long way to go.
[00:03:54] Erin: Did we skip equity? What about equity?
[00:03:56] Zoë: I didn’t think much about equity, to be honest.
[00:03:58] Erin: Oh, sorry, yes, yes. Forget equity. Who needs it? Well, Zoë, there’s equity, there’s equitable.
[00:04:05] Zoë: Yes. I guess the reason I think I don’t think about equity as much and there are tons of reasons to push back on this but it’s the idea of being fair and impartial, right? We aren’t impartial. We never are. We can do our best to be fair. We can do our best to take those into account, but until we get to a point where we say, “Hey, you belong here, we want you to think that you belong here,” equity implies that there’s like, “I’m giving some, and you’re giving some” versus “We’re creating a better whole.”
Now, there are many smarter people than me that are probably going to disagree with that, but at least when I think about how we’re pushing as a company and the strategies that different companies can take to get to a better point of belonging, I think inclusion feels like the more natural middle step there.
[00:04:52] Erin: Great. If you think of the hierarchy of needs, Maslow’s, belonging is where we’re trying to get. Is diversity an essential first step and then you build up to inclusion and then up to belonging? Is that how you think about it?
[00:05:08] Zoë: That’s definitely how I think about it. Diversity is that easy checkbox. We have people of a Black background that are Muslim, that are Hispanic, that have faced economic insecurity. Everyone is there to potentially have that voice at the table. We can never get to belonging if they’re not there. That’s just impossible. It’s just not enough on its own.
[00:05:29] John-Henry: You mentioned with the birthday example and staff of being inclusive, everyone’s there at the party and stuff, and maybe you’re still going to have some pockets of “I’m closer with these people” and stuff. Is it actually possible to get everyone to the same inclusion level? Not to be redacted but if everyone’s included, is no one included or whatever? I’m just saying that in your relationships with friends, you have some people that you’re tighter with than others, and it doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but it also does feel good to be more inclusive. I don’t know how you like, kind of square in a practical sense.
[00:05:57] Zoë: Yes, totally. No, and I think that’s an amazing point, and I think one of the issues that a lot of people face when they start to deal with DEI issues or DBI issues, rather, is that it does feel like this impossible goal. Even thinking about your neighbors, you don’t like all your neighbors equally. There are the ones that you bring cookies to and the ones that you don’t.
It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. Relationships are always a two-way street. As we seek towards belonging, I think we have a greater chance to really reflect both on ourselves and someone else. Diversity says I as a White Jewish woman, I’m at the table, and I can speak to that or whatever other identity markers are there, but I am fully responsible for that, and I don’t actually have a responsibility then to understand the Christian perspective, the Black perspective, whatever else that’s going on at that moment that should be taken into account with that product.
Once we get towards belonging, a friendship is two-sided. I understand that you love anchovies on your pizza and I don’t, and our middle ground is that it’s half-anchovies and half-not-anchovies or whatever else, but I have to be able to see that from your perspective and I myself take the responsibility to proactively work towards that perspective, so I think that’s where it gets to.
It’s not that I’m never going to agree that anchovies should be on a pizza. I don’t like hand anchovies, period, but I can at least foresee why you would want that and how I could then create things for that to make that possible.
[00:07:25] John-Henry: Cool. Could we play that example towards a research context? I get the diversity one. We’ve sourced a well-representative group of people we should be included in our research and hearing from. We feel good about that. We’re being inclusive in terms of making sure that everyone has space to share their feedback and setting that up in a way that feels like it’s open. What does the belonging sense mean in a product and research capacity?
[00:07:48] Zoë: Totally, absolutely love this question. This is something that I noticed we do all the time. We keep these trackers of how many of a certain type of person was included in our research, and at the end of the year, we get to tap ourselves on the back and go like, “Yes, we were representative of the population that we’re trying to build for. They were included. They were at the party.”
If there is a specific change in the product, so let’s say, for example, YouTube was less accessible to people with low education background or that ads were more disruptive for people that had low access to data and that prevented their ability to access that information. Just because they were included in a study doesn’t mean we’re ever going to get to a point that says, “Oh, we really understand that people of a specific racial background, of a specific religious background, of a specific socioeconomic background, feel differently that we are not actually building for them.”
They were there, but we weren’t looking at those factors, so I think when we think about recruiting, continue to be diverse. Continue to make sure that everyone has the chance to be there and that our products are representative. Let’s say you’re building something new that might affect people with different education differently. Do a study on education.
