Avoiding User Tokenism or excluding users when your intent was Inclusive Design

by Frank Spillers
CEO/CXO @ Experience Dynamics; UXInnerCircle.com

What is Tokenism in User Experience?

Typically, “ticking a checkbox” for inclusion is how tokenism occurs. To be clear, tokenism is the act of trying to bring representation of left-out users to a project and then undermining those very users. Tokenism distorts the true intent of inclusion. It leaves users out when it thinks it is including.

  • For example, having employees with disabilities “do the accessibility” testing.
  • For example, having employees of underrepresented groups weigh in on whether a design is insensitive (racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic etc).
  • For example, sticking a ‘disabled user’ or underrepresented user in your personas project.

Is it okay to co-opt employees with feedback, User Testing, Accessibility etc?

Of course, it is okay! The problem is if your research ends there. Employees are dangerous sources of feedback — this point isn’t made strongly enough in the UX community. I’m talking about “Down the hallway testing”; “Cafeteria testing”; “Guerrilla testing” . Why? Employees are biased (even if they don’t work in your group, they work at your company and that’s enough). Employees are also not realistic and you should always test with actual users who are doing the thing you are studying in real life. Likewise, avoiding fake users is so important for quality insights.

Why wouldn’t an employee with a disability be able to speak for that group?

Firstly, chances are that employees with disabilities will be able to provide a good deal of user advocacy, as would any person from an underrepresented group. However, organizational culture can change what employees feel safe to share. Certain experiences or information might not be acceptable (socially or emotionally). Worse, the spokesperson or chosen employee may be co-opted by the business needs, software architecture or team constraints.

What if you are tokenizing inclusion by being the Lone Wolf Advocate?

Inclusive Design is a team sport. You can accidentally have a tokenizing effect if you are the only one in your team that keeps ‘going on about ______’ (accessibility, including underrepresented groups).

Tokenism and Equity: how to get better

Tokenism has always been a problem in organizations. The pressures of “doing things right” versus meeting legal requirements for diversity or equality often clash. Speaking of equality, one of the reasons that is not top of mind is that it can tokenize quickly, e.g. “same for everybody” does not do justice to the group you need to empower. This is why Equity is the new “buzzword” in DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) efforts. Equity means pro-actively taking measures to support the specific needs of the left out group or individual. This includes taking into account past and current advantages and disadvantages blocking fairness or access.

Frank Spillers CEO Experience Dynamics headshot
Frank Spillers CEO Experience Dynamics headshot

Founder, CEO and Chief Experience Officer of Experience Dynamics, an award-winning User Experience consulting firm. www.experiencedynamics.com