Black Stories/02: Reginé Gilbert

Reginé Gilbert, Designer, Educator, and Author joins Sr. Media Producer Justin James Lopez to discuss technology growth and inclusive design.

Reginé Gilbert is a user experience designer, educator, and international public speaker with over 10 years of experience working in the technology arena. She has a strong belief in making the world a more accessible place—one that starts and ends with the user. Regine’s areas of research focus are digital accessibility, inclusive design and immersive experiences. In 2019, Regine’s first book, ‘Inclusive Design for a Digital World: Designing with Accessibility in Mind (Design Thinking)' was released through Apress publishing.


Twitter: @reg_inee

Website: www.reginegilbert.com/


  • Full Episode Transcript
  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Hey you all, welcome to Amazon's Black stories Podcast where we highlight the stories of Black designers, researchers, and creatives from all around the world. I'm your host, Justin James Lopez, and today I'm joined by Regine Gilbert. We talk about the importance of accessibility in designing for all people. Let's hear her story.

  • Regine, thanks for joining me here on the Black stories Podcast, but let's talk about what you do at this point in time. Who are you today? I know that you're doing a mix of working with NYU and a number of consulting things outside with your design research. Do you consider yourself a designer, a researcher, an amalgam of a number of things? Tell us that story.

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah, I'm both. I am a designer and a researcher. This summer I have been working on a couple of projects. One is related to virtual reality design patterns and then the other is working with ARISA Labs who has received a NASA grant. And my students last semester and my students this summer are working on that. So I'm doing both. I'm going to be setting up user interviews and creating survey questions this week and in a couple weeks I'll be doing the designs. So it's been quite a journey because when I first started in UX, it was very much about the wire frames and getting those out. And then for a few of my freelance, like when I first started in UX, I was doing freelance work and I was doing both. I was doing research and the design. So I feel like I do both.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Was that always the case? Did you always see yourself as kind of doing both of these things or is it really just out of necessity based on the projects that you're working on?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • I think it's been out of necessity, but I enjoy the research piece because it helps you... In my opinion, it helps the designer understand. If you're just designing, you may not know why you're making that decision or why you're designing things that way. And when you have that research piece, you're getting the why a lot of times.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. So let's take a step into this time machine and rewind time a bit, right? How did you decide that this is the path that you wanted to get on when it comes to being in the design world? Was this something that was always there? Is it something that kind of sparked later? Where's the origin point?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • From when I was young, I wanted to be a designer. Specifically, I wanted to be a fashion designer. So if we go back in time to 2005, I was in a position where I just finished up my MBA. I had just broken up with someone and I was like, "What am I going to do with my life?" I'm going to apply to fashion design school because that's what I always wanted to do. And so I applied to Parsons and I got in and I didn't know what that meant. I sold my car, I sold my stuff. I moved from Las Vegas to New York. I had no idea what I was in store for. Going to Parsons was very difficult. It was one of the hardest school experiences I have ever had in part because I didn't know what I was doing, but also I really wanted to be a fashion designer. Really that was my dream.

  • And so I did a year and then I got a very cool internship at Victoria's Secret in their marketing team working in the swimmer department. And that I did for five months and then I went on to get into design and I was a technical fashion designer for two years with the Jones Group, Jones New York. They owned Nine West and Easy Spirit at the time, Barneys. And so it was really cool to work as a technical fashion designer. Technical fashion designers focus on the fit of a garment. So specifically I worked on the wovens team. So any sort of button-down shirts that you have. Most people wear T-shirts that's considered a knit, anything kind of with a lot of stretch in it.