Do a study on race. Do a study on religion related to that project, specifically with the goal of figuring out religion or race or education or economics or whatever else it might be, not just hoping that by including them they will be represented in that mishmash.
[00:09:24] Erin: I wonder about benchmarking, seeking to make study progress along some of these lines over time. Is that something that you can do?
[00:09:31] Zoë: I will say I have not had the opportunity to do that, but I think it would be a great thing to approach. We can’t do everything all the time, and I think that’s really where so much of this happens. Sometimes we’re given two weeks. “Hey, this thing’s going to go out. Can you check it?” We rarely– until we’ve really built up the value of research within an organization and have the resources and bandwidth to do it, the ability to say, “Hey, I really want to understand all of the accessibility of our project or all whatever background to it.”
Building in benchmarking might be a great way to do that where you can say along, “I want us to commit to a certain quality standard that has to do with that thing.” We do this at Google with things called critical user journeys where we can constantly check the health of a product every quarter every half, depending on the team, and you could totally build in any of these factors into it. It is costly. That’s always the thing. It’s just, “What is the risk of not doing it and of not knowing that information?”
[00:10:28] John-Henry: You were touching on a little bit of just all of the different vectors of diversity between race, education, religion, kind of infinite almost. People are very unique in different, lots of ways. How do you know this thing really matters for our product experience like, “Religion is going to be something here that is actually really impactful to how people feel about it” or is that something that a researcher just has good intuition about or you learn over time? How do you know which ones to hone in on maybe more than others in your context?
[00:10:56] Zoë: Yes. I think this gets back at that question of there are infinite things that we could do, and how do we know when we’ve hit enough? First of all, I want to say that anybody who’s trying to do any of this is doing great. Perfect is the enemy of good here, very much so. There are times like specifically religion, which is something I think about a lot, that we know it is going to matter more. Food, there are very specific food rules for some religions.
Dating, representation of what you can wear, what you can look like, can you show your hair? How can you share photos with others? These are very, very obvious things that have a religious aspect to it. Even in some religions, taking a photo of a woman who is married with her hair exposed and sharing that would be a violation. Very conscious sharing within photo-sharing apps is something that you’d want to be aware of.
Now, there’s other times where it certainly might not be as obvious, and I think what I would encourage people to do is just ask the question, does it have an effect? You’ve got a little bit of extra time, one month. Pull in a couple of people. Do a quick study to see what’s going on there. Now, certainly, I think you could do a very in-depth survey and understand specifically like, “Yes, this has a P value of a certain thing.”
I think it’s unlikely that you’d have as much support in doing that. One, the legality of asking about a lot of these things is quite difficult, and I don’t want to pretend that it’s not. I think when I first talked about this, people were like, “I can’t recruit for that,” and that was the end, but it’s hard. I don’t want to pretend that it’s not, but you can definitely start to get in that direction and see what’s noticing and see what’s there.
The things that, obviously, we tend to see the biggest differences in society right now are also a great way to start to think about it. Race and economic status, really big right now, really driving spend for a long time, but we’re coming into a good social consciousness of what’s going on there. Make sure you’re including those if you don’t know where else to start.
[00:12:49] John-Henry: Can we just play that back a little, just make sure I got it? For whatever context your product is existing in, if you’re a delivery app and you’re doing something with food, put in some critical thought to identify things that are likely to matter, so allergies, religion, other stuff. You can guess at those probably with decent accuracy, and then otherwise, it sounds like you’re saying just like, “Turn over a lot of stones. Talk to people from lots of different backgrounds. Ask them questions and you’ll start to pick up like, ‘This was actually a blind spot for us, but there is something here that really is material to the experience that we should understand.'” Is that a fair way to summarize?
[00:13:16] Zoë: Yes. That’s a great way to summarize. Definitely, much better than my long-winded answer.
[00:13:21] John-Henry: No, no. Just it’s easy when you play it back. I just want to make sure I got it. Cool. That makes a lot of sense.
[00:13:25] Erin: Yes. Zoë, we wanted to spend a little more time talking about religious inclusion because I know that’s an area that you’ve thought about a lot. I’m curious what got you thinking about– because as we were talking about you, we talk about ethnicity, race, socioeconomic. These sorts of factors of diversity are commonly discussed, less so religion I think, at least from the conversations I am part of and I’m hearing, so how did you make this one of your topics of interest?
