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Safia Abdalla
Safia Abdalla

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Doing user interviews while Black

I was initially planning on writing another blog post in the “initial commit” series, but this particular topic has been on my mind for a while so I figured I might as well write about it.

This topic is one of those things that you don’t find any Medium posts or books written on, mostly because it’s an experience that a small minority of people get to experience.

I’m talking about doing customer interviews while Black.

Customer interviews are a part of the product development/marketing process. They involve going up to people and asking them questions to figure out what problems are worth solving, how they should be solved, how they should be sold, and so on.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing customer interviews to figure the value proposition and marketing process for the customer side of the Zarf marketplace. This generally involves walking around bookstores and libraries and having conversations with people about their reading habits.

There are several blog posts and guides out there that describe what kinds of questions you should ask during a customer interview, how many people you should talk to, and what you should do with the information collected afterward. Few resources discuss how you should deal with the power imbalance that comes with doing customer interviews while being a minority.

I’m a short, too-thin, brown-skinned, foreign-looking woman. There’s practically a sign on my forehead that says “WHITE MEN TALK DOWN TO ME.” It’s something that I’ve learned to live with, and even turn to my advantage.

In any case, those physical factors play a significant role in how people respond to me during customer interviews, especially when I’m approaching individuals randomly and with no context. The assumptions that the interviewee has about who I am colors the conversation in ways that might not be so for other individuals. The most prominent factors at play when I discuss literature and reading with folks tend to be centered on age and race. Interviewees sometimes assume that I’m just a high schooler working on a project or that I’m “a foreigner” who is ill-informed on literature or reading and needs the fundamentals explained to her. I know these seem like silly things to be concerned out, but it’s frustrating being talked down to and it makes the uncomfortable experience of talking with strangers even more nerve-wracking.

Yes, the best customer interviews are ones where users have not context into the purpose of the interview or the background of the interviewee and can give genuine responses. But when you aren’t what is considered “normal” in a society, people will make judgments about your knowledge and intent that affect their responses.

I know that whenever someone brings up these types of discussions, everyone wants concrete anecdotes and statistics to back these claims. To be honest, I could go through and provide these, but sometimes I can’t discern evidence of the feelings I have from the daily experiences that I have turned to white noise in my mind.

I decided to do some research to figure out if the suspicions I had about how my race (and age and gender and other factors) affected interviews had any merit in research. I discovered that there is a decently-sized body of work on the phenomena which is known as the race-of-interviewer effect. Essentially, it captures how institutionalized racism and cultural-ingrained racial biases can emerge when white individuals are interviewing Black individuals and vice versa. Most of the research tends to center on this like job interviews or interviews for medical or psychological evaluations, but I assume the same biases can be extended to customer interviews for technology products.

I don’t know if I have any solutions or tips for navigating customer interviews as a marginalized individual. I might after doing this a bit more. Mostly, I’m just writing this blog post to validate my experiences and affirm that this is indeed a real thing that happens and has is studied. This is real. It has happened. It’s happening to me.

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