"Social Impact through Design, Process, and Culture" with Nancy Douyon

Nancy Douyon is a champion for the marginalized user. As a global design ethicist and consultant, she challenges problem solvers to rethink how they use design to scale impact. In her presentation at Underbelly’s 2021 Spring Drop-In, Douyon challenges us with this question: “How does design leverage culture to make a social impact?” 

Using her expertise from years of academic research and consultations with a range of organizations, Douyon teaches how design, process, and culture can help improve our world. She introduces the Nobility Complex as the main blocker to cross-cultural design. Nobility Complex is, “When people in positions of privilege unintentionally create solutions without accounting for their own explicit and implicit biases consequently leading to self-serving bias.” In other words, our bias, or unconscious thoughts and feelings, informs how we make design decisions which often limits how we serve. Though bias allows us to process information quickly, it can lead to microaggressions, or subtle yet offensive gestures which further marginalize people. 

Douyon tells a story about when she shared a photo of her old Haitan home to her friends in New York. Her friends responded with sympathy, interpreting the hut and chicken as signs of poverty. However, when Douyon gave context to the flourishing island that surrounded her home and the engineering behind the hut’s structure, they saw the beauty of Douyon’s experience. At that point, their assumptions had already become a microaggression. 

How can we prevent our bias from harming the people we meet and the people we aim to serve? Whether you are a solo designer, running a team, or leading an organization, here are Douyon’s recommendations on how to unlearn the Nobility Complex.

For Individuals

Designers can start by acknowledging their bias as a natural quirk of humanity. Our perception of the world is skewed by design, however when designing for people who are unlike you, we must stop and think through our assumptions. Douyon warns that we’ll feel uncomfortable when we see the gap in our knowledge, however, she suggests we invite it:

“When uncomfortable, it’s okay to sit with it. Take it all in. Go into education mode. We tend to fill the discomfort with a self-serving bias.” 

To limit more bias, we must slow down and empathize. Take a moment to analyze your own privileges, understand your users’ nuances, and use your insight to make responsible decisions. 

For Managers

Those who create design processes, plans, or roadmaps can limit bias by thinking globally. How can we make this process more cross-cultural by leveraging global frameworks? This can be done through user research that can be designed to fit your team’s constraints, however the more representative the research is to your user group, the more insightful it will be to user behavior after the product ships. By prioritizing user understanding, managers can create a way for designers and stakeholders to make decisions that consider global nuances and communicate business and user impact. 

For Organizations

Creating a culture that limits bias requires support from both individuals and organizational leaders. Individuals can act empathetically by building connections with coworkers who are different from themselves. They can do this by establishing common ground while being mindful of their language. For example, “Want to come to the bar with us after work?” is a leading question that assumes that your recipient drinks to unwind. Instead, try “How do you unwind after work?” then, find a way to include that person. Another example is, “What are you/where are you from?” assumes that people want to be defined by their race and ethnicity. Try “What would you like me to know about you?”. By turning our assumptions into curious questions, we can take actionable steps to limiting our bias at work. 

Leaders can do their part by setting an example for responsible behavior, but also encouraging, enforcing and rewarding a culture that creates opportunities for diversity. For example, creating spaces for questions and discourse allows people to expand their understanding in a safe environment. 

Building an environment for bias creates space for people to think at the margins of society. Though it takes courage, time, and iteration to seize opportunities for cross-cultural design, the results bring more benefits overall. Business reach and earnings increase when more people are helped. Also, designers become more skilled at identifying solutions that overlap use cases. It is by “over-indexing on underrepresentation” that allows us to “build more accessible and versatile products” that scale social impact.

Learn more about Nancy Douyan:




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