[00:13:55] Zoë: Totally, yes. I think there’s a couple of one– and some of them are selfish. I am a Jewish woman and being the minority in any sense, you become much more aware of how that intersects with the world. The local public schools here, for the first time, are just offering Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which was such a win. That was something that my family had really planned ahead for, asked for tests and quizzes to be moved, and things.
It was always a big pain to acknowledge the thing, and I was always very aware that the world was not built for me in that way, or that Hanukkah would be over by the time Christmas break started and certainly lovely, but you have all this free time, and all your friends are gone. There’s just an awareness that I’ve always had that’s been on my mind and certainly, as I got into UX research, was one of those that I’m like, “Oh, it’s interesting we don’t talk about this.”
Now, I think there’s a lot of reasons we don’t talk about it. One, it’s really sensitive. We do live in a culture that is Christian-dominant, at least for now. I think there’s a chance that that could change in the future, but there’s this idea and this default that the world is Christian, and we don’t think about it. It’s also more and more uncomfortable. A lot of people have religious trauma, and they are fully entitled to have that response to that trauma and not want to discuss religion for the role that it perhaps has negatively had in their life, and that’s not something you want to talk about in the workplace either.
Broadly, we don’t talk about religion at work. Sex, politics, and religion, our grandparents said to check at the door. We’re starting to do better at some of these and have more productive conversations, but religion at least we tend to leave at the wayside, I think especially where major tech hubs are, San Francisco, New York, et cetera, because they tend to be less religious.
It’s just not on our mind. For those reasons, I was thinking about, what are the things we’re not thinking about? Religion certainly started to bubble up in my consciousness as something that I could explore more.
[00:15:44] Erin: Zoë, you mentioned food. There’s specific codes of eating, of dress. What are some of the things to think about when, again, it’s going to be business-specific but to start thinking about when you think about what might be at play when it comes to be inclusive of various religions?
[00:16:02] Zoë: Definitely, there’s direct things and indirect things. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll start with the direct. Food, definitely a big one. Halal and kosher rules certainly come to mind. People who keep a very kosher household if you were to accidentally deliver the neighbor’s pork loin instead of their meat from the kosher butcher, that could have really difficult ramifications for them for having to in-depth clean the house and potentially revisit a Mikveh to purify things.
It’s a big deal. Mikveh, by the way, is a purification bath. That could be huge. Your user is going to say, “I’m not going to take upon that risk of potentially getting the wrong thing.” Dating, always a big thing as well. What’s acceptable, how men and women connect, even especially how queer relationships initiate, and the safety to have that queer relationship and to have people potentially exposed to who they did not intend to expose to.
Apps that have their own sound might not be that great for people that are not openly queer with their families if they come from religious backgrounds. Dating, always a good thing to be very aware of either side. Certainly, I think we could go about a million of these. Those are probably the easiest ones to talk about.
[00:17:13] John-Henry: You had called out, not to trivialize this, it’s hard to do some of these things like the legality and phrasing, and sensitivity. Do you have any advice for people on how you navigate that? If it is something that you need to phrase in a very specific way or ask the right consent, do you have a playbook or some advice there?
[00:17:29] Zoë: Okay. One, this is going to be hard, first of all. Especially that initial conversation, plan a lot of time because you’re going to have to convince your team it’s worthwhile doing. You’re going to have to convince your leadership it’s worthwhile doing, and if you’re at any sort of company that has a strong legal team, you are going to have to convince them that it’s worthwhile taking upon that risk.
It is sensitive PII, so the same rules apply as it would for address or even social security number. This data does have to be really protected and anonymized in additional ways.
You’ll have to set up things about how you’re storing that data, how long you’re storing that data, who has access to that data and be very specific about it. There are some great resources for this online but just expect that that setup is going to take some time.
Once it’s set up, it’s not as big of a deal. It’s like if you regularly work with kids, a really big pain the first time. After that, you have things in play, but those are the key things you’re going to want to think about as you get started. I would expect it’s going to take at least a month the first time.
[00:18:32] Erin: What is the hardest part? A bit ignorant in this area. Is it like just asking someone, “What is your religion?” so then you can recruit across a variety of religions? Is that in itself the hard part, or is it when you go a layer deeper and it’s like, “Okay, now I’ve got my Christian group, my Muslim, and then we’re going to do in-depth research about your religion and really dig into personal stuff there”? Where do the legal and ethical issues come in?
