Zariah Cameron, Equity Centered UX strategist at Ally, shares how critical it is to embrace authentic inclusion in all aspects of work. She discusses how you can make your digital and physical workplaces more inclusive and more equitable by paying attention to the details such as inclusive alt text, mental health programs, and more. Zariah also shares how being a Black woman in UX design has motivated her to create pathways for others in the field.
Zariah Cameron: [00:00:00.23] Me being a Black woman, a young Black woman at that, I have a completely different viewpoint on life than a lot of different people, a lot of my coworkers. And I believe that my viewpoint has value. And so, in that, I believe that it’s important for you not to silence my voice or anyone’s voice that, you know, is like mine, because that’s how people become insecure and uncomfortable. And then, you know, they kind of like become this person that doesn’t even want to speak up anymore.
Intro: [00:00:35.03] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrill, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:00.33] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, The Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities. This podcast is powered by ACE the HR Exam and Upskill HR. These are two of the courses I offer for HR certification prep and recertification for HR leaders. Before I introduce our podcast guest for today’s episode, I want to hear from you. Please text the word podcast to (512) 548-3005 to ask questions, leave comments and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you. So today I’m joined by Zariah Cameron, Equity Centered UX strategist at Ally. Zariah is a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University, and she has been an experienced, self-taught UX designer that aims to cultivate a sense of community within her work. You’re going to see. You’re going to love it. She helps amplify the voices and stories of marginalized communities, specifically the Black community. She has a passion for strategically placing equity and inclusivity at the forefront of her design work. Zariah is the founder of AEI Design Program, an initiative that provides resources and virtual events to prep Black design college students. She is the first Equity Centered UX strategist at Ally Financial where she is helping to drive an inclusive design methodology for the design organization. Zariah, welcome to the Workology podcast.
Zariah Cameron: [00:02:41.28] I’m so happy to be here. Thanks, Jessica, for having me.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:44.85] Of course, I love your background. It’s, it’s interesting. You’re the first Equity Centered UX strategist at Ally Financial. Talk to us a little bit about your background and how it led you to do the work you’re doing now.
Zariah Cameron: [00:02:57.69] I’ve been carving out this role for the past year and last year I was able to learn so much in just propelling this effort forward and so really excited to kind of talk about a few things and how I got there. But yeah, so I originally, as I stated in my, my bio, I was a, I studied graphic design actually in school, but then, you know, kind of discovered UX design and realized I had a true passion and love for it. And then, you know, I really cared about like truly making a positive impact in the lives of people and how they interact with the world and experiences. And I, I knew that I already had like sort of this creative design and strategic mindset and knew I wanted to sort of work in the world of technology or just experiences overall that really affect people, everyday people and their lives and their needs. And so, it’s taken me a couple of years into that space of learning UX while I was in school. And then throughout that experience is when I started AEI. But that program experience and that leadership experience that I gained while in school, it actually helped me or really amplified sort of this, you know, purpose that I’m doing right now as an Equity UX strategist at Ally. And I had a internship with Ally in summer of gosh, summer of I think 2020 or, or 2021, I cannot remember. Um, but I had internship with them and so I was just, you know, a regular UX designer and I was working on projects and that was my sort of last internship that I had going into like full time.
Zariah Cameron: [00:04:58.97] And so for me, I was like, okay, what do I really want to do with my life? What are these next steps for me? And sort of this direction that I had really felt called to, I didn’t really necessarily see, specifically within Ally. I knew that I loved working there, but I knew that like I wanted to do more than just being an individual contributor of, of a UX designer. And so that’s where I brought up to my, my past manager at the time and really just him and, and also the head of our UX, I brought to him and said, ‘Hey, I know that we don’t have this role in existence right now. We have, we had an accessibility team, but my role is slightly a bit different than what our accessibility team works on.’ But I brought this to him and I said, ‘You know, I see that there is a need and I see that, you know, Ally really is trying to propel and push this effort forward of being more, you know, equitable and inclusive and, as a company, and so I believe that, like, my role here is important.’ And so, we were able to, I was very fortunate enough to, to really map out like how that was going to be and allowing it to come into fruition.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:23.46] I love that. This is like a master class right here of how to go to your boss and say, ‘Hey, there’s a need for something at the organization, and I think that I could fill this role. Can, can I help put this all together?’ I want to ask, what does your role look like in practice as an Equity Centered UX strategist and why is equity such an important component of UX?
