Assumptions and failures in design: The curly hair woes of my youth

One evening when I was 11, I was bemoaning going to school in the morning.

My mom had taken me to get a haircut, which was an outing I always deeply dreaded as a kid. My hair tangled frequently, and I’d have to speak up and advocate for myself as I reminded the adult hair stylist to please take into account that when my hair was wet and combed, it would hang longer than it would once it dried.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

But, the hair stylist had gotten to chatting with my mom and by the time my hair had sprung back up to its dry height, it was an inch below my ears. I could barely tie it into a ponytail. The horror!!

Of my immediate family, I was the only person who had curly hair: the closest relative who had also caught the recessive gene was my balding uncle. Not a curly hair mentor in sight! And so I learned to care for my hair as my parents always had their straight hair: shampoo & condition, towel dry, and brush.

For the longest time I didn’t really think of my hair as curly. I thought of it as frizzy, pouffy, and unendingly challenging to tame. Whenever I saw someone with spiraling, tumbling, glossy curls, I thought to myself —well, of course I wish my hair could do that! But after years of living with it, I had a deeply held, never challenged belief that there was no hope for my hair.

Finally, in high school, something miraculous happened: one day I Googled curly hair. I landed on websites and blogs full of fellow curlies talking about how they care for their hair, sharing photos of the process, and more. I began reading up on curl types, porosity, cowashing, styling products, and how to read labels to identify ingredients to be avoided. I soon had a shopping list, and before long attempted some of the methods with disbelief at the results: my frizzy, huge hair had abilities waiting to be unlocked all this time.

In the research phase of UX design, identifying and acknowledging assumptions and biases upfront is a crucial step. Depending on the subject, it can be an uncomfortable process — but working through discomfort can allow us to be open to wide ranging insights from our research methodologies. An assumption that goes ignored, however, can be a stubborn blocker.

My many years of poor haircuts and general frustration with my hair were buoyed by many assumptions:

  • The hair stylists I saw throughout my youth were experts in cutting naturally straight or wavy hair. We were seeking guidance from SMEs, but their knowledge was limited to the audience they were most familiar with, which consisted of people with different needs than me.
  • At the time, while there were curly hair methodologies and products, they were scarce. Now, there are many companies that have sprung up to cater to a curly audience. But at the time, perhaps because many curly haired folks weren’t being encouraged to wear their hair naturally* and weren’t actively voicing an interest in such products, there was an industry wide assumption that curly hair products and certified hair stylists wouldn’t provide sufficient ROI.
  • My family and I couldn’t fathom that my hair might have needs different from those of straight hair. I also was frustrated by its state, and not in the mindset of viewing it as a problem that could be solved creatively, by thinking outside the box. With environmental and societal pressures, that assumption stuck. We couldn’t articulate the problem we needed solving, which is common of many frustrated users.


*I want to acknowledge that this rise in embracing naturally curly hair rather than feeling pressured to straighten or relax curls is inextricably linked to the natural hair movement, which originated in the 1960’s and encourages people of African descent to embrace their textured hair.

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