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Use Diversity as a Resource



On the one hand, I’ve always been fascinated with biology. If you learn or recall even a little about biology, you’ll know that diversity is a fundamental aspect of life. Life repeats patterns. But it balances that repetition with variation and diversity. 

At the same time, I’ve found it much more interesting in nearly every aspect of life to seek some substantial level of variety rather than constancy. That includes everything from flowers to fields of study to people to interact with. My “favorite color” is blue. But the last thing I want is to see only my favorite shade of blue. That is, after all, equivalent to being blind. While I love eating cashews, it would be hell to have only them for every meal. 

My first job after grad school was managing a project on the “Psychology of Aging” at Harvard Med School. We focused on such tasks as reaction time and memory but I also looked into adjacent fields; for example, it was clear that “ageism,” as well as sexism and racism, was alive and kicking. True enough, there are general trends of age-related slowing and memory issues, but there are several caveats. First of all, there is huge variability within an age group. In our studies of generally healthy veterans from their 20’s to 70’s, the differences within an age group were about 2.5 x as large (roughly speaking) as the overall age-related changes that we saw. The fastest individual in the whole study of several hundred people was not in their 20’s nor in their 30’s. In fact, it was a 55-year old school superintendent who raced motorcycles cross-country on the weekend. The effect of the way various tasks were constructed was far more important than individual differences. In over-simple but basically accurate terms, age is a weak variable when it comes to “mental performance,” individual differences are a moderate variable and the conditions of the tasks are strong variables. In my experience, having individuals with a diversity of ages produces better results. (Relevant studies of aging, not empirical proof of the immediately previous statement: 9, 10, 22, 28, 31, 37 in references below). 

portrait promenade la nature homme

Photo by hermaion on Pexels.com

When I started the Artificial Intelligence Lab at NYNEX, I learned something of the history of the phone company including the fact that the telephone was invented to try to help people with special needs (in this case, hearing loss). There are many other cases where inventions that are of great use to huge numbers of people were first inspired by trying to aid those with special needs. Already aware of the possible enrichment of the field of human-computer interaction by making it more accessible to people outside of Western Europe and North America, I helped organize and run workshops on “cross-cultural issues in HCI” and as I met people from different cultures, I became even more convinced that diversity offered a resource for innovation and excellence. (Reports on a few of these activities: 2, 8, 32, 33, 36).


Working with people in other cultures or people with special needs, in my experience, provides a much greater wealth of possibilities than sticking with only one. (Some studies of relevance that I have been personally involved with: 11, 15, 16, 27, 30, 35, 38, 39, 40, 41).

Excellent arguments have been made by many as to why supporting diversity is the ethical thing to do and I quite agree with those arguments. Here, however, I am not making an argument on the basis of what is right; I am merely claiming that it is in everyone’s interest to support diversity and use it as a resource for creativity and innovation. 

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas in May, 2018 


Related Patterns: 

Who Speaks for Wolf?, Build from Common Ground.


Human societies have widely different customs about what is appropriate behavior. As people grow up in a culture, they generally learn one (or, more rarely two) ways to dress, eat, speak, walk, and so on. Diverse groups of people, regardless of how that diversity arises, will have a wider range of skills, experiences, perspectives, and attitudes to apply to solving a problem. This diversity is a resource that can help throughout problem solving to improve the chances of solving a problem, generating a good design, or resolving an issue. Therefore, when faced with a problematic situation, improve your chances of success by bringing to bear diversity on the problem. 


Cultures developed separately in many places around the world. Partly to adapt to specific conditions and partly by accident, these cultures developed different cultural practices. In addition, humans, like every other living species, exhibits diversity on thousands of dimensions even at birth. Beyond that, people are further influenced to develop differently based on their families of origin and their peer groups. These differences are critical in having allowed us to develop a complex, highly interconnected society of many specialists. People can become incredibly skilled at tennis or playing the piano or writing poetry or programming in LISP or fixing plumbing problems or planting trees or hunting or cooking, to name a few of the thousands of specialities that now exist. Everyone doesn’t have to do every single task for themselves. If we did, we would all be moderately good at the same relatively small set of skills. Instead, we can mainly rely on others who are extremely good at doing what they do and trade the fruits of our labors at what we are expert at for the fruits of their labors. 

All these differences mean that it often takes slightly longer to find and work from common ground; to understand each other, than it might if everyone were born and raised identically. 