[00:18:59] Zoë: The ethical one is another great one to bring up. Historically, segmentation of any religion has not gone particularly well for that religion, so we want to be really careful for the sake of the person now and potentially into the future that they are protected in that identity. Legally, even asking is difficult, that first “Hey, what are you? How do you identify?”
Again, we’ve gotten better at this. We are at a point that we collect things like location data and have that, but just to get approval, you will need a clear justification for why that data should be collected. Legal is going to make you sign all sorts of documents, and it’s going to go through a whole process. Once you have the person in the room, you really do want to make sure they’re comfortable with that.
Can you speak to this identity, and even a step beyond that, I know the most about Judaism, so I’ll use that as an example. There are a whole bunch of different sects of Judaism, starting at renewal, which has very little correlation with the laws of the Torah. It’s much more about community, all the way to Hasidic Jews, which still continue to dress as they did hundreds of years ago, very direct following of the Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud, which is the original five books of Moses.
Tanakh is written law that was in addition to that, and Talmud is oral law, but all of those are very strictly adhered to and the number of rules are probably far beyond what anybody would expect, so pulling those apart, you also need to protect those identities and which are you speaking to and how are you speaking to it? You don’t want to generalize and say, “All Christians and Catholics believe.”
You’re trying to just better understand, like, “What is the impact of how these things are thought about?” which I think gets back to the indirect ways that religion affects everybody’s lives.
[00:20:38] John-Henry: We’ve talked about this with a previous guest before, but I’m always curious about the researcher side of the experience as well because we’re talking a lot about making the participants comfortable. You’re going to ask them sensitive information, but the researcher is a person, too, and they might have a belief system that’s different than the person they’re talking to. What do you have to do on that side of things to make sure that it works for both parties and is a productive exchange?
[00:20:56] Zoë: Yes, totally. This gets back to the belonging. What do I know about myself to enable me to have a better and open conversation about yourself? One of the things that I did personally to really set up for this work was something called an affinity group where for six months, I met with a bunch of Jewish people, and we talked about the Jewish experience from the Jewish perspective, and once we had discussed the positives and the trauma and all the love that we’ve shared, there’s good and bad.
Let’s be real. Every religion has and really got to become comfortable with that within their own identity. We came together with these other groups with different identities, so Asian Americans and Muslim Americans, and had these really rich conversations about how the way that our identity monikers interact has been positive or negative. You really had to come to terms with who you were before you could go into that conversation holistically.
I would encourage any researcher to do the same, and even with other factors. If you grew up middle class, everything was pretty okay and now you’re working on a financial app where a lot of people are lower-income, you really want to understand that experience and understand your own experience. Really pull that apart. How did it feel to always be able to buy the soccer cleats?
How did it feel when I didn’t get a car or whatever those pieces are that felt significant to you at the time? Understand that before you go into that conversation. Like anything, be aware that you might hit a trigger. I think especially with religion, which, again, can have a lot of trauma, don’t be afraid to ask somebody else to be in that room with you, and if someone comes at you in a way that really is uncomfortable, that that person can take over or can cut off the conversation if it’s no longer moving in a productive direction.
[00:22:39] Erin: These affinity groups that you mentioned, that sounds really great. Is that something that you did through work or in your own personal– Yes, how did that come to happen?
[00:22:49] Zoë: Yes, that was actually, I did my grad school at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. It was something that the school had put on through one of the organizations on campus. I’ll be honest, I don’t quite remember which, but it was all with community members, so it was almost everyone was not actually a student, and it was a great time.
I think they repeat these through local libraries and things, but certainly, something that you could put forth as an option at work, and there’s great resources. There’s books of questions to ask and topics to explore and how to really dive into these things.
[00:23:20] Erin: Yes, because that’s awesome that you took that on yourself, but I could imagine this being very successful, particularly in larger organizations where you could create some of these groups and facilitate something like that.
[00:23:31] Zoë: Totally. Yes, and I think it also allows us to get more at intersectionality where I think, to your point before, there’s an infinite number of things just by giving people one identity, but then adding Jewish queer women, that’s another identity entirely, and how do those things start to push forward? Again, the more that you understand about yourself and how those things happen, the more you have the opportunity to empathize and bring other people into that group or at least acknowledge and respect that it would change how they view the world.
[00:24:00] John-Henry: All right. A quick awkward interruption here. It’s fun to talk about user research. We know what’s really fun is doing user research, and we want to help you with that.
[00:24:08] Erin: We want to help you so much that we have created a special place. It’s called user interviews.com/awkward for you to get your first three participants free.
