Race & Research: Designing with equity

February 16, 2021
UX researchers can play a critical role in supporting and empowering marginalized communities through commitment to equity in design.
An interview with Dr. Enid Montague

Designing products and systems with equity in mind impacts every domain: civics, voting, healthcare, technology, banking, cars, etc. As we continue to learn, many human-centered systems are not inclusive to all groups of people. So, this raises the question, human factors and user experience design should be designed for which people?

We had the pleasure of speaking with an expert on the subject recently, after she presented to our team late last year about racial bias in research.

Enid Montague, PhD is a human factors engineer and expert in healthcare automation. She is a professor at DePaul University in the School of Computing, where she teaches courses in human computer interaction and health informatics. She has over 20 years of experience in research and activism in equity in design.

Dr. Montague poses that we should not just be designing for but with marginalized communities through participatory and community design.

In what efforts are you currently involved regarding racial inequities in design?

Dr. Montague: I‘ve considered racial equity in my research throughout my career. In graduate school I studied gender studies and cultural critical theory to better understand who we should we be designing for and who is left out? When I started publishing papers, at the time, it was difficult to get ‘equity’ work published. I wanted my work to touch on inequities based on origination of healthcare design rooted in specific oppressions, removal of midwifery in the workforce, and American slavery.

I have been doing racial equity work this whole time, but not as explicitly as society is ready for it now—from a methodological perspective, we need to think about what participatory design, human-centered design, community-centered design, and the background of the researcher/designer looks like. Ultimately, we need to make sure we always have equity in the design process.

We need more racial equity scholarship and diverse representation (i.e. age, race, gender, etc.) in human factors. I currently serve on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. I encourage people from diverse backgrounds to get involved in UX and human factors. I also work with young kids to inspire them to think of human factors as a career path. It is important to think about it as ‘scholar-activism’; it’s not easy to do racial equity work because it is not always accepted as what we should be doing.

Where do human factors and user experience design gaps exist?

Dr. Montague: The COVID-19 vaccine access is a great example. Right now, the poorer, blacker and Hispanic communities are at the highest risk of death vs. the wealthier, whiter communities that are more likely to get the vaccine. The vaccine scheduling system makes it impossible for some people to get vaccinated, unless you have a very specific job (that allows you to be online when appointments are open), Wi-Fi, technology literacy, numeracy, availability, transportation, and stability of your health. This puts us under an unbelievable amount of stress for people who must use this system to try to get a vaccine. The vaccination system was not designed with diverse users in mind.

What does successful design equity look like for human factors/UX?

Dr. Montague: We, as designers, cannot always define what an ‘equitable’ design might look like.

For example, the vaccine: first, we know that certain people are at a higher risk of death, so, make the system super easy to access for the people with the highest risk and lowest accessibility; That might mean that blocking off time for other people who are not considered essential workers, so we can prioritize people who have certain limitations. This rule of accessibility can be applied to all systems in our society.

If you want to see if the outcomes were equitable, then come back to the people in that intended population and ask them: ‘Does this work for you? Are you able to understand this? Are you able to access this? Did it improve your experience?’

It requires a slightly different approach going beyond the conventions we use for sample sizing and question sampling. Thinking about people as participants can be challenging. In an ideal world we would just be a member of the group. Communities already know what is going to work for them. It is often better if we find ways to empower them to lead the project and we are just helping them get what they need.

General populations might not be the group we should use for evaluating the success of a design. Ideally, we should look at people who have the deepest knowledge of the most marginalized communities. If we start with marginalized communities in mind, the design will be better for everyone!

Working with community workers or activists, can also lead to better designs because they already understand the barriers and they don’t need researchers that aren’t part of the community to run a study to try to figure it out. You are not going to get the real information unless you are talking to people who have been thinking about why things don’t work for a while.

We need to design with and for the marginalized.

How human factors and UX researchers can support this effort:

  • Diversify with diverse people, education, empathy, and workplaces. Ensure workplaces are not fit for one type of people but are welcoming for all types of people.
  • Critically evaluate our design/research goals and consider racial bias as a potential factor before excluding it.
  • Require specific courses and continuing education focused on cultural ergonomics, accessibility, critical-race theory, ethnographic methods, or topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Assess how designs might have unintended consequences for marginalized groups and how we can empower these groups.
  • Reevaluate methodological choices and consider approaches that design the margins; band together with those who identify as marginalized.
  • Critically evaluate the scholarships that come out of our discipline and create new scholarship. Join review panels and ensure marginalized representation.


Resources to learn about and get involved in designing with equity:



How to Get Involved


This important work cannot be done without each one of us spending our privilege, time, and intention to empower each marginalized community! As Dr. Montague said, “we cannot do any human-centered design without explicit commitment to equity.”

We would love to hear from you! How are you putting equity first in your team, research, and/or design?


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