  • And so, yeah, for two years I was in fashion design as a technical fashion designer and then I transferred into the IT department where I became an IT trainer and I kind of left design. I always had an interest in like the digital side of things. I worked in software development and supply chain for a lot of years. And it was in 2013, 2014 that I started taking classes. I took my very first class, which was like building a website in three weekends, right? So I learned from HTML and CSS and JavaScript. And I knew that I was working as a PM and I wasn't really feeling it. And I said, "I want to do something different." So I tried different classes through NYU, through General Assembly and I decided I was going to take the part-time UX course at General Assembly. So I was working as a PM during the day, I was going to school at night. I took a 12 week course and that course changed my life.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. And that's kind of what sparked the career trend that you've been on ever since?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah, yeah. 2013

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Balancing so many things. What was life like in that space where you're going basically, you're going around the clock, right? You always have something to think about and you're switching brains almost, right? You're doing your PM work and then you're going and saying, hey, but this is what I really want to do. Did those two worlds ever like clash during that process?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • No, they felt separate. My day job was in like supply chain. So I was dealing with warehouses, I was dealing with internal business stakeholders, and it was just a lot of reports that I was dealing with. And then it was an internal software that I was working with and it wasn't an outward-facing website. So when I took the class, they're like, "Oh, design a website?" I'm like, "What does that mean?" And go interview people. And I decided to work on something that was e-commerce related because I wasn't working in the fashion world. So it's like, oh, I'll make this e-commerce whatever website. So that's why they were different. Before I was a PM I was a business analyst, and I would say there's a lot of overlap with business analyst work and UX work.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Okay.

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • So, yeah. So you found a way to make it make sense, right?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • I think a lot of that the human mind is really interesting to me when it... And we've talked about this right before with the work that I do. It's interesting how we can really find the patterns and things that seemingly are disconnected in that way, and it sounds like you were able to do that and really navigate that in a very specific path. So you started in fashion design it sounds. And you said the technical fashion designers are the ones that focus on the actual fit of the clothes. How did we get from there to virtual reality? You said you were working on virtual reality, right? I feel like those two things aren't really like direct line [crosstalk 00:07:34].

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • I know. They're not. The funny thing about anybody's path, if you were to say, okay, what have you done in your life? And you graph it out, nobody's path is this linear straight line. Everybody's is up and down and sometimes you circle back and it's all over the place. And there is a lot of overlap. You were asking me about being a PM and UX design and like working during the day and going to class at night. I think I purposely separated them because I just was like, I am ready to do something new. But there's a lot of overlap with the PM world and UX. When I left fashion design, I did not go back to it. I'm very, very interested in fashion always. Like that will never ever leave. I have very good friends who do like tour, which is custom designs. So because my friends are in it, my good friends are still in this world, I'm still in it.

  • The way that I got into the immersive technologies of augmented reality, virtual reality was I had my own business and I worked out of a WeWork in Harlem, and there was a group of folks sitting next to me who worked in augmented reality. And we just ended up talking and I was like, "Oh, I do UX design." They're like, "We sometimes need UX help." And I was like, "I'll help you." And so I was able to look at their stuff and provide some feedback and do a little bit of usability testing. And that got me interested. And I had already been interested in it. Like previously I'd started to look into it. And then folks at NYU asked me to co-create an immersive tech or a UX for AR and VR course.

  • And so that got me more interested and really I really got into it. And it was in part because of the folks who worked out of the WeWork with me because they introduced me to other people and I was teaching all the while. And so I started bringing augmented reality into my classes and teaching just a little bit about it. So it was 2019 that I worked on the class for NYU's online program and I ended up making another course with some other instructors. So that got me into it.

