“To me, average, or normal is just code for privilege.” — Sabrina Meherally wants to diversify your tech
Her consultancy, Pause and Effect, goes beyond HR to embed diversity, equity and inclusion into innovation.
Earle Dickson had a problem. His wife, Josephine, was an injury-prone cook who was riddled with cuts and burns. Instead of pitching in a little more around the kitchen to lighten the load and hopefully remedy his partner’s pain problem, Dickson threw himself deeper into his work. The Johnson & Johnson employee got in the lab and created a prototype for a self-adhering bandage that Josephine could apply herself before reopening a scorching hot oven to check on the evening’s roast.
In 1920, Johnson & Johnson approved his prototype and by the mid-1930’s, Band-Aids were flying off the shelves. Dickson even worked his way up the Johnson & Johnson flagpole to the role of vice president. Band-Aids, however, are problematic. The innovation was, for 100 years, “flesh coloured.” Whose flesh? White people. It wasn’t until 2020–in the wake of the murder of George Floyd—that the Band-Aid became more inclusive through a spectrum of colours for the outside of the adhesive.
If Johnson & Johnson had worked with someone like Sabrina Meherally it wouldn’t have taken the company a century to realize the lack of diversity in their ways. Meherally used the “flesh” coloured innovation to explain why she felt compelled to start her business: a design consultancy that works with innovators to ensure their products nail diversity, equity and inclusion before they are in customers’ hands (or adhered to their wrists) known as Pause and Effect.
“If you put the Band-Aid on me, or you put the Band-Aid on somebody who's darker than me, that is not going to look flesh coloured at all. People can use a Band-Aid and it will serve its purpose of covering a wound. Just because somebody can use something doesn't mean that they feel seen through what you're putting forward. But, when people start to feel seen through the product, they feel like ‘you actually cared about me, you actually understood my skin, my identity and you reflected that in the product design,’ the product becomes better, too. So there's a lot of these Band-Aid scenarios that we overlook in the way that we build our tech,” Meherally, who is of Pakistani, Indian and East African heritage, explained.
Expanding on her consultancy’s approach, she told me that Pause and Effect takes human-centred and user experience design methodologies and filters them through a diversity, equity and inclusion lens. Think user stories and marketing personas that aren’t from the pure family line of Jane and John Doe. In doing so, Meherally feels buoyed by momentum in the field. “We're part of this greater community where there's a lot of people that are building design or innovation processes. We are deeply inspired by the work that has already happened. We continue to build on it and iterate upon it within the community and within our group,” Meherally stated.
This community and group is growing by the day but so far, she has “helped build workplaces, brands, cookbooks, online courses, innovation labs, tech platforms, bursaries, subscription boxes, and financial products with an access, inclusion and justice lens.” Meherally’s clients include Outschool, an edtech platform, and Ethọ́s Lab, a digital-first community in place to support youth. Meherally was also hired by social media maven Jillian Harris to support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for the influencer’s brand.
The Band-Aid case is fitting not only for its singular view of “flesh.” Band-aid solutions abound, too—quick fixes that don’t get to the root of a problem or stew on other considerations. A core ethos of Meherally’s consultancy is what she referred to as “anti-urgency.” It starts with taking one’s time.
“One of the utmost reasons why we continue to recreate the system that we're already in is because we're operating under urgency. We're repeating patterns. When we operate under urgency, it's like ‘just get something out the door. Hurry up.’ We see that in tech all the time. Just get the beta test out. Just do it. Launch it and then we'll improve on it afterwards,” Meherally shared. “What happens is, between conceiving the idea and the actual beta test, we're rushing to the finish line, rushing to get things out the door really quickly. We tend to forget that, in that process of rushing, we actually may not be thinking about the harms, the exclusion, the negative impacts or the negative consequences of our actions. So the pause is just those moments to allow ourselves space for contemplation.”
In that time of contemplation, important questions can be asked: “Who might I be harming? Who might my decision actually benefit? Or how might the product that I'm putting out benefit a community that I didn't think about? We ask these thought-provoking questions to allow people who are in that space to also stop and ask those questions. When you get to the finish line you probably haven't realized those things. The chances of you actually going back and recognizing all of those oversights are slim. People don't tend to go backwards in their design process and then say, ‘oh, who did we miss? Who might we have harmed?’ Instead of speeding to the finish line, how much more thoughtful and inclusive products could we create if we took the time to actually pause and ask those questions?” she pondered.
A question that gets asked of Meherally personally is how diversity, equity and inclusion go beyond people. Admittedly, when I first met her (at the Vancouver Tech Morning Coffee meet-up) and received a brief Pause and Effect elevator pitch, my brain immediately went to diverse hiring practices and Equal Opportunity Employers. While HR is important, Pause and Effects’ approach gets into the engineering and product development teams, not just hiring panels.