[00:24:20] John-Henry: We all know we should be talking to users more, so we went ahead and removed as many barriers as possible. It’s going to be easy. It’s going to be quick. You’re going to love it, so get over there and check it out.
[00:24:28] Erin: Then when you’re done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review, please.
[00:24:37] John-Henry: Do you have any tips as a researcher? You’re in a session and you’re going to be exploring a sensitive area. We’ll just stay on the religion theme because I think that’s been a throughline here. I’m just thinking for myself, as somebody who grew up without much religious background or spirituality in my family, not something I know a lot about, and so I’m speaking to somebody about their faith or their experience.
I could imagine unintentionally saying something that was a little off the mark or not received well. What do you do in those situations to be inclusive and keep the person feeling like you’re on their side and you’re there to hear them out when you maybe tripped over something that you didn’t intend to?
[00:25:09] Zoë: Yes. One, again, I love this question. I love that word, thinking about like, “What do I do when I mess up and how do I pre-plan for that?” I think this is something we can all do even better in the rest of our lives as well. I tripped up on something last week and just reached out to a colleague and said, “Hey, I clearly tripped up. Can we talk about that?”
The first thing is being willing to say, “Hey, I don’t know a lot about this,” so go into the conversation. Let’s take a step back, actually. Rewind. The first thing is to know as much as you can, so if you are going to be leading sessions on religion and you specifically are focusing on the top four or in the country of your interest or even just the most diverse four within the country of interest.
That by itself is difficult. When you say Christian, do you mean Presbyterian? Do you mean Catholic? Make sure that you’ve identified that properly but get as much knowledge as you can, going in, as you would with any other topic. Reach out to some rabbis. Reach out to some priests. Read as much as you can online to get a background. There are things you’re going to say that you just never imagined could have been an issue, and that’s not your fault.
That is okay. I tend to go into these conversations and say, “Hey, look. I’ve done as much of my homework as I can. I’m probably going to mess up, and I really invite you to correct me and help me learn. Please don’t worry about my feelings. Don’t worry about wherever this is, and if I really mess up, please don’t be afraid to really tell me. I will do my best to address that. It’s not your job to teach me or to fix that, but helping me understand that I have a blind spot helps me become a better researcher, and I really appreciate you doing that for me.”
Treat that as the gift that it is that someone’s willing to train you. The other side of it, though, is to be really generous with yourself. You’re doing something hard. It’s not going to be perfect. We’re going to mess up. Be willing to say, “Hey, I messed up. I’m sorry I didn’t know enough or something slipped out. I didn’t realize my own pre existing bias was going to affect me in this way,” but you didn’t do it on purpose. You didn’t seek to harm someone, so be caring, be calm with yourself, and let yourself make that mistake and let yourself fix it.
[00:27:11] Erin: This is maybe an obvious question, but I’m interested. It seems obvious that religion is like you said, sex, politics, religion. We don’t talk about these things. I love talking about these things.
[00:27:21] Zoë: Me, too. Same, same, same.
[00:27:22] Erin: We don’t talk about these things. Why? Why is religion so third rail or emotional or hard to talk about? Why is that?
[00:27:32] Zoë: Yes. I think there’s a million reasons for this, and they’re going to differ from person to person. The one we’ve touched on, religious trauma, religion as we’re taught it as children is supposed to be this loving, caring, amazing thing that’s going to result in, for some religions, this beautiful afterlife that is perfect and fixes all things. Then you might have grown up in a way that didn’t allow you that freedom, that didn’t allow you that identity, that even perhaps directly abused you.
That dichotomy of “This was supposed to be soul-saving, and this shut me down” is really difficult. It’s central to who we are as beings to make that hard to talk about, but even more at a basic level, for a long time, we just didn’t talk about religion at work because we didn’t know the difference between diversity, “I’m being represented,” and actually belonging, and we said, “Well, we can’t talk about if you are Jewish/Christian/Presbyterian because if you go to the same church, you might get special treatment.”
Instead of figuring out, “Hey, what does this mean, and how do I have a good conversation with you?” we just didn’t talk about it at all, which is something I think broadly as a culture we’re dealing with right now. We’re starting to be more aware of that diversity, but what it means to really respect that someone else is different and interact in that space is still new to us, and I think religion, which tends to be a little bit weirder anyway because it is so basal to sense of self for many people, it’s really, really difficult to get there.
