When designer Roya Ramezani started working in Silicon Valley, she noticed some of the gender issues that plague most American offices. Women were less likely to talk in meetings. When they did speak up, they were more likely to sound self-effacing, like this parody version of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" line:
I’m sorry, I just had this idea—it’s probably crazy, but—look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here—I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?
Using undermining language—"sorry," "just," "sort of,"—is an acquired habit that becomes unconscious through repetition. But the same is true for assertive language. In a conceptual design, Ramezani offers one solution: a keyboard that suggests stronger words as you write emails.
The spherical keyboard, modeled on an early typewriter design, has small keys—both because women tend to have more dexterity than men, and because it makes room for an extra set of keys at the top of the keyboard. Those keys, highlighted in orange, display "power verbs" ("claim," "believe," "ensure"). The keyboard tracks the words typed, and when using a particular word becomes a habit, replaces it with something else.
"It becomes a game or challenge in a way," says Ramezani. "Every day you have 10 words that you need to use somehow in your written interactions."
It's a little like a Gmail plug-in called Just Not Sorry that underlines undermining language as you type. But having the words physically visible all the time on a keyboard might have a bigger impact.
"I found it to be more effective in changing behavior than having these words on software in the form of a pop-up or suggestion on screen, since more people continued to use the physical key version," she says. "The drop-out rate was much higher with the on-screen version. We’re bombarded with notifications on our screens all the time and we tend to ignore them after a while."
Ramezani created the keyboard as part of a suite of products for her thesis in SVA's Products of Design program. Another, a digital ring, monitors what a woman says and vibrates when she uses undermining words.
"Being aware of what we say and how we say it is the first step to successful communication," Ramezani says. "In one of my user group workshops, someone told me that she doesn’t realize when she is using undermining language or apologizing for her ideas before they even come out of her mouth, but she notices when someone else is doing it. This was a great insight. We can’t change what we don’t know about, so self-awareness became a goal."
The ring would pair with an app, tracking most frequently used words and someone's progress on adding stronger vocabulary. It's also designed to track upspeak—the habit of ending sentences as if they're questions.
Ramezani also designed an app that can help women practice for presentations, giving feedback through a chat bot. All of the products are conceptual, designed to start discussions about gender in tech. But Ramezani also hopes to produce a more standard-looking version of the keyboard, along with the ring and app.
The goal is simple: to help women build bigger and stronger "word banks," the words they use most often.
"How you articulate your thoughts and opinions ultimately defines who you are in the eyes of other people," she says.