Zariah Cameron: [00:06:51.21] Well, for me, like, like I said before, with AEI design, like it taught me a lot of, of leadership and the importance of really focusing on the need of people who often get excluded, ignored or forgotten. This idea of impact versus intention. And so, as designers, you know, we may have good intention, but what is the impact that we’re really making? Is our solutions, are our solutions creating any sort of level of harm? Is it creating any injustices or any inequities that we’re not uncovering or we choose to ignore or, you know, we’re only focusing on a target group of people and other people are being missed out. And so, you know, that’s sort of where my role falls in that like, yes, it’s important to put equity at the forefront and as really a foundation of what we do as UX. And so oftentimes, you know, it can be seen as an afterthought, especially when, like business partners and everything else like come into play and you know, they have these set, you know, rules or like they have this set of research. And so, my role is sort of like to come in and to be sort of that like sounding board and also like this level of, of consulting in a way of looking at it from a different lens that oftentimes maybe people forget, you know, or they may have overlooked it. And being that I represent, of course, I don’t represent like all Black people or, you know, all marginalized groups.
Zariah Cameron: [00:08:38.28] But I do have that lived experience. And so, I’m able to bring certain things to light that some of my colleagues and coworkers like may have not even thought of, simply because our lived experiences are different. And so, I believe there’s so much value in that, in that lived experience, as, you know, being a part of a marginalized community, a marginalized group. And so, as my role, like I said, I kind of operate as like the sounding board and almost like a consultant in a way, internal consultant, if you will. But also, I’m laying down the foundation and guidelines to create more of like an operating model of how things should, should be and putting practices in place and guidelines in place that allow it to be a lot easier to embed inclusivity within their work. For example, what does it look like to, we talk a lot about the importance of accessibility, and one of the components is alt text, for example. What does that look like, to have inclusive alt text. You know, a lot of times companies just put the, the basic bare minimum of what alt text is. For those who don’t know, it’s an alternative text. And usually it’s used for images, illustrations for people who are non-sighted. And it’s normally on you know digital experiences. And so, with alt text, you know, we saw a lot in the industry where it was just very generic.
Zariah Cameron: [00:10:23.85] And, for me, as a sighted person, we’re able to visually see all of the amazing intricacies of what the world and people have to offer, what they look like, how our world is so diverse and beautiful. And so, by us not really capturing that within alt text, we’re robbing our non-sighted users of that opportunity to visualize it for themselves and to imagine it and so, you know, that’s just a component of what I do, of like how can we propel inclusive alt text by calling out or embedding intersectionality and race and, and gender and identity within alt text. But that’s just one component, right? And so, the people who write alt text is our content strategist. So now we’re setting, you know, these guidelines for our content strategist who writes this alt text for several different images that are on our, our page. And so now people who are non-sighted users are getting a similar experience. And I’m hoping, you know, close to the experience that sighted users are getting when they’re scrolling through the page and, and listening and exploring our, our site. You know, that’s one component. But like I said, really just laying down the foundation and giving guidelines to people to really help them in their sort of journey or experience as they’re working on these different projects as designers or researchers or content strategists.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:03.49] I love that Ally has put you into this role that’s focused, like you were saying, on equity, because you’re absolutely right with lived experiences. Like, I don’t have the same lived experience as you. It could be because of where we lived. It could be because of our race, education, like so many different things, which is why we need diversity on teams in tech companies that are building tools and resources for their customers. So I love the work that you’re doing and the example that you’re providing, because I want HR people who are listening to think about how they could use this in their own work and why having diverse groups, diverse teams, individuals from different backgrounds to be able to provide suggestions, recommendations, consultative services to help improve the experience, whether it is a software experience or the employee experience. I love that.
Zariah Cameron: [00:13:10.22] Yeah, and that’s actually a good call out that you said at the end. Part of my role is not only focusing on you know, the customer experience, but also the employee experience. A lot of times people think like UX, user experience, you know, we’re focusing on digital experiences, but like UX encompasses, you know, any experience that a person interacts with. And so that can be digital or physical. And, you know, a lot of times employees do get like overlooked in a lot of cases. And so, I personally believe that you can’t create, in order to create an equitable experience, you also have to give that care and same effort to your employees just as much as you’re, you’re giving to your customers. So another, I guess, brief example is that a lot of times people are experiencing burnout and people are coming back into the office and things are moving fairly quickly and it’s very easy to get in that mode of, of busy, busy, busy and things constantly changing and moving that you can get easily exhausted, especially when you’re trying to push out projects. And so, I saw that there is a need for that. And like here recently at, towards the end of last year and going into this year, we started this thing called Therapy Thursdays. And so, we, I’ve been able to implement different activities for us, like during the workday for people to really like unwind.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:43.80] I love everything about this conversation and we’re going to link to so many resources in the show notes of this podcast, but I wanted to have you tell us about your AEI design program initiative and why you created it. Kind of walk us through a little bit more about that.
