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June 4, 2018

Confronting Bias in Technology

By Michelle Lange

Keynote-Rokeya-Jones-1Bias starts at the research stage, said Rokeya Jones, a technology evangelist for Microsoft and a woman with “tech credentials for days,” according to Barbara M. Roering, who tweeted her excitement about Jones’s keynote at the opening of the Women in Technology Summit (WITS) Midwest conference in Chicago. 


During her years at Microsoft, Verizon and Turner Broadcasting, Jones learned a lot about how technology is developed and sold, and used the lessons she learned in inclusion and bias innovation as the base for her keynote address.


Learning About Bias Firsthand

When Walt Disney World wanted to move from paper tickets to an electronic idea, Jones owned the ticketing solution and helped develop Disney MagicBands. The waterproof bands are used for ticketing, location tracking, loyalty programs, room reservations, keys and trips on the Magical Express. They give Disney-goers an immersive experience with a quick swipe of the band.


“They wanted a product that solved problems with theft, usability, maximizing your time in the park and of course maximizing Disney’s revenue model,” said Jones, who worked for more than five years getting the product to market. “It changed the game for amusement parks.”


During the MagicBand’s development, technologists dug into how people use the park, who plans these trips and how daily decisions are made. The process helped Jones learn three important steps to inclusive design: recognize exclusions, learn from diversity and solve for one, then extend to many.


“Exclusion happens when we solve for problems using our own biases,” Jones said. “Be intentional about your build and make sure it includes everyone wherever you can.” 


Human beings are the real experts in adapting to diversity, she said, and solving for many means focusing on what’s universally important to all humans.


3Es to Countering Bias

When you’re designing new ideas, you’ve got to consider people who don’t look or act like you. To innovate without bias, Jones sticks to a Triple E mentality: equality plus ethics equals equity.


“In order to design truly unbiased innovation, we must couple equality with ethics,” Jones said. “And without empathy, you will always design bias in your product.” 


Successful technologists are designing products and websites for different physical and mental abilities, breaking away from the current practice of design without diversity.


“As we move into the next century and our next evolution of technology we need to as individuals take a step back and decide whether we are going to learn from this,” she said. 


Solving for Women

Rather than assume the persona of a Disney ticket buyer, her MagicBands team dug into the data of their customers. Who is doing the research on a Disney trip? Who’s making the day to day decisions on the trip?


“It’s the women who are clicking the button and deciding what to buy. It’s the women deciding what resort to stay in, what to buy in the park. It’s the women who decide what we eat in the park,” Jones said. “A lot of the product design was focused on women, but how many women do you think were a part of the design for the product?”


And it’s not just American women, either. Solving for women means researching women in China, Russia, India. “How are we going to make our product global if we’re not thinking globally when we design it?” she said. “For truly unbiased design, we need to understand customers as people and understand the differences between people.”


Having women and under-represented groups in a variety of roles in technology helps reduce bias, and finding people who can mentor you and ways you can mentor them is a great first step. That’s why conferences like ChannelCon are so necessary, so groups like CompTIA’s Advancing Diversity in Technology Community and Advancing Women in Technology Community can meet up and share their ideas.


Companies also can look to innovative training programs like IT-Ready to diversify their hiring process. IT-Ready trains people for entry-level tech jobs in eight weeks, with 66 percent of its graduates being people of color and 44 percent being women. 


For more on unconscious bias, including three ways your company can start a strategy to overcome innate preconceptions, read Overcoming Our Own Unconscious Bias from CompTIA’s ADIT Community.


Michelle Lange is a writer and editor living in Chicago.