Long before the idea of product inclusion and equity began to gain currency in the tech sector, Annie Jean-Baptiste was thinking hard about how to broaden the pool of perspectives that are incorporated into the product design and development process. Her work in diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) at Google was primarily centered around internal culture and representation, and she and some colleagues began to discuss taking underrepresented or marginalized users into account when building products for the mass market. Several years later, Jean-Baptiste leads an entire team at Google devoted to that idea. She spoke recently to McKinsey partners Claudy Jules and Martin Harrysson about what it takes to make equity and inclusion a core part of the product process and the benefits that follow. The edited conversation appears below.
McKinsey: What does “product inclusion and equity” mean, and how did you get involved with this work at Google?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: At Google, there is a program where we can spend 20 percent of our time doing something that isn’t our core role but that we’re super passionate about. Product inclusion and equity started about six years ago as a 20 percent project of mine.
When I reflect on my career and thread the needle backward, it makes sense: I started in the global business org, then joined the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) team, and product inclusion and equity are a mixture of business, product, and DEI. When I was on the DEI team, a few of us noticed that a lot of the focus was internal, on things like culture and representation. We thought there was an opportunity to expand how we talked about diversity, equity, and inclusion as it relates to our products, to encompass the billions of users worldwide who have different races, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and speak different languages. We started to think through what it would look like if we began to ask, “Who else needs to be included in the product development process? Who else’s perspectives do we need”? That kicked off a few projects, and now we have a full-fledged team of people across Google working on product inclusion and equity.
At the core of it, product inclusion and equity are about making people feel seen. When they pick up a product or use a service or piece of technology, they feel like they were thought of when it was created. They feel like the different things that make them them were part of the design and development process. This leads to tech doing what it is intended to do: amplify people’s lives and make them richer.
Inflection points for inclusive innovation
McKinsey: Why do you think product inclusion and equity are gaining so much prominence now?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: I think the world has had a reckoning over the past two years, with many candid conversations kicking off. There’s been a lot of vulnerability and accountability, frankly, around making sure that people have inclusive and equitable experiences across the board in everything they do.
When product teams start to think about product inclusion and equity, I talk to them about the “curb cut effect.” The curb cut in sidewalks was originally made in the ‘70s for wheelchair users, but we all use it now, whether it’s people with skateboards, suitcases, or shopping carts.
The critical thing to understand is that building for a historically marginalized group results in better outcomes for everyone. There are a lot of examples of that throughout history; another is closed captioning. So even though it feels amplified now, decades of work have helped to ensure that those who have historically not been at the center of development and design can have their voices involved throughout critical points in the process.
McKinsey: How does one know what those key points are for inclusive innovation?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: At the core is thinking about who your user could and should be. It’s not about completely doing away with the target customer or user you had initially focused on, but about widening the pool. I used to have a teammate who said, “If you’re talking about ‘them,’ there had better be some ‘theys’ in the room.” I think about that all the time.
We all come to the world and move through the world with bias because our brains have to take mental shortcuts. It’s not about being punitive. It’s about holding up a mirror and saying, “I don’t represent everyone around the world, so how do I get those different perspectives in?” I identify as a Black woman, but I don’t represent all Black women. So how do we make sure that 1) we’re not pegging communities as a monolith and 2) we’re getting those potentially historically marginalized perspectives into our product design and development process?
A couple of years ago, we did some research and found that there are four critical inflection points in the design and development process companies should focus on: ideation, user research and design, user testing, and marketing. What I like about those four is that they very cleanly go throughout the design and development process—from the ideation, the earliest point, to marketing and launching a product.
Regardless of the industry, most organizations have similar touchpoints. You have to come up with the idea. You have to do some research and prototyping to create a design. You have to validate that prototype with testing, focus groups, or surveys. And then you have to launch it.
So, it’s not about completely reimagining a process. It’s about being more intentional about the processes you already have, broadening those pools, and asking, “Who else needs to be included in this? Who is most at the margins of this? And how do we ensure those perspectives are included at those critical points throughout the process?”
