Why the ‘nobility complex’ is the design issue we all need to deal with

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Feb 21, 2020
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Uber was first designed with westernized societies in mind. So, when tech ethicist Nancy Douyon was tasked with revitalizing the user interface for the rideshare platform’s global introduction, she found some unique challenges waiting for her. For one, the app relied on credit cards for payment. Worldwide, credit cards aren’t as accessible to consumers as they are in the U.S. And even if they are commonplace, they often don’t have a three-digit security code on the back.

So, Uber did something radical: They began allowing cash as a payment option on the platform, which in turn increased accessibility—and profit.

Though exemplary, Uber’s case isn’t an exception: Nancy has helped companies like Google, IBM, Cisco, and Intel find healthy returns by widening their scope beyond the Western perspective. And in the first episode of the new season of The Design Better Podcast, she shares how understanding global perspectives can create better, more inclusive products.

Understanding the ‘nobility complex’

Along with being a voracious traveler (she’s been to more than 70 countries), Nancy thinks her path into tech helped her develop a unique perspective on designing products for a global audience. Born to a Haitian family, Nancy grew up in Boston but ended up in foster care at age 12. Around this time, she was taken under the wing of MIT professor Mitchell Resnick through their Computer Clubhouse program, who helped her develop her talents in robotics.

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Though others may see her origin story as a classic example of the American bootstrapping narrative, Nancy doesn’t want to frame it that way. She actually considers her circumstances to have been very fortunate in setting her up for success in the tech industry.

“I had to work four jobs my first year of college to pay off school, but some people just don’t have the ability or capacity to do that,” she says. “They have to take care of their families or they have children along the way. I was alone. My parents weren’t here. My entire focus was on myself.”

She calls this idea that we don’t recognize the privileges or biases we have as the “nobility complex.” Because of this, many of the solutions designers provide are more likely to “pat ourselves on the back” rather than to get to the heart of the issue.

As an anecdote to illustrate this complex, Nancy shared that after the hurricane devastated Haiti, people from around the world wanted to send clothes—but homes had been flooded and there was nowhere to actually store additional clothing. In actuality people in Haiti were better served by the addition of water wells so they could access clean water, Nancy says.

The only way around this complex is to question your assumptions: What question are you answering: Do you have the data to back up why that question is the one being asked? Or is it just common in your cultural narrative?

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“We limit ourselves sometimes with stereotypes that we’re completely unaware of,” she says.

Creating more opportunities for all

Nancy has seen that designing for edge cases often yields greater innovation for all: she points to autocomplete and Google Voice, which were both first created as accessibility projects and are now something that everyone has the pleasure of using. However, she wants to expand this notion to include cultural inclusivity for underrepresented communities, too.

For example, Uber created new technologies for impaired drivers, like flashing screens for rider pick-up and automatic notifications for riders. While these were accessibility-focused features, they were inclusive, too. Drivers who were immigrants also began using the feature so they weren’t scored unjustly because of a language barrier, Nancy says, and so did drivers who simply didn’t want to engage in conversation.

Gaining more global perspectives

Nancy’s best advice for gaining a broader perspective?

“I’m a fan of immersion in other cultures,” she says. In addition to living abroad in places like Nepal and Spain, she’s driven across the United States a few times—exposing her to a myriad of different cultures in the country alone.

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If you can’t travel, Nancy says you just have to look around you: Often in organizations, there are people who are different from yourself that you can learn from, she says.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us to get out of our own bubble and box,” she says.

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