“I think when we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, people think about HR right away. That's a big part of it. But that isn't the only way that diversity and inclusion show up. It shows up through every action, everything we create. Whether we're creating a coffee cup, or a pen, or a piece of clothing, or we're designing our website, or we're building an online marketplace. There are ways in which certain users are going to experience greater challenges through no fault of their own. If we're able to understand what those challenges might be and anticipate that and build for those, we actually end up capturing a greater market,” Meherally explained.
This mindset, one steeped in empathy and care, was formed from an early age. Meherally’s lived experience mirrors the change she wants to see.
“I grew up experiencing a lot of bullying when I was younger. I experienced bullying for about 10 years of my life. What I noticed through my experiences of being bullied was what it felt like to be on the outside through no fault of my own. It was largely because of how I looked or how I appeared to other students. Through no fault of my own, I was the afterthought, or I was the person who would never get picked for sports or never get picked for a team or never get picked for anything. That feeling of being on the outside became a driver for me to change the condition so that other people were not on the outside either. So, I became a big advocate around social justice and creating conditions where everybody can thrive and everybody has access to opportunities. I found myself advocating for that throughout my entire career,” she shared.
After high school, she completed a business degree and started working in the aforementioned field of HR. It was an introduction to life as an employee but she could not escape her past experiences. “I was always also bringing in this innovation lens, thinking about design thinking. Can we put design thinking in HR so that we can build employee experiences that are built around the employees themselves? I got a lot of pushback. At the time, people weren't ready for those conversations. Or, it was interesting to them but it wasn't something that they actually wanted to apply. So I found myself gravitating towards user experience design, because when we talked about the customer experience, a lot of people were thinking in that way of utilizing design thinking as a framework for understanding the user needs, pain points, challenges and desires to build solutions to meet those,” Meherally reflected.
When her role changed from HR to product, she still wasn’t able to gain adequate traction. “I realized really quickly as a UX designer—then as a product manager—that we tend to overlook those communities. They get deprioritized. They're not seen as important or they’re always seen as the afterthought. I wondered what that might be doing to our system? Because if we're always putting them as the afterthought, then we're reinforcing the conditions that keep privileged identities ahead of all the other identities. What would it be like to create those conditions? That kind of thinking is what got me to start whiteboarding and to start evaluating the actual UX methods, tools and practices. Start peeling them apart so that we could really identify those leverage points, those points where we could actually make a change in the way that we design for the benefit of everybody and the organization. That's when I ended up building this company,” she said.
The company Meherally first started building was known as Designing for Inclusion. Around the one year mark, Meherally announced her updated brand: Pause and Effect.
“We partner with organizations that are interested in embedding equity, diversity and inclusion into their innovation processes. So whether you're innovating or designing a product or service for your customers, or you're designing an in-house product or service for your employees, we tend to go through these same kinds of user experience design methodologies. Many of us in the innovation space are very familiar with human-centred design as the start, I guess, of this wave of trying to centre the user or the human and their experience in the way that we design and we create,” she said.
”We realized that, unintentionally, we tend to build or design products for privileged identities. We have a saying in the UX world where we talk about the normal user, or the average user. To me, average, or normal is just code for privilege. We don't realize it but we tend to build for the person who's able-bodied, who's straight, who's white, who's male. But, whatever we put out will work for them. It's the other people who don't carry those identities or those intersections that will experience more barriers to using that service or that product. And so we ask what, what happens if we flip that? What happens if we actually design with the people who are on the quote-unquote margins?” she asked.
Meherally uses a great example to illustrate the sentiment that “the average user” can always find themselves in a product.
“Audiobooks were actually created for people who couldn't read. But, audiobooks are now used widely. We all use them, we all benefit from them, whether we have different learning styles, or we have different preferences, we have that option. You can see how technology can actually benefit more people. We apply that kind of mindset that if we realized what some of the barriers or what some of the challenges were, for the people who experienced the most or the greatest disadvantage, wouldn't many of us still benefit from what we put forward? Wouldn't we be able to bridge the gap between those people who are chronically left behind as the afterthought and those who are always centred in the way that we design?” Meherally questioned.
Questioning no longer, Meherally is steadfast in her commitment to Pause and Effect and the diversification of tech as a whole. In the near future, the consultancy will receive a shiny new website in which Meherally is currently ironing out the design and content. The site announcing the upcoming launch is ribboned by a stylish beige banner across the bottom. Earle Dickson may have called that colour “flesh.” Thanks to Meherally, that won’t be the case anymore.
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