The business case and the human case
McKinsey: What are your thoughts on the moral and social responsibility of investing in product inclusion and equity? Is there also a business case for this work?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: This is about balancing the human and the business case. That’s a bit of a cognitive shift when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, which has historically focused on the moral case (which is really important).
For the business case, I’ve been inspired by a few articles on the “new ROI” or “new return on influence.”1 There’s a misconception that because historically marginalized groups are underrepresented, they don’t have power. And that’s not true. When you talk about a billion people in the world with a disability or Black and Latinx consumers, they have trillions of dollars in purchasing power. These groups lead cultural trends and zeitgeists, so we want to ensure that their needs, desires, and passions are embedded into our products. That shift, from seeing these groups as underrepresented to having a ton of cultural and economic power, is vital to making the business case.
McKinsey: If another company is looking to do some of the things you’re doing at Google, where would you suggest they start? Are there certain products, sectors, or places where the impact you can have with this work is particularly substantial?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: I would start by thinking about where you could begin to bring perspective to those four process points. If you’re doing user research, for example, do you only focus on cities versus rural areas? Do you only do research in the US? With user testing, are you only testing with people who work inside your company?
Those are the small steps you can start to take. At Google, we’ve been leaning toward community-based participatory research. That means having the community lead at the outset, in terms of what their goals, needs, and challenges are, versus having them come in and provide perspective later in the process. The earlier you bring in these perspectives, the easier it is, and the lessons will cascade throughout the process.
The other benefit is that you’ll learn things that may not even be related to DEI or product inclusion and equity. The more you have differing opinions, the better the outcome and the innovation are for everyone. Research shows that with diverse teams, there may be more friction up front when you’re getting to the solution. But because you’ve had so many differing opinions, you’ve thought about and worked through almost all the potential pitfalls and challenges. When you launch something after a less inclusive process, you often end up having to scramble and retroactively fix it.
Building for the margins and reaching the center
McKinsey: What are some interesting or surprising examples of companies doing something to make their products more inclusive?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: Two examples come to mind. One is a company called Eone, which makes a watch that people can use to tell time by touch, not just sight. What’s great about that is that the tactile component was originally made for people with disabilities. But there are many other people, those who may learn differently or may not be as visual, who could benefit from having access to that dual-modality.
OXO is another example. The company was originally founded to make kitchen utensils that would be easier to grip for people with severe arthritis or other disabilities, but nowadays, many people consider it their favorite brand.
It goes back to that curb-cut effect. Someone once said, “When you build for the margins, you get the center for free.” And I think that that’s important to remember; when you build for those most excluded, the benefits cascade throughout.
McKinsey: We work with clients across all sectors, and sometimes it can be easy for people to say, “This is a problem that big tech needs to tackle, but it doesn’t apply to my sector.” Would you say that this is a cross-sector issue and that there are things companies can do about it across sectors?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: Absolutely. Anytime you create something, whether it’s in fashion, medicine, or finance, you’re coming with your own lived experience. If you’re building something for someone else, you should ask, “Who else needs to be in the room?” Even with B2B, you start to think about your customer’s customer. And that is someone who has a different lived experience.
So, you start to think about “who else”? Who else could benefit from this? Who else might have challenges that we could mitigate? Regardless of where you are or what sector you’re in, thinking about those most unlike the group you have historically been building for is very important.
Metrics that matter
McKinsey: Many say that what cannot be measured cannot be improved. What are some ways to measure inclusiveness or make it more tangible?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: First, this should be measured just like any other critical part of a business. It shouldn’t be measured separately. At Google, we use OKRs [objectives and key results], and we have OKRs around product inclusion and equity up to the company level.
The other piece is having metrics that matter. Our team has human-centric metrics around aspects like customer satisfaction, sentiment, and daily active users. Those aren’t necessarily different from what people are already measuring. Still, you need to be intentional in thinking about the groups that are most at the margins when looking at that data. Because you don’t want to look at general data and say, “Oh, customer satisfaction is at 90 percent.” You have to ask, “Who’s the 10 percent? And how does that skew?” It’s about looking at the kind of data that’s important for your business and making sure that you’re looking at those who may be historically underrepresented in that.