  • So then three years ago, I went to the first XR Access Symposium. And so XR stands for extended reality, which is like the umbrella for augmented reality, virtual reality, audio spatial. And so I went to this XR Access and became a part of the group that was focused on education. And this first symposium was really cool because it was focused on accessibility in the XR space. And so that sparked me going, "Huh, what could we do?" So like, for example, last semester, my students worked with a person who was blind to create an augmented reality concept. They didn't have time to actually build it, but they were able to not only interview this person they were working with, but interview others in the blind and low vision communities to find out what would be good practice for an augmented reality experience, which people tend to think is visual, but you can also make it audio, you can make it haptic. There are other things that you can do.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah, I spent some time working in research more for HR, but for a virtual reality company that I won't name here. What was interesting is that I learned some of those things. And I think that we don't spend enough time thinking about them, right? Where I thought it's like in a immersive video game. That's all I thought about at the time and you don't realize that there's so many applications that you can use. Like I remember meeting someone and they, in this kind of similar vein that you're talking about, mentioning, well, imagine a world where you can have a classroom full of children. They're all neurodiverse, they all learn in their own ways. They maybe have different languages and they're all in this experience, right? They can all put on these kind of maybe even [inaudible 00:12:13] suits, but for sure, the headsets, and then they're all learning the same lesson in different ways in the ways that they need to learn.

  • And then there's no stagger in where they develop because they're developing in their own ways in the ways that they're optimized for. And I was like, oh, well, it's amazing to think about, but this is kind of what we can do with that, but we don't tend to think about that in our society. We're just like, hey, this is the way you're supposed to learn. So if you can't learn that, then you are whatever, right? That Einstein... What is the Einstein quote of if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, then it'll live its life believing it's stupid. And I think that we do that, right? We do that a lot in design.

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • 100%. That's why I like the concept of universal design for learning because it caters to an individual's learning style, right? And we don't all learn in the same way. So something that could be immersive tech and applied to education would be amazing. We just have a long, long way to go in terms of what can be applied, but we're seeing more and more application of this type of technology in movies, in the workplace. And 2020 really showed us that virtual is here to stay no matter what. So the way that we interact with each other in the 3D world is changing too. So I think there's so much more to come in this space and there is so much work to be done in terms of getting folks who are typically left out to be part of the conversations.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. Now, as we kind of like shift here, I think that this is a perfect segue into this next question of like I've... So I've actually been kind of peeking through your book, right? Inclusive Design for a Digital World. And I know that one thing that popped out at the very beginning was just that idea of... Now, I'm not really big on sports, on watching sports at least, but I have a friend that has this red, green color blindness. And you have a use case in here in this book where you talk about like, hey, watching the Jets game was a nightmare. The Jets and I think Bills game was like a nightmare for so many people. And I think they said for like 8% of the population or something like that of the US that have this red, green color blindness, and it's something that I had never considered. So when you think about inclusive design and accessibility, first question, at this point in time, do you think the right amount of emphasis is put on this as we design our products and services broadly?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • My answer is no. I think that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to inclusion and accessibility, both of those things, because we tend to, especially folks who work in tech tend to see things the way that they see them and there's a lot of assumption made about people's lifestyles and what people actually have access to. What I can say is I'm so, so thrilled to see more folks talking about accessibility and talking about inclusion, but then a lot of folks still don't know what does inclusion mean? Kat Holmes who wrote the book Mismatch Design says, we don't know what inclusion is, but we know what exclusion is.

  • What I think about for inclusion is really gender, socioeconomic background. The fact that when this pandemic hit, so many students fell behind because they don't have internet at home or their only way to access things was through their parents' phone, which the parents aren't necessarily... They're at work. They're not giving up their... There are other things going on. So I think that we have some ways to go when it comes to inclusion. I think there is a lack of understanding in general about people's access to things when the people who are making the things always have access.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • I don't expect anyone to have like all of the answers here, but what's the first step for these organizations or say like organizations like Amazon with like someone's resources when it comes to either just education around this space or implementation in this space? What do you think is the gap area that could at least immediately be filled here?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • I think that hiring folks with disabilities, I think that talking to people that you don't normally talk to is one first step because there's a saying nothing about us without us. And so if you are an organization that is wanting to promote inclusion and accessibility, then practice what you preach and bring people in who are different than who you may have had there in the past.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah. There's that idea that people hire people like them.