Zariah Cameron: [00:14:59.19] Yeah.
Zariah Cameron: [00:14:59.82] So actually I took a brief break just because, you know, starting this role was so new and nuanced and, you know, ever so changing. But I will be jumping back into it this year, which I’m super excited about. I essentially started this in 2020 and I saw a very crucial need for, I saw a lot of programs that were out there that were teaching design or educating design for like little kids or maybe even high school, you know? And then, of course, you had industry and there was no like space dedicated to college students, specifically Black students. And I knew that oftentimes, like me having that experience of, of still being a Black design student and I went to an HBCU, a Historically Black College and University. And a lot of times Black design students do get overlooked and aren’t seen. And maybe, you know, they don’t even have that opportunity to, like, get access to talking to companies or, you know, being exposed to what’s going on in the industry, what’s happening and having real world practice or even just conversations or being able to be a part of different pipelines that allow them to get internship experience. And so, knowing how like yes, I was studying graphic design, but there weren’t really a lot of opportunities.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:29.51] I love your self-awareness and the boundaries that you have set for yourself, right? Like you’re like, okay, I’ll get back to this. I think a lot of people can learn from that also. And you know, you talked a little bit about mental health and just awareness. I just think that being able to set something aside for a period of time.
Zariah Cameron: [00:16:49.19] I will add in that I, I really loved the, the thing that you brought up about mental health and really setting aside like I felt so bad at first and you will like sometimes you just like, oh my God, I don’t want to leave. But like, you realize that, okay, this was a lot of work and you need to take a step back and you need to just breathe. And I had like moved to a new city and I was starting, like, a whole new, like, life. And so, I think for me, I learned it’s okay to take a step back and take a break and really like do a rewind and give yourself that time, however, and whatever you need that, whatever that looks like for you. Because, you know, sometimes we try to juggle so many things because we try to be like a superhuman and we are not, and we are certainly not perfect is what I’m definitely learning. And sometimes we can’t do all the things at the same time. And so, it’s okay to like step away from certain things and come back when you’re more refreshed and can give more of yourself to that space.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: Wise beyond your years. So, I really appreciate your insights into that. And, and it’s saying it’s okay because, because it absolutely is.
Break: [00:18:06.53] Let’s take a reset here. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you are listening to the workout podcast Powered by ACE The HR Exam and Upskill HR. Today we are talking with Zariah Cameron, Equity Centered UX strategist at Ally. This podcast is sponsored by Workology and it is part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. Before we get back to the podcast, I want to hear from you. Please text podcast to (512) 548-3005. Ask questions, leave comments, and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you.
Break: [00:18:45.78] The Workology podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at PEATWorks.org. That’s PEATWorks.org.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:14.48] I also will link to your presentation that you have on Inclusive Design 24. It’s from ID24 in the show notes, but can you talk about how you define performative equity and inclusion for our listeners?
Zariah Cameron: [00:19:29.54] Yeah. And I think I learned more of, of what performative equity was, you know, really heavy during the time of, of 2020. And you’re seeing like all of these different, and this is probably a really great example, like you’re seeing all these different companies and people really showing their effort, quote unquote, in support of what was happening during that time. But then like after a while, it just kind of fizzled out and it was silent. And so, you start to question like whether those efforts were really genuine and honest and real, and were they only doing it for a moment and just to show that they weren’t on the wrong side and that they weren’t being inclusive? And we realized that like with performative equity and inclusion, you see, like I said, like organizations claiming or advocating for these DE&I diversity equity inclusion practices, if you will. But there’s really no like practical actions that are really taken or contributed to their achievement. And that can look different in a lot of ways. It can look like companies posting ads of their support or these statements. Right? That’s a lot of that we saw. But then we would see that there was like no diversity within their actual company and that there was no like real action taken to whether it was like internally, whether it was like, you know, elevating different people into positions, you know, creating promotions, creating that support and benefits that allowed people to, their employees to really flourish specifically like they’re marginalized, like employees. And then, or it could be, you know, on another side where it’s like we’re putting out these statements, but then, you know, the communities that they’re serving, their external audience really isn’t feeling any sort of, of effort. There’s no action plan. And those same people that they’re claiming they support are still suffering.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:43.50] Do you have any examples of performative equity or inclusion for us?
