How Intersectionality Influences Product Strategy

Posted / 04 February, 2021

Author / Enginess

How Intersectionality Influences Product Strategy

As much as we would love to design products in an entirely unbiased way that works for everyone, we’re just not very good at that as humans. As designers, we often struggle to leave our prejudices and assumptions at the door, and product strategy is no exception.

One useful framework for understanding these complexities is the idea of intersectionality.

In this post, we’re going to cover what intersectionality means, the problem that it’s trying to address, and how you can use it to inform and influence your product strategy.

 

 Intersectionality


...Or, in other words, people are complex and fluid.

Intersectionality was a term coined 30 years ago. It’s the idea that discrimination and / or privilege is often the result of multiple factors, rather than just one. These factors are often things like race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, etc... 

An easy example of privilege might be a white man getting special treatment on a flight. It’s not because he’s white (since white women don’t get the same perks) nor because it’s a man (black men also don’t get special treatment). It’s the intersection of his specific race and gender that leads to privilege.

The idea comes about after earlier waves of feminist thinking overwhelmingly examined the world through the lens of uppet-middle class white women, ignoring those who didn’t fit that narrow mold. 

Intersectionality delves further, positing that identity is always multi-faceted, and more importantly a combination of both more static variables, like race, class, upbringing, experiences, etc…, and dynamic ones, like geography, context, mood, and space.

The outcome of intersectionality is that you can more accurately understand how social catagoriziaons impacts discrimination, and is key to unravelling the discrimination that exists in our world since you’re looking at the problems holistically rather than piecemeal.

Intersectionality + Product Strategy

Your product strategy will always start with the people you’re helping — without that, you’re never going to build a product that works for your target audience.

The problem, of course, is that people are fluid and difficult to understand. 

The standard approach is to reduce them to a single lens, and conceptualize their problems and pains through that single prism.

This is, however, fraught with problems and misunderstandings.

First, people are more than any one thing. We’re ultimately complex and unique creatures, with unique challenges, problems, and perspectives.

Of course, we can’t make bespoke products for everyone. So as designers and product managers, our role is to understand groups of people as best as possible, which will naturally require some simplification.

But when we reduce users to a single base value, we often build products that are designed to be inclusive but fail to include vulnerable populations.

Second, when we design and build products looking at users through a single lens, we often fail to address the root descrimination or even the root cause of the behaviour we see. What’s more, even if we layer multiple lenses on top of each other,we’re still fundamentally reducing down complexities into manageable bites. However, by considering the world from the perspective of intersections, we can begin to bring back at least some of the intricacies of our world into our product strategy.

Product Strategy from an Intersectional Perspective

Folding in intersectionality into your product strategy will force you to refocus your efforts (in a good way). Here’s how to do it.

First, you’ll have to revisit your persona work — are you assuming and pigeonholing potential users into buckets you define? Is there bias baked into that process, e.g. your assumptions around what buckets people fit into?

When it comes to dealing with intersectionality and personas, there are two approaches. 


1. Layer intersections into your personas


First, you can layer in additional complexities to your existing personas, to capture a better picture of who your customers are, where they are spatially, and what’s happening at the time. This is often a process driven by more qualitative research, like interviews and use case discovery.

2. Abandon traditional personas


Second, you can abandon personas in favour of a needs-based segmentation approach. Rather than saying “our product is for X, Y, Z persona”, you say “our product sits at this intersection of this space, need, and emotion — regardless of who finds themselves there.”

The needs-based approach, particularly when you delve into the market side of product strategy, is undeniably more inclusive and more accurate.

However, it can be difficult to form comprehensive go to market plans around a need. Likewise, it can be difficult to scale your product up, as your goal is to find (and, eventually, create) need, rather than finding more customers — a comparatively easy task.

Frameworks like Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) can help guide product strategy down this path.

Over To You

But let’s face it — humans are complex. Identity is complex. There are often not easy answers to these kinds of questions, and intersectionality is at its core a way to (in part) address that complexity.

The challenge, of course, is that turning the complexities of human identity into thoughtful product design and strategy. It’s almost contradictory. That is, you have to make decisions around who you’re building for, and those decisions are virtually impossible to remove from personal and institutional bias.

But the first step towards solving a problem is admitting you have one. 

Intersectionality gives us a framework to understand the fundamentally transient and kaleidoscoped nature of identity. And by first acknowledging that complexity, we can be more inclusive with the product we design, build, and go to market with.

 

 

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