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • And you kind of have to break that cycle almost, right?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah, for years I've told my students people hire in their likeness because this is what I was told. People hire in their likeness. And all the time people get told they're not a cultural fit whatever that means. I have suspicions of what that means, but I don't know. So there is this, and this is more of a societal issue than a tech issue is that being an individual and being different is not as acceptable as people who are going with what is considered "normal." And I put that in air quotes, whatever that means. So it's tough because it goes beyond the tech industry. It is a societal issue, right? That this sameness and everybody being the same and saying things like people hiring their likeness, people need to, yes, hire people that look like the rest of the people who are out in society, the people who are actually using the products.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • I was speaking to a professor at Villanova University out on the East Coast and we were having this discussion and he brought up this concept that I thought was really interesting. He said diversity and inclusion, a lot of people get the diversity right but not the inclusion. And he said, even when you consider the fact that having a color palette in a room that all think the exact same thing, that's really not diversity in the way we want as far as like really diversifying the perspectives, the rich nature that people bring to the table because all you're doing is just creating group think in a different form.

  • And I thought that was interesting because it is a blocker, right? You're still in a very real way, you're making safe bets and hiring people like you while still kind of like checking these boxes off to help yourself out in certain ways from an organizational standpoint. So accessibility here. And then you said this idea of like not really understanding what inclusion is at these corporations. I think that that's the piece that I want to jump into here, this idea of creating inclusive cultures, right? As a design problem. How do you design an organization that is inclusive when maybe the organization really... Not even maybe, right? Like these organizations, most of their core tenants when they were founded weren't founded on that principle.

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah, I think that one of the things that happens with businesses is pivoting and pivoting from what you know. And if folks really want to be able to grow their business and scale to a larger audience, then you have to be more inclusive, right? Because then more people are going to buy your stuff, more people are going to participate in whatever service you might be offering if you are offering it to a wider audience than your narrow one. So I can't answer what specifically... I will say this, there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. And the way that change happens and we've all seen it is that it happens slowly.

  • And I've had former students say, "Oh, I'm trying to get people to do accessibility and they don't care. Like they won't even do all texts. They don't do anything and I'm getting super frustrated." And I've had people on the verge of tears because I get the pleasure of teaching students about accessibility and inclusion and they're so happy when they... They're like, "Oh, I learned something new." And then they get a job where nobody cares. And I've had to tell them for your psychological safety in the workplace, you have to do what's best for you. Even if you believe of pushing, pushing, pushing, you could push yourself right over. And your number one priority is yourself in taking care of your mental health in the workplace. So if they're not listening, maybe that's not the place to be, right? And in the meantime, you need to support yourself and feed yourself and maybe your children and whatnot, right? So you do what you can until you can move on.

  • And so I encourage everybody to take care of themselves first because it's like when you're on the plane and if there's something going down and that oxygen mass drops, who do you put it on? You put it on yourself. And so in this process of fighting for what I believe is an ethical issue of inclusion and accessibility, you also need to know when to stop and take a break and step back. Because I think the number one thing that people can do is take care of themselves because then it radiates out to the world. You be the change you want to see in the world and take care of yourself first. People may say that's selfish. Be selfish because no one else is going to take care of you. You have to take care of yourself. And that's in all aspects of your life. And I am someone who I will fight for accessibility my whole life, but I also know that there are times where I need a break.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah, which is fair, right? I think that's a fair ask. You mentioned teaching a number of times, right? So you're currently a professor at NYU. Is that correct?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Mm-hmm (affirmative).