Zariah Cameron: [00:21:50.61] I would say those are like general ones, you know, like where you have, a lot of say, I don’t want to necessarily call anyone out, but I do know that there have been several situations where they may claim that, okay, we are dedicated to the community and, you know, they may, you see a lot of times where they throw money at a lot of organizations that identify as being like underrepresented, but then internally, right, their employees are, specifically their marginalized employees, are not being promoted or they’re being treated completely unfairly or, you know, they’re experiencing harassment or any form of racial experiences that are very detrimental and traumatic to their employees. And even to the standpoint of like kind of just pushing them aside and not allowing their, their voice to be heard. But then they, you know, those same companies are the ones that like kind of showboat or promote all this great work that they’re doing externally for their community or the money that they’re pouring out. And they kind of think that that, it constitutes as being acceptable. And that’s where I kind of go back to like both have to coexist in order for things to be equitable. And, of course, everything’s not always going to be perfect, but I think the one thing that I’m realizing is, to some degree, there’s always going to be some level of harm that is induced in various different situations. You’re not going to please everyone, but the, the goal is to lessen the harm, right? Like what are steps that we can take to really lessen the harm, lessen the burden, lessen the trauma, you know, that one person may or a group of people may be experiencing from what we’re doing.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:55.46] I know this is a long list, but I wanted to ask you, what are a few of the most important factors companies should focus on to ensure that equity and inclusion are authentic and not performative?
Zariah Cameron: [00:24:07.52] That is a big list, but I will say there are a few factors that I think are really, really crucial, I would say, when it comes to equity and inclusion, and when it comes to authenticity, when it comes to approaching different people and different cultures, I mean, as companies, as a company, there’s a few different factors. So, one, I would say the big thing in the now, like is not silencing someone’s voice just because it’s different than yours and taking the authenticity and voice of that person’s culture and who they are outside of, just because you believe that it’s different than yours. A lot of times that does happen whether you know it’s a solution that’s being presented or a counter action that may be completely different but may change the organization in such a positive way. A lot of times, you know, whether it’s higher ups or just people in teams, they shy away or like, you know, really try to like silence or shame. A lot of those people that identify, especially like who are marginalized, who are underrepresented within the company, they try to push those voices aside or they try to change up the solution or words that are given and make it more, more Eurocentric, a more, you know, voice that is less cultured, if you will, um, to really just ease their, their uncomfortableness. And so, a lot of times there are going to be times where you’re going to be uncomfortable and that’s okay. But I believe that you need to be open to learning and exploring other people and listening to their voice, because if you don’t, you’re going to probably miss out on the best opportunity to improve and be better.
Zariah Cameron: [00:26:18.54] And that should be your strive every single day is to strive to be better. And through that is really listening to people and a lot of times, listening to people who, going back to the lived experience, right? Like me being a Black woman, a young Black woman at that, I, I have a completely different viewpoint on life than a lot of different people, a lot of my coworkers. And I believe that my viewpoint has value. And so, you know, in that, I believe that it’s important for you not to silence my voice or anyone’s voice that, you know, is like mine, because that’s how people become, you know, insecure and uncomfortable. And then, you know, they kind of like become this person that doesn’t even want to speak up anymore. And so, you know, that’s one or a couple of ones, if you will. Another one is to really begin to promote people of color. You know, a lot of times you see a lot of people of color who stay in those entry level roles. And oftentimes the ones who are more in the senior level or manager level or even executive level are not people of color. And I believe that a lot of times that’s why certain people leave because they’re not being promoted or they’re being passed on for promotion, even though they have shown and exemplified the responsibilities of being in that space, silencing just because it’s not what you’re used to. I hope that was helpful.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:03.97] Oh, absolutely. I think it’s like diversity of team is one component. There are so many other pieces, like you mentioned, and I agree with you, making sure that having marginalized groups, being able to move up the organization and for them to be able all of us to be able to be our authentic selves and feel comfortable and confident to, to have a career and work at a place where people are going to listen and care and want you, want to watch you grow with the company. I wouldn’t want to work at a place like that either that didn’t do those things. This is a great reminder for us to not just say, okay, diversity of team is important, but there are other, there are other components. And you just like me, I want to have representation. People who look like me, maybe talk like me, have a similar background as me in leadership positions because then I have someone, a mentor or an individual to look up to and say, ‘Hey, that’s who I want to be in five years, ten years, 12 years down the road in a position like that.’
