The Importance Of Inclusive Language And Design In Tech
A year ago this month, Intel engineer and Linux kernel maintainer Dan Williams proposed to introduce inclusive terminology in the kernel's official coding-style document. The proposal called for substituting common technical phrases deemed offensive and racist, most notably master/slave and whitelist/blacklist. The first to sign off on Williams' proposal were Chris Mason and Greg Kroah-Hartman. Other maintainers approved the proposal too, but the changes were not endorsed without an animated debate. The dissenters primarily argued that the change was trivial and substituting "master/slave" in a line of code would do nothing to offset the legacy of slavery. Android, GitHub and Splunk all supported the change in the description of a relationship between concepts from "master" to "main" and "slave" to "secondary." Apple followed suit by stating that replacements were going to be introduced across internal codebases, public APIs, and open-source projects, such as WebKit and Swift and that developers were encouraged to embrace the new terminology such as primary/secondary, primary/replica, main/secondary, or host/client. Instead of "blacklist/whitelist to describe what is allowed and disallowed, allow-list/deny-list were introduced. The changes were all encouraged at a code and documentation level.
While the impetus for the change a year ago can be found in the moment of reckoning the country was going through after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement, the need for a more inclusive terminology has been felt for a very long time. Changing some of these words in coding and documentation is not that different from asking for the removal of a Confederate statue. Terms like "master/slave" are pretty apparent in the damage they create in normalizing slavery. Other terms like "blacklist" and "whitelist" might seem less loaded at face value but they perpetuate the idea that "white" is good and "black" is bad. The continued use of these terms feeds our conscious and unconscious biases.
And, of course, bias is not limited to race.
Using inclusive language means avoiding expressions and terms that could be considered sexist, racist, exclusive, or biased in any way against certain groups of people. Race and gender are usually top of mind when considering diversity and inclusion, but many other aspects should be considered. Language must evolve over the years so as not to exclude people. It is also important to underline that the goal is not just to avoid hurtful or offensive language. It is really about making everyone feel welcome, from a developer reading a manual to a kid playing a game to a business person signing up for a new email service.
At the recent Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple pushed beyond inclusive language and published a detailed guide for developers to design inclusive applications. In the guide, Apple states: "designing an inclusive app is an iterative process that takes time to get right. Throughout the process, be prepared to examine your assumptions about how other people think and feel and be open to evolving knowledge and understanding." Interestingly, the points Apple encourages developers to consider are no different from what we all should consider in life in our attempts to create a more inclusive society. On language specifically, Apple highlights the importance of tone, not just words. Tone can, in fact, send messages the developer might not have intended.
Apple argues that each person has a unique perspective, but that perspective is built on the intersectionality of human characteristics and experiences that relate to age, gender and gender identity, race and ethnicity, sexuality, physical attributes, cognitive attributes, permanent, temporary, and situational disabilities, language and culture, religion, education, political or philosophical opinions and social and economic context.
When addressing gender, developers should consider both language references and designs. Using gender-neutral pronouns makes the writing remain inclusive. Using an avatar or emoji that cannot be traced back to a specific gender or, even better, providing the tools for the user to design their avatar or emoji might go a long way to make everybody feel welcome. This is even more important when creating characters within the app. A fitness app, for instance, should feature exercise moves demonstrated by people with different racial backgrounds, body types, ages, and physical capabilities. Apps, like books, should be mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors, to quote the esteemed children's literature educator Dr. Bishop. They should have characters we can recognize ourselves and others in.
Avoiding stereotypes and generalizations will also drive a more inclusive app. From family units to attending college or owning a car, some implications are being made that rely on someone's idea of what is a commonplace experience. Focusing on a hobby, a friend, or a personal quality avoids depending on culture, economic or capability factor.
Accessibility features are very important to Apple. It is no surprise there is extensive guidance on the topic encouraging developers to do two things: first, avoid assuming that a disability might prevent someone from wanting to use their app. Second, consider that all users might face a temporary disability such as low vision due to an eye infection. When it comes to writing about people with disabilities, the focus should be on the people, not the disability.
Words always matter, but especially those used in books, in education material, in anything that shapes the thinking of young minds and is designed to be used by many people. My teenage child notices every time a game lacks People of Color or even worse when the only roles they have is that of the "villain." They see when the binary world we still live in is forced into their fantasy world by how clothes, colors and roles within a game are thought out.
I am sure some will label these latest efforts by Apple and others as political correctness, or "woke culture," missing the point that thinking about the words you use, the characters you have in your games or the roles and personas you use in designing your services should make you think and check your privilege so that empathy is where your work starts. Being inclusive is also not just about doing the right thing; it is about making smart business decisions. The more inclusive you are, the broader you make your addressable market.