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • So I'm assuming like I look at life as like we all have these like buckets, right? And you kind of fill the buckets throughout your life and make sure your core buckets are filled. Is that a part of your core... Like where does that fit in your bigger picture? Is that always something that needs to be a bucket that's filled for you?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah, I started teaching early in my career. I think I started teaching a year after I finished my program. And so I started teaching at General Assembly initially and then I became an adjunct at NYU and then I became a full-time faculty member at NYU, which is where I am now in the Integrated Design & Media Program in the Tandon School of Engineering. I enjoy teaching immensely. It gives me such joy to see when students get it, and by get it I mean when they start to think differently and start to see the world differently and start to see that literally everything is by design, right? And understanding themselves and understanding people because I think that's a big part of UX. People talk about the design, the design, but at the heart of UX is people and people's behaviors around technologies. And so, yeah, I get a kick out of it. I really enjoy it.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • So you're a teacher, you're a researcher, you're a designer. You have all these hats. Who do you learn from? Who inspires you? And the reason why I ask is like you have this split between seeing is believing and believing is seeing. Some people need to have that. Like I know I'm a part of this cohort of people where it was difficult for me to see myself in a space where no one that looked like me existed. And a lot of that is for what we're doing here with the Blackstories Podcast is kind of giving that cohort of people that assistance they might need in highlighting the stories of people that look like them come from their backgrounds in these spaces that they want to be in or spaces that they never considered being in to be honest as an option. But I know that's what it is for me. What cohort of people do you sit in and where do you get that inspiration from?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • So I primarily get my inspiration from my students because they see things and see the world so differently than I do. And this is all the students older and younger, because if you're making a choice to go to school, you are seeing the world different. And then I would say Maurice Cherry is a huge individual in my life. Like he's a friend, but he is also... What he has done with his podcast, Revision Path, has exposed me to people I never would've been exposed to otherwise. So Maurice's podcast, Revision Path, showcases black creatives from all over the world. So I get inspired by listening to those stories. And Twitter is my jam. Like I love... I get so much from folks on Twitter and I've been able to meet and have conversations with so many people through that platform. So those are my three, my students, Maurice, and Twitter.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • And Twitter. I love that. I love the big three there. So last question here is what's next? What's next for you?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Oh, wow. So for me in the immediate is working on this really cool project with ARISA Labs. ARISA Labs was awarded a grant from NASA to make eclipse accessible for folks in the blind and low vision communities. It's a citizen science project for soundscapes. So citizen scientists will receive little recorders and they'll do recordings during the eclipse. Those recordings will be uploaded to a website. And so if someone is blind or low vision, they may not be able to see the eclipse, but they could hear the sounds of the eclipse. And so my students have been doing research this past semester on best practices for websites and for the blind and low vision communities, and then the summer, my grad assistant and I have been work on further research and talking to folks. And those preliminary designs will be laid out. So that's what's like immediate.

  • In addition to that, I've been working with a group called VEIL on examining design patterns in virtual reality, and I have another grad assistant who has been looking specifically at inclusion and accessibility with the Quest 2 and specific titles. And so that's been fun working with him on that. And we are in the process of maybe creating a game. I'm not sure.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Okay.

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • We're working on a game concept. So there's that. And then I am working on a second book with Doug North Cook out of Chatham University. He and I met when I did a really cool design residency at Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright home. And this design residency was five days offline. I was with nine other people, and it was when you get offline and you could think about creating experiences with whatever is given to you, you become very creative. So I met Doug there and we decided to come up with a book that was related to the human side of spatial computing. So spatial computing for those who may not be familiar, it is virtual reality and augmented reality and artificial intelligence and is considered under the umbrella of spacial computing, but our book is focused more on the human side of things. And so we are in the process of writing that now. So that'll be my next thing is finishing that book hopefully in the next year.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Yeah, just all the things. Just do all of the things.

  • I love it, man. I love this energy. Well, thank you again. But before we break off here, I wanted to make sure that we... For all the listeners that want to get in contact with you, maybe work with you or find out more about the book that's coming out or the current resources that you have, how would they connect with you?

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • I'm pretty active on Twitter.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Of course.

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • I might be obsessed. So I'm @reg_inee. And you can go to my website, reginegilbert.com. If you're looking to reach out, my email is there. So that would probably be the best way.

  • Justin James Lopez:
  • Perfect. And all of that, for our listeners, all of that information will also be on the website, amazon.design. And Regine, thanks again for talking to us today.

  • Regine Gilbert:
  • Yeah. Thank you.