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Fostering inclusivity in design

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“To become more inclusive, we need to develop a better understanding of exclusion.”

This line describes and defines the final panel of the Design and Exclusion Conference. While we’re likely nodding our heads yes, holding a team meeting to discuss these themes can feel difficult and uncomfortable as much as necessary.

It’s with this sense of responsibility and uncertainty that we turned to the panelists. In the closing Q&A of the conference, 3 thought leaders sat down to answer community questions about how exclusion seeps its way into design and how we can better seek equality and access.  

  • John MaedaAutomattic’s Global Head, Computational Design and Inclusion
  • Nathan Matias – PhD student at MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media researching large-scale experiments on reducing discrimination and harassment online, as well as observational studies on social movements
  • Amy Choi – Co-founder and Editorial Director of The Mash-Up Americans, a multimedia publisher, creative studio, and consulting agency that explores race, culture, and identity in America

Below outlines the talking points that made us look twice, self-reflect, and seek to do better. We hope that in synthesizing and sharing their conversation, we make it easier for you and your teams to do the same.

“I’ve been thinking about this topic of inclusion and exclusion for a while now, and I realized that how I feel doesn’t really matter that much.” 

Opening the Q&A, John Maeda describes how he prefers to keep his perspectives to himself in favor of listening—to everyone. Active listening requires lowering barriers, fighting expectations, and truly hearing feelings of exclusivity by including everyone in that discussion.

“What matters to me more is hearing other people’s stories of exclusion—and it’s often a story of feeling different,” John says.

It’s no surprise then that the final panel of this conference was a Q&A incorporating questions from a wide community and devoting time to hear and respond.

We believe that this is a poignant place to start any discussion about inclusivity.


“Creatives are inherently inclusive”

Within the conference, the idea spread that creatives are inherently inclusive. This idea is somewhat preposterous—both a blanket statement and elitist. Rather, as John says: “If you’re a really good creative, you are inclusive.” 

He continues: “Having had the opportunity to work a lot of top creative people… they tend to be more multi. They’re more open to something that is different than you might think, whether it might be food, clothing, way of life, things they try, things they aren’t afraid to try. Over time I thought that was just a creative thing, but I realized it’s an inclusive thing—and inclusivity drives their creativity.”

We like the idea that creativity is bred not born, and we especially like the idea that it comes from an array of multiple experiences and inputs. This concept aligns those who wish to be more creative with those who wish to be more inclusive. Combined, this is a powerful idea.

How can we be inclusive, but foster a standard of excellence?

Likely a question asked by design hiring managers, college admissions boards, and local team coaches alike, this question circumvents a discussion about ethics, affirmative action, and hiring quotas by prioritizing the end goal of achieving excellence. 

Nathan references Ellen Swallow Richards, an environmental chemist who “realized that if you broaden who can do science, then you make make discoveries beyond what one great scientist can do.” 

Richards once enlisted a large group of people to collect 20,000 water samples across Massachusetts, which resulted in the first data analysis of the chemistry of the water supply. It was used to create one of the first municipal sewage systems.

“For designers, it is a natural course of action to work more inclusively.”

In a slightly different story that we appreciated for its boldness, John cites the elitist nature of MIT and describes how he left the prestigious university to learn more and from a broader range of people. 

While 2 different stories, playful and parabolic, they tell us this: excellence is not achieved by a concentration of elitism, but rather a collection of voices.

Around 47% of Americans have experienced some kind of online harassment

Forty-seven percent. We sat with that number for a second, but for anyone who’s hosted a webinar, written a blog with comments enabled, or is a woman on the internet, we know this to be true.

Nathan speaks eloquently: “When we thinking about problems like harassment, trolling, discrimination—yes, there are sometimes people and groups who do these kinds of things in a dedicated coordinated fashion, but there’s also research showing that any of us, under the right circumstances… if we think that the people around us are okay with a certain behavior that is unkind or discriminatory to us, then we often follow the crowd.”

In essence, your culture’s tolerance of harassment is an average of what people think they can get away with.

“When we think about what to do about these problems, sometimes it’s possible to draw the line and not include people who are consistently aggressive toward others or consistently harm others, but we also need to think about social change and how we can change the overall culture so that people realized that treating people in unfair ways and acting badly toward them is not okay,” Nathan said.

With this in mind, know that any “troll” or “bad seed” in your online communities or workplace culture pulls others toward a tipping point. 

If this feels like a dark outlook on human nature, the bright side is that it’s also possible to socially engineer.

Do technology and design exclude people with disabilities?

We’re going to go ahead and say yes. We’d be rather ignorant if we didn’t.

While many solutions for fostering inclusion seem difficult, expensive, or even cloudy, this was one area that seemed to have a fairly clear and easy answer.

“Talking about inclusion is good for business.”

“Bring more people into the work of design, whether that’s who we include as staff or who we include in the process of research we do and who actually does the design,” Nathan said. 

Hiring can be expensive and practices flawed, but in your own role, it’s likely that you can reach out to a more diverse group of users to get input on your product and designs.

How do you design for your target customer without excluding?

Taking a step back and examining MVPs (minimum viable products) and personas, you can get an eye for how exclusion is systematically created by the startup mindset.

