Designing an Inclusive Metaverse

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The metaverse will offer new opportunities for the way we work and play, how we interact with brands, and much more. Companies planning to participate in the metaverse have an opportunity to remedy some of the mistakes of Web 2.0 and a responsibility to shape an inclusive space where everyone feels represented and that they belong. Three strategies, rooted in the 10 principles of the design justice network, offer a path of how we can get from here to there: 1) Assess the diversity at your table; 2) Frame the problem you’re trying to solve; and 3) Listen and probe with empathy.

The metaverse is full of promise. People are hopeful that this shared, interactive, immersive, and hyper-realistic virtual space will revolutionize the internet. Goldman Sachs has estimated that the metaverse could ultimately be an $8 trillion opportunity.

One particular promise of the metaverse is that it offers an opportunity to remedy some of the mistakes of Web 2.0 — in particular the failure of social media platforms to safeguard and protect marginalized and underrepresented people from hateful behavior online.

As we create the next iteration of the internet, the stakes are too high to exclude diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) from the conversation.

There’s been some progress in this regard. In May, the World Economic Forum, alongside a number of partners, including Meta, Sony, Microsoft, LEGO, and others, announced an initiative to develop and share actionable strategies “to create an ethical and inclusive metaverse.”

A recent example shows what an inclusive metaverse could look like. In April 2022, the deodorant company Degree partnered with Decentraland to host an inclusive virtual marathon. The company partnered with disability, race, and gender experts to advise on the design elements for participants’ avatars, which included wheelchairs, prostheses, running blades, and a variety of body shapes and sizes, as well as descriptive audio for people with visual impairments.

Companies who want to ensure their metaverse initiatives are inclusive can take inspiration from a movement in the design community, known as “design justice.” Before problem solving for a project or marketing anything, design justice practitioners begin by identifying which communities will be impacted and centering those communities’ voices. They believe that lived experiences are valuable to the design process; ensure that outcomes are sustainable, community-led and controlled; and work towards non-exploitative solutions.

To bring these practices into your metaverse initiatives, I recommend starting with the following three steps:

1. Assess the diversity at your table.

Diversity at the table means you’re ensuring that people with diverse experiences, backgrounds and perspectives are regular participants in any and all conversations about your project, from the senior stakeholder level to the employees who are designing and executing the work. When it comes to finding initiatives that are focused on changing the narrative around inclusion for talent in the metaverse, programs like Grant for the Web and Meta Immersive Learning Lab are training and funding creators from marginalized and underrepresented communities.

Beyond identifying the people at the table, to have a truly community-centered conversation, leaders must facilitate an environment of psychological safety and belonging. You want people to come to the table ready to share their big ideas and solutions to problems without shying away from “real talk” about the potential impact on marginalized communities. To have these conversations, you must create a space that welcomes — and rewards — candor and vulnerability.

2. Frame the problem you’re trying to solve.

As the Framework Institute states: “Framing is the choices we make in what we say and how we say it: what we emphasize, how and what we explain; what we left unsaid. These choices matter. They affect how people hear us, what they understand, and how they act.”

We all bring our own assumptions and biases to any project we’re working on. Taking the time to frame the problem you’re trying to solve — including asking who you are designing for — will keep you from going in the wrong direction.

A classic design-thinking exercise, known as “How might we…” can help by opening up space to spark new ideas and imagine new possibilities. This exercise requires you to get a deeper understanding of the targeted user, their needs, and insights and not trying to solve the problem yourself. For example, asking “How might we ensure low-income communities have access to high-speed internet to take part in the metaverse?” — would involve listening closely to the responses and findings from the community you’re trying to reach, which will lead you to uncovering the problem around access to high-speed internet in low-income communities to lead toward a desired outcome.

3. Listen and probe with empathy.

A key principle of design justice is ensuring that those who are marginalized don’t continue to feel like the deck continues to be stacked against them. How do you pursue inclusiveness? This requires a human-centered approach based on empathy.

Putting empathy at the forefront means actively listening. Your focus should be on understanding what a marginalized or voiceless community is thinking and feeling, their role in the situation, space, and environment, and their fears, frustrations, and anxieties. Active listening builds trust and relationships, and it prevents you from missing important information. Lastly, it allows you to hear what potential problems could surface from what you’re designing.

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The metaverse will offer new opportunities for the way we work and play, how we interact with brands, and much more. Companies planning to participate in the metaverse have an opportunity and responsibility to shape an inclusive space where everyone feels represented and that they belong. While this work is not easy, the above strategies, rooted in the 10 principles of the design justice network, offer a path of how we can get from here to there.