Many of us live in societies that push for the fastest possible answer, solution, design, or resolution. There is an absurd push toward speed at the expense of quality. This tends to make people impatient to “just get on with it” by which they actually mean, “just get on with it the way I want to do it.” 



When people push to the fastest possible solution, it tends to compromise quality in every way. One of the most important ways it compromises quality is that it pushes people not to consider a large variety of ideas but instead to pick the first one or two that come to mind. Generally, the first few ideas that come to mind are not original in any significant way. The ideas will be largely deployed or implicit in the dominant culture already. There will be very few real innovations. 

There is another problem with such an approach. Whatever the “answer” is, it will typically not appeal to everyone or even be in everyone’s interest. As a result, a design will fail to gain the widest possible audience and may instigate a backlash among those whose needs are not being met or whose needs are actually being subverted. 

In a fairly homogeneous group, it is very likely that some vital aspects of the problem or situation will be overlooked. A solution will be derived based on limited data and then marketed based on limited appeal. This failure will be surprising to the homogeneous group because they are only looking at it from one perspective; viz., their own. 


  • Diversity of background leads to diversity of experiences.
  • The expectations of any one person are primarily based on their own past experiences.
  • The behavior of any other person is largely based on that person’s past experiences. 
  • People in fairly homogeneous groups tend to focus on their similarities rather than their differences; in some cases, they may even denigrate or make fun of other groups. 
  • Fairly homogeneous groups who focus on their similarities will further reduce the space of possible ideas to ones that are shared by the entire group. In other words, the group will work within the constraints of the intersection of their experiences rather than the union of their experiences. 
  • Ideas and approaches that appeal to those in a fairly homogeneous group will engender a false sense of universality of the appeal. It is easy to believe that the idea will be liked by everyone as much as it is by this particular group.  
  • The same unconscious close-mindedness that prevents the fairly homogenous group from generating very innovative ideas will also make it very difficult to accurately diagnose the real source of the failure.  
  • People in a diverse group will provide that group with an initial set of ideas that is far larger than the set of ideas generated by a homogeneous group. 
  • Moreover, people in a diverse group, if they see diversity as a resource, will tend to more often work from the union of their ideas than limiting themselves only to the intersection of their ideas and experiences.   
  • Ideas can play off against each other and produce still other new ideas. Thus, the diverse group who views their diversity as a strength will start off with a larger pool of ideas; will produce still more “recombinant” new ideas; and will more likely allow a look at the large space formed by the union of ideas rather than being limited by the intersection. 
  • Moreover, people in a diverse group will not only be more likely to produce an innovative service, product, or solution; they will also be more able to see how to market the idea, or specialize it, or localize it to any population represented within the group.    


When facing any particularly challenging situation, try to construct a highly diverse group of people to face that challenge. Respect and learn from each other’s differences. Focus on your diversity as a resource to be capitalized on rather than a handicap to be overcome. 




  1. Artists as diverse as Frank Lloyd Wright, Vincent Van Gogh, and The Beatles intentionally allowed themselves to be exposed to Asian versions of their art in order to enhance and extend their own styles.

2. High level chefs who specialize in a particular type of cuisine may also become conversant in other types of cuisine to expand the palette of tastes from which to select. 

3. In problem solving, it often happens that the representation a person uses can have a huge impact on how easy a problem is to solve. Similarly, different things are often better said in different languages.  Even when it comes to advances in an entire field, they often follow new ways of representing things. For example, understanding human speech began making much more progress once the sonogram (which shows time on the X-axis, frequency on the Y-axis and amplitude as darkness) came into use as a representation (rather than the earlier representation of a speech waveform with time on the X-axis and amplitude on the Y-axis). Modern medicine today relies on many kinds of “scans” – not just X-rays, though X-rays certainly allowed a big advance over guesswork. (Studies indicating the importance of representation: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 13, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25, 26).  

Resulting Context:

Generally speaking, when diverse groups work together and view their diversity as a resource, the result is a better product, service, solution, or resolution. In addition, it typically happens as a kind of side-effect, that the roads to marketing in diverse markets are also opened up. Finally, everyone within the group learns from the others in the group. Inclusion and diversity have another very powerful positive impact. Everyone sees that what one does is the basis for reward rather than what one is or who they know. (Studies on the impact of diversity on team performance: 7, 12, 17, 42). 

This is a huge win for teams, groups, companies, and nations. If people feel that they will be rewarded based on what they do, then people are incentivized to do the best they can. If people feel that they are rewarded based on their age, race, sex, national origin etc. — that is, things over which they have no control, then no-one is motivated to do their best. Those in the out-group feel it is fairly pointless and those in the in-group feel it is unnecessary. 