What is a persona besides the included group? The natural converse is exclusion.

If we only have budget X, and X can only apply to 5 things, and if your MVP is minimum minimum minimum, you’re targeting a minimum group of people—and that’s a math problem,” John said.

“Why is this a conversation about business and the financial advantage with inclusivity? I’ll say they’re all connected together. Imagine the following: Yes, we have budget X that’s going to produce Y, but now I’m going to tell you that if we were to be more inclusive, we can approach this group, with this design mentality that we’re going to make more money. And now what happens is the budget opens up. When I frame it as not a zero-sum thing, it’s how we argue for a larger addressable market as a good investment. That’s how we can do this, I believe,” continued John.

While not always possible within the confines of a limited budget, this is certainly one strategy (and one argued with data and financials), that you can use to push for more inclusivity in your business’s strategy.

“This is sound business practice. This is 21st-century business practice. Let’s embrace it.”

The conversations around inclusion, exclusion, diversity, and accessibility are here to stay. John effectively lends his power as a respected designer and leader in the tech space by reminding listeners that this is best business practice, not just a philanthropic passion or his social justice cause.

By breaking down the notion that inclusion and exclusion is an afterthought or topic for HR, John reaffirms to leaders in tech that talking about inclusion is good for business.

Remember that the ability to speak up is somewhat privileged

Amy Choi made a point to emphasize that not all people have the ability to speak up about feeling marginalized or disempowered, or even that they’re simply feeling different.

“The challenge here is that so many women and people of color don’t have the agency to do that, or they’re afraid of being able to say that to their bosses, their hiring manager, to anybody else in the office… We feel on the defensive, or always needing to prove our value without sending too many ripples through the water,” Amy said.  

Throughout the conversation, the panelists tested the idea that those excluded should be the same group fighting for inclusion. This can feel—and can be—dangerous.


A model for changing social norms

Behavioral science often reveals that humans act in patterns. And by knowing predictive patterns, we can social engineer the changes we wish to see.

“An interesting thing about social norms is that we’re wired to get those norms from people who are more like us. If we want to change how white technical culture treats people of color, one powerful strategy is to support people who are well respected who look like and are like people whose behavior you want to change for modeling and encouraging more inclusive behavior,” Nathan said.

This was a difficult statement that seems contrary to the work being done to lift up marginalized voices, but we were curious about how we could use Nathan’s work to amplify efforts toward inclusion. This quote is one we’re still mulling over.

Technology has all the network effect potential in it to achieve change

When we think about the timelines for change, nothing comes fast enough, but the tech industry has a unique advantage for being an ally in the cause.

“Why are we talking about tech? Technology has all the network effect potential in it to achieve change in a matter of days versus years and decades… This is the one field that can move the fastest and has the most economic resources embedded into it, and the leaders are out there thinking, ‘How can I take these ideas into our products?’” John said.

Welcome, everybody, to this uncomfortable space

We get it. Talking about inclusion and exclusion is hard. If it feels difficult, you’re not alone.

“You’re always going to screw up. If you’re in your box, happy and doing the same thing with the same people, you rarely mess up,” John said. “When you come out here… If you’re feeling uncomfortable, you’re actually living in space—congratulations.”

These conversations are not only challenging, they can feel risky. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I offend? Hearing this acknowledged felt like a bit of an exhale. It’s hard for everyone, which is how we know it’s the right thing to do.

Parting words

Amy closes the panel asking Nathan and John for their single piece of advice for people wanting to amplify their impact and foster inclusivity.

Don’t look away,” said John.

Don’t just listen, but respond and follow the requests and instincts of the people you serve,” Nathan said.

“But what can I do?”

We understand that it can be difficult to talk about inclusivity/exclusivity, so we’ve synthesized the community questions from the final Q&A of the Design and Exclusion conference used by Amy Choi.

“Don’t look away. Don’t just listen.”

Rework them. Think on them. Copy and paste. We don’t mind. Make them your own and your team’s own, and foster the conversation:

  • Talk about a time that you felt excluded
  • Does inclusivity mean you have to be inclusive of every idea—including jerks?
  • Why do people feel so invested in their right to say terrible things?
  • How do technology and design exclude people with disabilities?
  • How do you design for your target customer without being exclusive?
  • What are the biggest obstacles to being more inclusive? Is it technology, is it design, is it mindset, or is it changing hearts and minds to make inclusivity a priority?
  • Do you think people can seek out an “inclusivity” revelation?
  • What is your single piece of advice for people entering into this type of conversation?
  • Why do companies have such a hard time keeping women and people of color designers around? Is that a cultural issue? A leadership issue? Is it about making the spaces open to women and people of color?
  • What are ways to make people feel empowered to speak up for themselves more?
  • So much is about changing the future, but what about now? What can we do now?
  • What is the network effect of amplifying a conversation around inclusion and breaking down the other?
  • How do we define diversity, inclusion, and exclusion in technology? Should there be a definition that our industry can hold ourselves against?
  • What is the distinction between institutional responsibility, industry responsibility, and personal responsibility?

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Author

Ashley Hockney
Ashley Hockney is a full-stack content marketer and strategist. Get in touch if you'd like to talk about marketing... or writing, biking, and girl power.

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