Even early on, when you’re starting to assess product-market fit, consider whether you have only gone to the regular group or demographic for feedback. Other groups may have completely different ideas or needs that you may not have otherwise considered.
McKinsey: You mentioned OKRs that can presumably roll up to a senior executive level. Can you share an example of what that might look like?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: Our CEO laid out racial equity commitments a few years ago, so we have OKRs around some of our work to empower historically marginalized businesses. Our Black-owned business attribute, which launched a little while back, is an example of this. The question is, how do we start to take our key products and create opportunities for, and ways to empower, these historically marginalized groups?
Empowering teams to build inclusive products
McKinsey: As others are getting started on this journey, what are some roadblocks or challenges that you hear about? How can companies learn from them or overcome them?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: We look at 13 dimensions of diversity—including race, gender, age, ability, and socioeconomic status—and the intersections of those dimensions. Sometimes when people first see that, they’re overwhelmed: “Thirteen different things I have to think about? How am I supposed to prioritize that?” What you want to do is start to think holistically and intersectionally about your user. There’s not one thing that makes you you. An example I use with product teams is that I’m a Black woman who’s also left-handed. It’s not like I’m Black on Monday, left-handed on Tuesday, and a woman on Wednesday. I’m all those things all the time. It affects how I move through the world. It affects how the world views me. And it definitely affects how I interact with products and services.
At times there may be a more prominent dimension. If I’m using scissors, obviously, only being left-handed is what’s important. But if I’m unlocking my phone with facial recognition or using a phone to take a picture, being Black and a woman will intersect. Thinking about how these multiple dimensions come together and how that affects someone’s experience is important.
McKinsey: What else can leadership teams do to empower product teams to build more inclusive products?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: As with any other kind of initiative, tone at the top is critical. Leaders must find an authentic way to talk about why this is important to them. A former manager of mine would always say, “Repetition doesn’t spoil the prayer.” It has to be a steady drumbeat and not a one-off.
It’s also about empowering everyone—product managers, software engineers, researchers, marketers—to own their piece of the process. With product managers, it’s about empowering them to understand the opportunity, whether it be outside the US or with another demographic. With engineers, it’s about thinking through what infrastructure and tooling can make this easier and more seamless. With marketers, it’s thinking about how to make your company’s voice more inclusive, whether through ads, having someone with an accent represent your brand, or making sure that people with disabilities are represented in commercials.
McKinsey: Have you seen leaders put in place formal incentives or other mechanisms to commit further to product inclusion and equity?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: Recognition is important, as is having inclusion and equity as part of how you evaluate people. I don’t think this work should be a standalone or a separate thing. It should be part of your company’s DNA, and people should be measured accordingly.
The other piece of recognition is that for a lot of this work, at least in the beginning, you may be leaning on employees whose core role is unrelated. At Google, we have what we call “inclusion champions”: thousands of Googlers from historically marginalized backgrounds who are testing our products and providing feedback all the time. Here, it’s about 1) making sure that this work is genuinely optional and 2) recognizing these people and rewarding them for those lived experiences and perspectives that they’re bringing to the table. We want to make sure that they are excited to do this and that it’s not an additional job. Recognition is really important on that front.
McKinsey: What could executives from other companies learn from your experience leading product inclusion at Google?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: It’s a journey, and you want to make sure that you’re committed to the long term. But it’s also about knowing that every day is an opportunity to get it right, so you need to be humble and continue pushing forward.
As we’ve started to build muscle around what this work looks like, we’re committed to sharing the learnings and welcoming feedback. We’ve launched some guidelines on our site, belonging.google, and I’d encourage leaders and team members to take a look. It walks you through the different points in the process, lists questions you can ask your teams, and includes our tips and best practices. When you do this work over and over, it becomes just a natural, regular part of how you operate. I hope that resource will be helpful to people as they start their product inclusion and equity journey.