Of course, there are many other factors besides diversity that impact creativity and innovation. The latter depend on leadership, organizational context, process, support, incentives, etc. In the short term, if people are under time pressure, some may perceive that they haven’t been as productive even if they have if there more ideas and more varied ideas are discussed. Arranging the context so that people are motivated to do well rather than do quickly will be critical to success. 



[1] Bellamy, R., Erickson, T., Fuller,B., Kellogg, W.,  Rosenbaum, R., Thomas, J. and Vetting Wolf, T (2007) Seeing is believing: Design visualization for managing risk and compliance. IBM Systems Journal 46:2, 207-218.

[2] Best, M., Deardon, A., Dray, S., Light, A., Thomas, J.C., Buckhalter, C., Greenblatt, D., Krishnan, S., Sambasivan, N. (2007). Sharing perspectives on community centered design and international development.  Human-Computer Interaction, INTERACT 2007. New York: Springer.

[3] Carroll, J. and Thomas, J.C. (1982). Metaphor and the cognitive representation of computer systems. IEEE Transactions on Man, Systems, and Cybernetics., SMC-12 (2), pp. 107-116. 

[4] Carroll, J. Thomas, J. Miller, L. & Friedman, H.  (1980). Aspects of solution structure in design problem solving. American Journal of Psychology, 93 (2), 269-284.

[5] Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1980). Presentation and representation in design problem solving. British Journal of Psychology/,71 (1), pp. 143-155. 

[6] Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1979). A clinical-experimental analysis of design problem solving. Design Studies, 1 (2), pp. 84-92. 

[7]Chow, I. (2018) “Cognitive diversity and creativity in teams: the mediating roles of team learning and inclusion”, Chinese Management Studies, 12 (2), 369-383, https://doi.org/10.1108/CMS-09-2017-0262

[8] Dearden, A., Dunckley, L, Best, M., Dray, S., Light, A. & Thomas, J.C. (2007).  Socially responsible design in the context of international development. Panel presented at INTERACT 2007, Rio de Janiero, BZ,

[9] Fozard, J. L., Thomas, J. C., and Waugh, N. C. (1976). Effects of age and frequency of stimulus repetitions on two-choice reaction time. Journal of Gerontology, 31, (5), pp. 556-563. 

[10] Fozard, J. and Thomas, J. (1975). Psychology of aging: Basic findings and some psychiatric implications.  In J. Howells (Ed). Modern Perspectives in the psychiatry of old age. NY: Brunner/Mazel.

[11] Friedman, B., Brok, E., Roth. S. K., Thomas, J. C. (1996). Minimizing bias in computer systems. SIGCHI Bulletin, 28(1), pp. 48-51. 

[12] Kurtzberg, T. (2005). Feeling creative, being creative: An empirical study of diversity and creativity in teams. Creativity Research Journal, 17(1), 51-65.

[13] Malhotra, A., Thomas, J.C., Carroll, J. & Miller, L. (1980). Cognitive processes in design. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 20 , 119-140.

[14] Malhotra, A., Thomas, J.C. and Miller, L. (1980). Cognitive processes in design. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 12, pp. 119-140. 

[15] Srivastava, S., Dhanesh, K., Basson, S., Rajput, N., Thomas, J., Srivastava, K. (2012). Voice user interface and growth markets. India HCI conference.

[16] Srivastava, S., Rajput, N, Dhanesha, K., Basson, S., and Thomas, J. (2013). Community-oriented spoken web browser for low literate users. CSCW, San Antonio, TX, 2013.

[17] Stahl, G., Maznevski, M., Voigt, A., and Jonsen, K. (2009). Unraveling the effects of cultural diversity in teams: A meta-analysis of research on multi-cultural work groups. Journal of International Business Studies, 1-20. 

[18] Thomas, J.C. (1991). The human factors of voice interfaces. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 80 (3), 138-151. 

[19] Thomas, J.C. and Schneider, M. (1982). A rose by any other alphanumeric designator would smell as sweet. Behavior and Information Technology, 1 (4), 323-325. 

[20] Thomas, J.C. (1978). A design-interpretation analysis of natural English. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 10, pp. 651-668. 

[21] Thomas, J.C. and Carroll, J. (1978). The psychological study of design. Design Studies, 1 (1), pp. 5-11. 

