demographic assumptions

small dog holding stick in mouth with teeth bared

True story: I was walking down to the bakery last Spring when I turned a corner and encountered a woman in a rust-colored down vest walking her little brown wiry-haired dog. The dog started barking when it saw me from about 30 feet away. I just kept walking. And about two seconds later, the dog ran straight at me still barking ferociously. From three feet away it launched itself at me and bit my hand. “Hey! Ow!” I yelled. By this time I realized it was not on a leash. I looked at the woman to see if she would control her dog. When our eyes met, she said, “You’ve got to be firm with him,” as the little barking dog circled around for another go at me. What went through my mind was that I was bigger than this creature; I could defend myself. That caused a mini-scenario to play out in my head: its yelp of pain; the woman yelling at me for intentionally hurting her pet. So instead, I spun away from it and pulled my hands in close to my body as it launched itself for another attack. Its attempt went wide, I hurried off a few paces, and the dog didn’t pursue. After I was around the corner and away from them, I regained my ability for rational thought. I should have told her, “Put that dog on a leash!” I should have told her that the dog bit me.

So, next time I see a vest-wearing woman with a small brown dog off leash, am I going to assume the dog will bite me? Will I prevent another attack by preemptively admonishing the woman or hurrying away the moment I see them? Of course not. That would be over-generalizing.

Yet there is a global tendency do something analogous when referencing or using research results. Many people have a subconscious habit of naming a demographic and extrapolating or implying a behavior. Even thought-leaders and highly experienced people do it. When you find a pattern in your data, like, “65% of product managers and UX designers aren’t interested in learning how to work better together,” the human mind simplifies and shortens it to something more black-and-white like, “product managers and UX designers aren’t interested in working together.” It’s a reflex.

There are obvious problems with this reflex (not to mention the survey question). One is that people are likely to subconsciously believe the simplified statement, even though most would be reluctant to say it that way out loud. When asked, they’d say the simplification is not true for all members of the demographics mentioned. Maybe they’d react with a personal story to refute the premise or something to explain the exceptions. But deep down, that simplification is taking root. It causes a bigger danger, which in a decision-maker role causes a risk of treating someone–or designing software–according to the simplification. For example, it might be an app that helps product managers and UX folks collaborate, with the base assumption that the two groups are reluctant to do so. The software will only feel right for the subset of people with the “demographic behavior” distilled from data. That subset is much smaller percentage than the survey data makes you think. People are complex.

But it’s just a way of talking, right? Often demographic statements are made in an attempt to call attention to something, or to establish camaraderie or humor. For example, an explanation I heard of the 2000 Florida butterfly ballot recount went like this: “Pat Buchanan is a religious fundamentalist kinda guy, not the sort of person a bunch of Jewish grannies are going to vote for.” As a whole it sounds true. The phrase “Jewish grannies” is cute; it makes you smile. No harm, no foul. “Jewish grannies” stands in for the concept of people who were New Deal beneficiaries 70+ years ago who have been showing their gratitude to the party by voting Democratic ever since. The concept is perfectly acceptable because it describes a way of thinking–a pattern someone has found among a population, without demographics attached. Of course, not every person who has grandchildren, is female, and identifies herself as Jewish has benefitted from the New Deal or voted strictly Democratic for the past seven decades. And not everyone who has benefitted from the New Deal has loyally voted Democratic or is female or has grandkids. Etcetera. You know these things, so why quibble about a cute phrase? The harm comes when the phrase hits actual people instead of concepts of people. This is when a person can feel discord because of a statement or because of the way someone or some algorithm has treated them based on an incorrect demographic assumption.

So there’s something slightly, subtly painful going on here that you can work to correct.

Practice: Replace the demographic habit
  1. You can make yourself aware each time you say something that, in retrospect, was a behavioral generalization based on a demographic. Just decide you want to notice it, and you will start to notice it. And avoid calling it out when other people say something like this, lest you come off as sanctimonious.
  2. After a few months, once you’ve got that awareness, then you can try stopping your sentence midway through. Allow yourself to re-think what you were about to say. Then try to restate it based on a pattern of thinking. “Pat Buchanan is a religious fundamentalist kinda guy, not the sort of person a bunch of New Deal beneficiaries who’ve been showing their gratitude to the Democratic party for the past 70 years would vote for.” Yes, it’s more wordy, but it clarifies that there are other related patterns that could also be acknowledged. And no one will call you “politically correct” because you’re not trying to avoid giving offense so much as call attention to the fact that this is one particular pattern of thinking out of several patterns that could be equally interesting.
  3. Sometimes you won’t know any deeper information about the thinking of the people you’re talking about, but you can still try referring to behaviors you can infer from things you’ve read. This approach slides toward being disingenuous, so use it advisedly. Instead of “Syrian migrants” or “Syrian refugees” you could try “those whose livelihood at home fell apart and are seeking a livelihood in another country” and “those whose personal safety is threatened at home who have decided to flee their country” and even “those who are using migration as a cover to move across borders for covert reasons.” Saying these variations out loud helps establish the variety of thinking and behaviors that exist in any group of humans.

Practicing awareness of demographic assumptions will help you expand your curiosity about the multiple perspectives within any group of people. It will help you and your organization develop the empathy needed to understand the different purposes people have, and to support some of those purposes in better ways. Exploring the problem space is an important way to mature your product; I can help.

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