[00:29:02] John-Henry: To zoom out a little, because I think we started on the theory that inclusion, probably more important than diversity, what are just some other simple ways as a researcher in the work you’re doing that you can just be more inclusive? We’ve obviously zoomed into some specific examples. I’m just curious, do you have a list of things or ideas that come to mind of just how to just get better in that front in general?
[00:29:21] Zoë: I can’t say I have a list of things, and I think the reason I’ve avoided that as a lover of lists is that I don’t want to think the work is ever done, that I’ve checked it all off. Again, I love a checklist. I will write things on a checklist that I’ve already done, just to check it off, but I think one is just constantly questioning yourself and constantly questioning the work.
I do this in all sorts of ways. I live in an area where I am lucky enough to be very comfortable as a woman walking at night. What does that mean? How does that affect my life? How does that affect how I view the world and view others I’m interacting with in that world? Just remembering to challenge yourself on those pieces all of the time and remembering to challenge your product.
I developed fact-checking. When I was at YouTube, I did some of the foundational research. Many more brilliant people than me finished that work. What does it mean in how we present a fact-checking label relative to your beliefs about the world, relative to your politics, your religion, your gender, your location, your education level? If we don’t ask those questions, we build things that don’t necessarily drive the results that we want to see.
[00:30:26] John-Henry: Okay. I’m going to ask a different flavor of that question then. It’s ongoing work. You have to keep questioning yourself, reflect on it, and stuff. Are there ways to know or assess if you’re making progress like, “We’re better at this a year in the future than we are now”? What signs would be that we’ve been more inclusive in our research and our work?
[00:30:44] Zoë: I think this is where people end up defaulting to trackers. Obviously, a lot of platforms have a great way to say the person that you talked to was this age and this race and this income background, and we can export that. Actually, I think that’s a great place to start. That is the awareness. We need the diversity end of the pyramid to get to the rest of it.
One, I think as we spoke about earlier, benchmarking, you can start to see the numbers of people using our product, how has that changed? Are we seeing a better distribution that’s representative of the total? If the total is US-only, “Does it start to look more like census data?” is a great thing that you can ask. You can also look at things like bug reports. How many people are frustrated by the thing you did?
The fact-checking one I think is actually a great example. When we fact-check things, we have bias. I pulled up an example before this talk that was back when Biden was really getting blamed for gas prices. There were two headlines. Gas prices aren’t high due to shutdown of US production. Oil production in Biden’s first year is on par with Trump. Very factually based.
Then the other, “President Biden claimed there are 9,000 unused oil drilling permits.” That’s mostly true. Those are the same article, are talking about the exact same thing. “There’s all these permits available, we’re not producing enough oil, and this is causing gas prices to rise” was what they were up against. Completely different ways that we talk about it. We think about this as something called moral foundations, which I won’t bore everyone with.
One is really more about in-group and authority, and the other is on fairness, fairness in the individual. Should he be blamed? “No. A, he’s pretty true here” versus very focused on the outcome of that thing. We need to be aware of both of those things to really show people that this thing is true or not true. Any one of those headlines could still be seen as dismissed or unimportant by someone who went in with a specific perspective.
If you do this enough, you’ll start to see that more and more people on both sides of that aisle, on all sides of the political spectrum, on all sides of the religious spectrum are still coming to your product and seeing it as a reliable indicator of the world.
[00:32:52] Erin: Going back to what we were saying a little bit before of people’s own conflicted feelings about their own religious history and experience, and I imagine that’s difficult, a researcher is not going to reconcile [laughs] all those conflicted feelings. It’s like you’re trying to draw insights and truth and understand people’s lived experiences and these sorts of things and then create more inclusive products as a result.
I’m just thinking that that’s a particular challenge when you know people don’t know how to feel about those conflicting feelings and how everyone wants to belong. We’re all trying to figure that out for ourselves. It’s a lot to ask for a product. I don’t know. Thoughts on–
[00:33:32] Zoë: It’s so much to ask for a product. Let’s just address the elephant in the room. We’re never going to get all the way there, and that’s okay. I would argue that we probably have a lot of that about other things. Age comes to mind. Tech is a very young industry. As you get “old,” which people jokingly refer to as after 45, God forbid, that’s not old, but we have these really weird senses of like, “Am I allowed to innovate as a 35-year-old? Am I allowed to innovate as a 22-year-old? Have I earned my space?”
We have conflicting pieces about this. I think it becomes easier to really connect with others and to support our in-group and our sense of self because you can find the other 22, 35, 45-year-olds and say, “We are a group.” You might not have that privilege at work with religion, especially if you have these more conflicting spaces. There’s just not as much opportunity to talk about them.