[22] Thomas, J. C., Fozard, J. L. and Waugh, N. C. (1977). Age-related differences in naming latency. American Journal of Psychology, 90(3), pp. 499-509. 

[23] Thomas, J.C. (1974). An analysis of behavior in the hobbits-orcs problem. Cognitive Psychology 6 , pp. 257-269. 

[24] Thomas, J. (2015). Chaos, Culture, Conflict and Creativity: Toward a Maturity Model for HCI4D. Invited keynote @ASEAN Symposium, Seoul, South Korea, April 19, 2015.

[25] Thomas, J. (2014). Mobile Systems for Computational Social Science: A Perfect Storm. Invited keynote address at UbiComp workshop, Sept. 13, 2014, Seattle, WA.

[26] Thomas, J., Diament,J., Martino, J. and Bellamy, R., (2012). Using “Physics” of Notations to Analyze a Visual Representation of Business Decision Modeling. Presented at VL/HCC 2012 conference in Salzburg, Austria.

[27] Thomas, J. C. , Basson, Sara H., and Gardner-Bonneau, D.  (2008 & 1999) Universal access and assistive technology. In D. Gardner-Bonneau (Ed.), Human factors and voice interactive systems. Norwell, MA: Kluwer. 

[28] Thomas, J.C. (2003), Social aspects of gerontechnology.  In Impact of technology on successful aging N. Charness & K. Warner Schaie (Eds.). New York: Springer.

[29] Thomas, J. C. (2001). An HCI Agenda for the Next Millennium: Emergent Global Intelligence. In R. Earnshaw, R. Guedj, A. van Dam, and J. Vince (Eds.), Frontiers of human-centered computing, online communities, and virtual environments. London: Springer-Verlag. 

[30] Thomas, J.C. (1997). Steps toward universal access in a telecommunications company. In B. Friedman (Ed.), Human values and the design of computer technology. Stanford, CA: CSLI. 

[31] Thomas, J. C. (2017). Old People and New Technology: What’s the Story? Presented at Northwestern University Symposium on the Future of On-Line Interactions, Evanston, Ill, 4/22/2017. 

[32] Thomas, J.C. (2007). Panelist, Meta-design and social creativity: Making all voices heard. INTERACT 2007, Rio de Janeiro, BZ, Nov., 2007.

[33] Thomas, J.C. (2007).  E-learning: An opportunity to meld modern technology and ancient wisdom? Panelist, E-learning.  INTERACT 2007, Rio de Janeiro, BZ, Nov. 2007.

[34] Thomas, J.C. (2005). Patterns to promote individual and collective creativity.  Presented at the Human Computer Interaction International, Las Vegas, NV, July 27, 2005.

[35] Thomas, J.C. (1996). Invited panel presenter at the National Research Council’s workshop: Toward an every-citizen interface to the national information infrastructure, Washington, DC., August 23, 1996.

[36] Thomas, J.C. & Kellogg, W. (1993). Cross-cultural perspectives on human-computer interaction: report on the CHI ’92 workshop. SIGCHI Bulletin, 25 (2), 40-45.

[37] Trewin, S., Richards, J., Hanson, V., Sloan, D., John, B., Swart, C., Thomas, J. (2012). Understanding the role of age and fluid intelligence in information search. Presented at the ASSETS Conference, Boulder CO.

[38] Trewin, S., Bellamy, R., Thomas, J., Brezin, J., Richards, J., Swart, C., and John, B.E., (2010). Designing for Auditory Web Access: Accessibility and Cellphone Users.  The 7th International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility, W4A.

[39] Trewin, S, Richards, J.,Bellamy, R, John, B.E.,Thomas, J.C., Swart, C.Brezin, J. (2010). Toward Modeling Auditory Information Seeking Strategies on the Web. CHI Work In Progress. 

[40] Trewin, S., Bellamy, R., Thomas, J., Brezin, J., Richards, J., Swart, C., and John, B.E., (2010). Designing for Auditory Web Access: Accessibility and Cellphone Users.  The 7th International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility, W4A.

[41] Trewin, S, Richards,J.,Bellamy, R, John, B.E.,Thomas, J.C., Swart, C.,Brezin,J. (2010). Toward Modeling Auditory Information Seeking Strategies on the Web. CHI Work In Progress. 

[42] Yap, C., Chai, K. & Lemaire, P. (2005). An empirical study on functional diversity and innovation in SMEs. Creativity and Innovation Management, 14 (2), 176-190.