While not as controversial as what’s been happening in America, this still bothers me. On Wednesday, a Facebook employee in Nigeria posted a video of what was called a “minor inconvenience”. In the video a white man, and a dark-skinned black man are both trying to get soap out of a soap dispenser. The soap will dispense for the man with white skin, but not for the darker skinned black man. I’m not suggesting that this should offend you, but it does lead me to think about how companies create and test products. Especially from an inclusion perspective. Meaning, for all users.
For those of you who don’t know, soap dispensers (in general) use an optic sensor to detect when a hand is underneath or in front of it. Most of the more advanced sensors don’t have a problem with dark skin. But cheaper ones, can have issues. Chukwuemeka Afigbo noted in his post that “having a dark skinned person on the team would have resulted in a better product”. And he’s right. If the sensor is unable to penetrate skin tones due to the amount of light, then you should test this on all different skin tones, and in different light settings. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t. Well, other than money.
But this isn’t limited to just soap dispensers. Earlier this year, it was discovered that the fitness tracker, Xiaomi Mi Band2, also wasn’t working on darker skin colours. Specifically, the device was unable to verify their heart rate. Unless – and get this – they put it on a lighter skinned area of their body. My outrage on this topic was at a medium until I read that a user in a forum made the following suggestion: “put a white paper below the sensor and it will work again”. Huh? Is that really a suggestion? Which, is also the solution in the video shown above.
Another user sent a message to the company saying “heart rate measure is not working on Black skin, but when kept in the palm it is working fine. Please resolve this issue quickly. I haven’t heard this being an issue for Apple Watches, and I could be wrong on that one. But I would guess that I’m not. Apple spends a lot of time and puts in a lot of money and resources in order to ensure that their product is the best. And that it works with all kinds of skin tones, I would imagine. Granted, this particular company sells a low cost device. So, maybe cheaper products run into this issue.
My outrage is overall only a medium when it comes to this kind of thing. Mostly because I don’t think the company was intentional with this. Either company. But they do have to take some responsibility when it comes to testing their products. Like Afigbo noted, these products would be better if they tested on darker skin colour. With the soap dispenser, it was noted that more expensive products don’t have these issues. And that they seem to work with a variety of skin tones.
When reviewing wearables, CNET spoke to Bharat Vasan the COO of Basis science, who explained why these wearables fail to work for people with darker coloured skin: “The light has to penetrate through several layers…and so the higher the person is on the Fitzpatrick scale (a measure of skin tone), the more difficult it is for light to bounce back,” he explained. “For someone who is very pale in a very brightly-lit setting, the light could get washed out. The skin color issue is something that our technology compensates for. The darker the skin, the brighter the light shines, the lighter [the skin] the less it shines.”
Like I said, this isn’t a huge deal, but it isn’t ok. If you’re developing a product, you should test on a variety of users. Not just people in your office. These kinds of issues are going to turn your customers off from buying the product. If it doesn’t work for them, they’re going to return it. And they’re going to tell all their friends. Who, regardless of skin colour, will likely support them and not the product because it doesn’t work for someone they know. Afigbo said the following in his post “if you have ever had a problem grasping the importance of diversity in tech and its impact on society, watch this video”. Which I think sums it up nicely. Design with diversity in mind. Design for inclusion.