Again, once we just start asking those questions, we’ll start to see what’s there. Let’s be real, sometimes you’re not going to find anything. Sometimes you’re going to be like, “We’re seeing a really even spread here, and it just doesn’t seem to have a big effect on my new pen design.” Great. You’ve asked the question and you pushed a given direction. I guarantee you that research wasn’t wasted.
You’re still going to figure out something that could have been improved or a usability issue that could have been changed. You might not have gotten at that goal of “Where does religion affect something, or where does race affect something?” but a null hypothesis is still an answer. If the answer is there’s no answer, it’s still true.
[00:35:01] John-Henry: A thing that comes up a lot in product work and design work is knowing your target user and having a thesis of who this is for and who it’s adding value for. Some of that is going to be exclusionary by nature. If I wanted to go create– I’m going to make the best meal prep app for people with dairy allergies or something, or some sort of sensitivity, I am probably rightfully so really focus on people who are from a certain background, who have certain dietary restrictions, and not talk to people who don’t have those.
When is that okay and it’s part of the strategy versus when is it actually you’re making a financial app, but you’re only making it for wealthy people or something? It feels fuzzy, and I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that.
[00:35:40] Zoë: Yes, it’s totally fuzzy. I think one of the big things is, just start talking to people and if they’re like, “Ooh, that’s weird,” have that conversation. In both of those examples, I get really excited about them because if your goal is to make something that has no dairy in the app, well, one of the big deals with being kosher is dairy needs to be separated from meat.
You are telling me there’s an app with no dairy? There’s a decent chance you could tap into some kosher stuff here in a way that other apps can’t. Exposing yourself to religion and that probably opened you up to a slightly bigger market. I think if it’s something that people are very comfortable sharing with others, you have a huge opportunity there. Now, another example with the financial index funds.
There are very specific ways that both Muslims and Jews can invest in how they can collect interest or not. They need to be able to invest in funds that abide by those rules. Some of those funds are some of the most successful funds in the world. If I’m saying, “I want to make sure it meets these requirements,” that doesn’t mean that you’re saying a Christian who doesn’t care about the way that interest is collected in this one niche way is not invited to the table.
You’re just making sure that the table is suitable for everybody to sit at. You’ve got the handicapped-accessible seat. I would just say I think pushing past, does your focusing on something actually exclude anyone, or does it just make somebody else feel particularly invited?
[00:37:03] Erin: Right. It does feel like to be, I don’t know, the money-grabbing business side of things, there is some opportunity here in terms of to the extent that folks’ religious identity results in dogmatic, really closely-held and acted-upon beliefs. Understanding what those things are can earn you probably a lot of brand loyalty when you become a solution that really has made it easy for them to live their life and live their beliefs, right? That’s important stuff.
[00:37:36] Zoë: I think what you’re tapping into is one thing that we didn’t get into, which is, “How does religion indirectly “affect” our behavior?” which goes into this framework back from the ’80s by Homer and Kahle, which was the values-attitude-behavior framework. It was later updated to add religiosity as the root. Basically, the rules and the morals that we develop based on religion on like, “This is how the world works, and this is how we’re heading” affect our attitudes, what we think is normal, and how we perceive we can control the world.
If you believe that everything is already decided for you, you’re probably not going to think that you can do a lot. There are religions that feel that way and others that feel like you have total control. How that affects what you think you can do and what you think you can change is really important. That then goes into intention, which is like, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to eat this way, or I’m going to bring cookies to my neighbor,” whatever it is, and eventually, the behavior that they take, what they do with the world.
If we can understand that root of like, “This is how a specific religion is affecting how people perceive my product,” it also is going to tell us what their attitude is towards that product and how they think they can use or not use that product and what control they think they have relative to that. Kosher, again, is a great example here about like, “I can’t mix milk and meat. Are you going to give me that control so I feel that I’m invited to that party?”
[00:38:54] Erin: Yes. If you think of a customer attorney or the things Phil says, does, it’s almost like you can predict some of that, what’s going to lead to the behavior and what are the emotions and so on going to be along the way for some of those deeply-held beliefs?
[00:39:10] Zoë: Capitalistically, heck, yes. If that’s going to get more people at your party and interested in your party, feeling invited to your party, awesome. That gluten-free kid should still come to your first-graders party. You could get that one cupcake.
