What We Make It
Pink Papers

Using GBA+ to Get Beyond the Margins

Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) is a mental model and analytical framework which challenges service designers to expand their methods and thinking beyond what is considered the mainstream. GBA+ goes deeper than only exploring the impacts that gender has on a user experience; the “Plus” stands for the variety of ways that one can be marginalized from public policy and services.

GBA+ is becoming more frequently adopted by all levels of government as the standard Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) research and design framework for policy development and service delivery. At What We Make It, we believe that GBA+ should also be the standard for digital policy development and digital service delivery.

In this Pink Paper, you will learn about what GBA+ is and how it can be integrated into methods, design, and thinking.

Applying GBA+ in Service Design

Below are five methods for applying the GBA+ framework to user experience (UX) research and service design.

Call Out Your Assumptions

Whether we’re aware of them or not, we all have underlying subconscious biases that make their way into our thinking and inform our perspectives. These biases are rooted in our identities, experiences, and social location. If we are asked to close our eyes and picture a person, we are likely going to picture someone who is like us in some way. Researchers and designers must be acutely aware of this when they are asked to consider the users they are designing for.

To help with this, at the beginning of every project, write out a list of your assumptions about who the typical user is. In addition to painting a physical picture of them in your mind, what other assumptions do you have about how they are accessing the service? How do they primarily access the internet—from where and on what device? What are your assumptions about content they typically consume? What about their literacy level? Are you assuming they are comfortable using applications other than their favourite social media platform?

What If You’re Wrong?

Once you have your list of attributes for your assumptive typical user, change one or more things about them and ask yourself, is this user going to have the same experience as the one I am assuming? Would this new user be left behind from this digital service transformation? What are the risks of exclusion if my assumptions are wrong about who the target user is?

Even if your assumptions are correct about who the typical user is, designing a public service solely for them reproduces systems of marginalization in the digital space, and is counterproductive to any accessibility goals or mandates which may be requirements of the design. Essentially, GBA+ is all about challenging your assumptions about who the users are and how they may be interacting with the service, seeking to prove whether or not they are valid assumptions to hold. In doing so, we intentionally try to avoid leaving any user groups behind.

Be Deliberate and Participatory

In order to know whether or not your assumptions are valid, you are going to need to talk to diverse users, and this can often be challenging for a variety of reasons.

Throughout history, marginalized groups have been the subjects of extractive, and often unethical, research methods which have caused real harms to communities. And while we may be able to offer material incentives to engage in user experience (UX) research activities, we cannot simply expect a stipend to include the cost of trust and safety for authentic sharing. This means we have to be deliberate in building relationships and partnerships with organizations who employ and serve the communities from which we are looking for input. It also means we have to be able to show them how and where their input is going to be used, and prove that this is not simply a checkbox exercise.

Participatory research and co-design methods can vary depending on the nature and complexity of the solution being designed. The key is to involve stakeholders in as much (or as little) of the service design process as they determine, and to budget accordingly.

Meaningfully Incorporate Diversity Into User Personas

The checkbox exercise is unfortunately all too common in a variety of sectors on a variety of issues. It essentially means inclusion for the sake of inclusion. This can manifest in a variety of ways in service design, but perhaps the most impacting is with the user persona. The user persona provides the foundation for all human-centered design solutions, so its accuracy is of the utmost importance.

Service designers need to be asking themselves questions about the user personas they are creating. Has the UX research been inclusive, or is the data lacking diversity? How authentically does that persona represent the lived experiences of diverse users?

If your user personas are authentically representative, then congratulations, you are already implementing a GBA+ lens in design! If they are extrapolated from homogenous samples of user data, you likely still have some work to do.

Accessible Design For All

All too often, we think of accessibility in terms of the physical challenges that we can see. However, there are accessibility standards and guidelines that should be followed and incorporated into any minimum viable product being released. It is the one area where accessibility is defined, technology exists to facilitate it, and standards have been developed for evaluation.

What is less defined is accessibility standards for the challenges people face that we can’t see. That is, neurological differences which change the way people experience, perceive, sense, and read the world around them, and also change their ability to communicate in a mainstream way. Learning differences that impact the way people receive, process, and understand information are not always evident. Further, people’s experiences of trauma can alter the way our brain perceives and responds to threat or conflict.

Users bring all of these things to the table when they are engaging with public services, digital or otherwise. GBA+ takes empathy-based UX to a whole other level, and challenges us to design with this broader understanding of accessibility in mind.

Worth the effort

GBA+ is not something that can be done in isolation, or as an afterthought. It requires a genuine desire and ongoing willingness that it becomes embedded into all stages of the service design process. The payoff when digital solutions are designed using the GBA+ model can transcend enhanced and accessible user experiences, and have ripple effects that can result in transformational systemic change, and the evolution of digital public service delivery.

What We Make It

What We Make It is a human-centred UX design agency working with governments and public sector agencies to reimagine the digital delivery of public services.

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