Improving the design process

Tufts alum David Pearl and Professor of the Practice James Intriligator advocate for inclusivity from the start of the design process.
From left to right: Professor of the Practice James Intriligator and Tufts alum David Pearl, A20, EG21.

Researchers at Tufts School of Engineering strive to develop products and technologies that make a brighter world for all. Attention to detail during the initial design process ensures that the final project will be as inclusive as possible. However, even with the best intentions, designers may still inadvertently embed inequities into their products. For example, many facial recognition AI programs were not trained on a diverse range of faces and may struggle to recognize the faces of people whose appearance does not conform to the dataset they were trained on.

In a recent publication in the International Journal of Design in Society, first author and Tufts alum David Pearl, A20, EG21, and corresponding author and Professor of the Practice James Intriligator, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, present a new method for reducing inherent bias in the design process and improving user-centered design. The team presented their new method, called “persona multiplication,” at the International Conference on Design Principles and Practices in Lisbon, Portugal.

When developing a new product or service, it is a common practice to create personas, or imaginary users that will benefit from the product. Designers and marketers consider details such as the persona’s lifestyle, problems, and pain points. For example, a car company may create the persona “Commuter Charlie,” a commuter in his 40s who spends a lot of time in his car. The company designs the product based on the imagined needs of this persona and develops a different car for the needs of “Commuter Charlie” than it would for “Mom-on-the-go Miriam,” such as prioritizing comfort and a good sound system for long-distance highway driving and entertainment during the commute.

Personas drive the direction of the design. However, they do much more than just influence early stages of design; they also play a significant role in marketing and advertising a product. As Pearl and Intriligator note in their paper: “The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, ‘Character is destiny.’ In the world of design, we believe that persona is destiny.” The persona often influences choices of features, colors and materials, pricing, marketing campaigns, advertising messaging, advertising venues, support services, sustainability, and more.

Given the vital importance of personas, Pearl and Intriligator propose an additional step to the design process: persona multiplication. This method suggests that designers pause after creating a persona to investigate which perspectives or lived experiences are left out and who might be (dis)advantaged by these particular design choices. The method involves proactively asking a series of specific “what-if” questions (and working through their proposed complication matrices), such as ‘what if the imagined persona were a different race, gender? What if they had a different economic income or different levels of mobility, vision, or other impaired senses?’ Pearl and Intriligator argue that considering these types of questions earlier in the design process will help designers and companies catch potential blind spots before the product is developed. As a result, the method reduces the need to retroactively improve designs, since a range of potential users would be considered from the start of the design process.

Pearl and Intriligator caution that their method will not fix all inherent biases in design or anticipate all possible needs of all possible groups, but their framework of approaching design from a more all-encompassing perspective presents a step in the direction of more inclusive design.

Pearl earned his BA in Anthropology and Science, Technology, and Society and his MS in Human Factors Engineering from Tufts. He is currently working in the field of User Experience and Human Factors for technology companies, including time at Google and Bose. Intriligator's broader research interests include design thinking, innovation, marketing, branding/packaging, experience design, perception, behavior-change, cognition, attention, emotion, and entrepreneurialism.