[00:39:24] Erin: [laughs] Oh, you know they’re coming to the party. They come at every party. They’ll be there.
[00:39:27] John-Henry: It sounds like some of what that was driven towards is like it’s just you want to be able to make informed choices in your party. To your point, in your delivery app, you have no solution for separating dairy from meat and this and stuff. You don’t want that to be because you’re just not aware of it. It’s like if you understand that this is a thing, then we can decide how much of a priority that is and this and that and the implications of it. It’s better to know and then maybe you don’t make the most inclusive choice or whatever else, but it’s at least informed versus just we didn’t even know that was a thing.
[00:39:58] Zoë: Yes. All the snaps. You are not going to do everything in the same way that every app in the world does not do everything. We all make conscious decisions and our users write in and say, “How dare you not fix this? I can’t believe you never thought of that.” I’m like, “No, we totally thought of it. It didn’t have a big effect on our bottom line or on our OKR or where we were headed.”
Provided that that is not directly harming anyone, it’s fine to make that decision. As a researcher, I do think it’s our job to say, “No, this is harming someone. I’m going to block this.” If it’s not harming someone, the fact that a restaurant doesn’t offer kosher food, that’s their prerogative, right? It’s a huge ask to do that. You can’t make everybody have that option because the buyer still gets to choose where they buy their food from, but knowing that like, “Oh, I’m in a vegetarian restaurant, it actually would be relatively easy for me to get that kosher certification. I might want to do that to invite more people to the party.”
See how much it costs. Is it worth your time? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I don’t have an answer there, but yes, at least know so that you’re not showing up at school with no gluten-free cupcake, and that one kid’s crying in the corner.
[00:41:05] John-Henry: Right, totally.
[00:41:06] Erin: Parting thoughts? There’s so much to talk about with religion and inclusion. Is there anything, people, you really want them to know when they’re– again, because I think a lot of people are thinking about DEI, they’re thinking about inclusion, maybe not so much about the religious part of it?
[00:41:23] Zoë: Yes. For one, I need you both just to summarize my thoughts in the future. This has been amazing.
[00:41:28] Erin: [crosstalk] We all need that. We all need that. I love it. Yes.
[00:41:31] Zoë: Yes. Again, I know religion is a big one. I think the reason I’m so interested in it is because it’s not being talked about. To me, the first step is, just start talking about it, right? It doesn’t mean that tomorrow you need to start recruiting for this or start thinking about it. If your company already has a tracker that’s tracking other pieces of diversity, consider what it might take to add that in, and just keep an eye on it.
Especially if you’re doing something like survey data where you could start to look at that over time, see what you can already leverage, but just gets the conversation started like, “Hey, we’ve never talked about this, should we?” Shabbos mode is something with products, so ovens have Shabbos mode, which means they won’t turn on during the Sabbath, or they will stay on so that you’re abiding by those rules.
Is there an equivalent? How might you use Lyft without being able to actually tap into it? Could you reschedule a ride? Is there a way that’s acceptable or highlighting something like public transportation where some people think that that’s okay because it’s going to go by itself? We’re getting into some niche religious things [crosstalk]
[00:42:32] Erin: No, but it is, it’s a fun exercise. I think constraints are what make work fun in a lot of ways and thinking about turning constraints into opportunities can just be a lot of wins, ethical wins, financial wins, and get to know those lawyers like you were saying so you can start. They’re usually really nice, as strict as they are. It’s their job to be strict. Just having this conversation with your manager, with your team like, “Where are we? What’s going on here? Shouldn’t we think about this more?” Again, to your point, my answer might be no, but you’ve asked the question, and that is a win in itself.
[00:43:06] John-Henry: Right. It’s not that different from when you’re just doing any product brainstorming. You’re trying to get a lot of ideas on the table like, “What are all the solutions we should consider for this opportunity?” You’re only going to actually move a couple forward, but you want to be pretty exhaustive in how you’re thinking about the problem, and it sounds like this is similar. You want to get all the perspectives and understand it, and you just can’t do everything at the end, but you still want the data.
[00:43:25] Zoë: Yes, 1,000%.
[00:43:26] Erin: Awesome. Zoë, thanks for joining us.
[00:43:28] Zoë: Thank you. This was so fun. Thanks for cutting me off on monologues, I appreciate it.
[00:43:33] John-Henry: No, you were great.
[00:43:36] Erin: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences, brought to you by User Interviews.
[00:43:41] John-Henry: Theme music by Fragile Gang.
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