Zariah Cameron: [00:29:16.94] Yeah. And I think my, I guess last point, I know we’ve been bringing up briefly like mental health. I would say like implementing ways to really like embed or intersect mental health opportunities and resources for your employees because there are some people who will work really hard and forget to take a break. And sometimes, and I’m speaking for myself too, like sometimes when it’s like a mandatory thing, or like it’s a part of the actual ecosystem or, you know, sort of just who they are as a company, it makes it that much easier for those people who do tend to overwork themselves sometimes or who do forget to take breaks, it allows them to actually take that break, you know, and, and really like take time for themselves and to unwind. So, I think like, one, maybe even creating spaces within the office for people to like decompress but also like really embedding specific like, maybe, maybe it looks like mental health days. I don’t know. When I was in school, I fortunately like our, our school and they’ve actually expanded since I’ve left. But they had mental health days for us outside of our breaks and so they would have mental health resources that day. I mean, again, this was on campus, but they had like mental health, like we could get, we could try yoga or they provided food for us, like different spaces that like, ‘Hey, you can take a break from, from schoolwork and other activities to simply just focus on and you and what’s important to you.’
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:02.10] Last question. How can maybe our listeners infuse their work with inclusion and equity instead of it mostly being addressed through dedicated initiatives? So how do you feel like we can move true equity inclusion into all areas and corners of our work?
Zariah Cameron: [00:31:22.65] Yeah, I, I agree.
Zariah Cameron: [00:31:24.54] And this is something actually that I’m starting to do now within my own work is, oftentimes when it’s created into an initiative like, Oh, this is our DE&I initiative, you know, like it’s, it’s often like, for some people, and this can be again, at any company, sometimes it gets left behind or forgotten or it gets pushed aside or people don’t want to do it or participate because sometimes there are going to be difficult people that are like, okay, here goes this other DE&I thing again, you know? And so instead of it being like these big initiatives, it should be integrated into our actual work practices, right? So, like our operating models. So, you know, a lot of times, I know this is normally like in technology operating in these level of sprints, right? When you launch a project, you have the conversation, you discuss like, what are we doing? How are we executing this? Who’s our target audience? What are we going to focus on? That’s the time where you should be asking your team or having those discussions at a, in a kickoff meeting of should we actually really be doing this, this project? Where does our team sit within this target audience? Do we have the right people in this room that represent who we’re servicing? Are we actually providing a solution to a need here, or are we just creating this project because we think it’s cool? And so, a lot of times that can, one, easily save a lot of money on the back end, I mean ahead of time.
Zariah Cameron: [00:33:09.46] And two, it can also help to really start to uncover questions that typically you don’t think about. And, you know, a lot of times we think about it towards the very end when it’s already been launched and now we can’t go back. And, you know, of course people don’t want to go back then because they’re like, well, we already did all this work. But if it’s, if you ask questions in the forefront, if you bring the right voices and bring the right people in, start to ask like, okay, what are some initial inequities that maybe we can uncover? Or what are we missing? Who’s not a part of this? Who are we missing within this target audience that we could be expanding this, this solution to? So, it starts with ground, your groundbreaking work and like it begins with what you do on a day-to-day basis. Starting those conversations right off the bat. And that will help to allow it to be more fluid and more natural because this is just something that we do not because we’re trying to check a box.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:34:13.92] Thank you for helping inspire us and maybe giving us a little nudge to push us in a, in this direction. Zariah, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today. I’m going to include your LinkedIn profile and then information about AEI design as well. Any other maybe final or parting thoughts for us?
Zariah Cameron: [00:34:35.16] I would say as I, as I always say and as I always give people a reminder and I say this in sort of the middle or beginning, but I think it is just important to truly integrate equity in your entire cycle of what you do, because, if you don’t, then it’s not going to be really, truly practiced and genuine. And our solutions, our innovations are only as, as great as the employees that we care for. So, creating an equitable space and equitable solutions should be for our customers and our employees.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:35:17.59] Thank you again. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Zariah Cameron: [00:35:20.83] Thank you.
Closing: [00:35:22.42] I so appreciate the conversation with Zariah. So mature, so insightful, so many great resources and information that is designed to help us as HR leaders, help support our workplaces and our workforces better. The workplace has changed dramatically over the last few years. We don’t have to fear it or let it overwhelm us, highlighting the positive elements around what we’ve learned and how we can support employees and our efforts to recruit them and retain them is such a broad topic, but it is really about how willing we are to have difficult conversations and listen to these like really listen in the workplace centered around equity and inclusion. I appreciate Zariah’s insights here and expertise on this important topic for this podcast episode on Workology, which is powered by my friends at PEAT, the Partnership for Employment and Accessible Technology. Before I let you go, please let me know your opinions, thoughts and insights here. Text the word podcast to (512) 548-3005. You can ask questions, leave comments, and make suggestions about future podcast guests or future topics. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you. Thank you again for joining the Workology podcast powered by Upskill HR and ACE the HR Exam.