Ebony Kenney: “Ain’t None of Y’all Safe!”: Achieving Social Justice in digital spaces

7 min read Optimal Workshop

Pressure on budgets, deadlines, and constantly shifting goalposts can mean that our projects sometimes become familiar, impersonal, and “blah”. How can we evolve from our obsession with status quo content engagement and instead, using our raised awareness, help to usher culture and society’s changing demands into our digital products?

Ebony Kenney, UX Analyst at Ripefruit Creative, Ripefruit Foundation, and a Federal Government Agency, recently spoke at UX New Zealand, the leading UX and IA conference in New Zealand hosted by Optimal Workshop, on how social justice can permeate our work as Usability professionals.

In her talk, Ebony takes us on a journey beyond the status quo to deliver digital products that are equitable and champion social justice.

Background on Ebony Kenney

Ebony L. Kenney is a Graphic Design, Market Research, and Usability veteran, excelling at the art of inquiry. She is said to be a “clear wifi signal” with her finger on the pulse, and insights to elevate any conversation. She draws from a scientific approach which yields itself to facilitating discussions that inspire thought and action. She holds a BA in English and MA in Design. She has most recently served as a User Experience Product Lead for applications, and Data Analyst for workforce morale efforts at a federal agency. 

She is also the founder of Ripefruit Foundation, a non-profit effort dedicated to identifying and strengthening peripheral skills as they appear along the spectrum of neurodiversity, and Ripefruit Creative, a design agency dedicated to the realm of education and equity.

Contact Details:

Email address: ekenney11@gmail.com

LinkedIn URL: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ebonylkenney/

“Ain’t None of Y’all Safe!”: Achieving Social Justice in digital spaces

Ebony’s talk explores how Usability professionals often focus too much on the details, for example, the elements of a page, or a specific user path. As a result, it’s easy to forget the bigger picture – the potential for the project to make a difference, to be welcoming, and to be an accessible experience for a diverse set of users. Additionally, constraints on timelines, uninformed or unwilling product owners, and the endless loop of shifting requirements distract us from even a hint of a higher purpose. Throughout our projects, things that are important, like designing a nurturing, protective, and supportive environment that encourages engagement start to get deprioritized.

Ebony challenges us to work in ways that ensure we don’t leave behind equity and social justice in our digital products.

Introducing a Safe Third Space

Her talk introduces the concept of “third space,” which is a hybrid space that combines different realities. Combining the concepts of “safe space” and “third space”, she arrives at the “safe third space”, which has embedded social justice and is the pinnacle of product design.

  • Third Space: A hybrid space with concentric, adjacent, and overlapping realities. Third spaces can be geographical (e.g. a coffee shop with a bank attached), cultural (e.g. finding a connection between immigrants and first generations), and virtual (e.g. online experiences and social media).
  • Safe Space: A space where a person can be honest and there are no consequences or perks.
  • Safe Third Space: A space or environment online where people feel safe and can be themselves. Going beyond tolerance to actually making people feel like they belong.

What is Social Justice?

Ebony asks us to think about social justice as rungs on a ladder, starting with “reality” and finishing on “justice” as we climb the ladder.

  • Reality: Some get less than what’s needed, while others get more. Waste and disparity are created. 
  • Empathy: Once you’re in touch with pain points, compassion is sparked for another human’s condition.
  • Equality: The assumption is that everyone benefits from the same support. This is considered to be “equal treatment”.
  • Equity: Everyone gets the support they need, which produces equity. 
  • Justice: The cause(s) of the inequity was addressed. The barriers have been removed or work has begun. 

When discussing equity, Ebony highlights the difference between need-based and strength-based equity. Need-based equity identifies everyone’s needs, while strength-based equity goes further by identifying the different strengths of the people involved. 

Essentially, everyone has a unique lens through which they view and experience the world. Teams and organizations should value their employee’s unique lenses and should encourage employees to feel comfortable speaking their minds. Additionally, teams and organizations should nurture safe spaces so that these views can be shared and therefore add value to a project or product achieving equity and social justice.

Explaining why the topic matters.

When we think about our users, we should climb the social justice ladder and think about people on the “fringes” of our user base. In other words, don’t just cater to the most valuable user, or the most engaged user, as often happens when we start delivering projects. We should challenge status quo processes and assumptions in an attempt to better reflect society in our digital products.

Bringing social justice into the UX design process can be done by marrying the basic UX design process with the social justice ladder.

Step 1 Step 2Step 3Step 4Step 5
Basic UX design processDefine FiniteContextual ResearchCreateTestAssess (findings)
Social Justice ladderRealityEmpathyEqualityEquityJustice
Shared themeHelpful vs unhelpful boundariesThis person has a unique life experience – what can I learn from it?Where am I mimicking vs creating something new? What brings equality?Testing with real people + valuable vs invaluable changeHow can I bring Justice to their story?

What does implementing Social Justice look like in practice? 

Ebony suggests a few ways that UX professionals can adopt social justice practices in our day-to-day work. These practices help to foster diverse thinking within project teams, which in turn helps us to get closer to achieving equity and social justice when designing digital products.

Social Justice on an Agile Team

  • Call your own meetings with just the people necessary – don’t be afraid to coordinate meetings outside of the scrum master’s schedule.
  • Recommend don’t suggest – It’s a subtle difference, but “I recommend…” statements emphasize your own unique viewpoint.
  • Find data to back up recommendations – if not, find or generate the data
  • Set the UX/CX commitment before the ceremonies begin.
  • Choose your battles – don’t fight your product owner on every single thing.

Social Justice on the Screen

  • Run completely through each user path (From Google, not URL). This helps us to catch blind spots.
  • Make personas that make sense – ensure they can be implemented.  
  • Capture risk and look for trends in decision-making that could have business implications e.g. if you’re trying to convince your product owner to change something, it’s important to align it to the business goals or project vision.
  • Look for bias in language and placement – share from your unique viewpoint.
  • Watch an internet novice navigate your screen.

Be yourself, but develop yourself

  • What is your strong point as a UX person?
  • Are you codeswitching for safety reasons or expediency?
  • Are you allowing “different”?
  • Work on your question muscle – try to ask questions that build a foundation of understanding before making wild guesses or assumptions.
  • Avoid burnout

In these ways, organizations and teams can keep social justice front and center when designing a digital product, rather than letting it slip by the wayside. If you can create safe spaces for your team to thrive and share unique points of view (or at least look for them), you are much more likely to design products that nurture engagement, create a welcoming environment, and ultimately meet the needs of diverse user groups.

What is UX New Zealand?

UX New Zealand is a leading UX and IA conference hosted by Optimal Workshop, that brings together industry professionals for three days of thought leadership, meaningful networking and immersive workshops. 

At UX New Zealand 2023, we featured some of the best and brightest in the fields of user experience, research and design. A raft of local and international speakers touched on the most important aspects of UX in today’s climate for service designers, marketers, UX writers and user researchers.

These speakers are some of the pioneers leading the way and pushing the standard for user experience today. Their experience and perspectives are invaluable for those working at the coalface of UX, and together, there’s a tonne of valuable insight on offer.