What is inclusive design?
Certainly one of the most talked-about issues in design today.
Here is what Heydon Pickering, a self-proclaimed inclusive designer, has to say about ‘what the heck is inclusive design.’ For other perspectives, check out Matt May (who prefers a definition from OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Research Centre in Toronto) or Kat Holmes’ Mismatch Design, ‘a community and a digital magazine dedicated to advancing inclusive design.’
It’s not just individual contributors; the big companies are taking notice.
Here’s a definition I like from Microsoft:
“Inclusive Design is a methodology, born out of digital environments, that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.”
The company also translates this definition into three broad principles: Recognizing exclusion, solving for one and extending to many, and learning from diversity.
For an alternate take, let’s take a look at how another tech giant is addressing inclusive design.
Airbnb, in collaboration with journalism startup News Deeply, asks a compelling question that serves as a practical definition.
“How can we create solutions that don’t leave any community behind? Ask the right questions.”
Airbnb summarizes its own set of principles as action-oriented strategies
Both Microsoft and Airbnb (and many other tech titans) are focusing on diversifying their workforces. However, until we know about the people and processes behind the scenes, it remains unclear how diverse and inclusive companies actually are in their design activity.
Microsoft remains under siege for unfriendly user experiences even for a “standard” user type and Airbnb still bears a logo that was ridiculed for its similarity to female genitalia—an issue that might have been highlighted before its public release if there was a woman, or even just a diverse team, involved in its design process.
Finally, here is my personal principle for what constitutes inclusive design:
Inclusive design comes from including diverse people in design decisions.
In the spirit of disclosure, it is important to share a few details about my identity and background as that provides context for my inclusive design principle. I am a designer from Pakistan. I have lived in New York, Toronto, and (currently) Oxford. My perspective is formed through lived experiences from across the globe and ten years of working as a designer in one capacity or the other.
Considering I can count the number of Pakistani designers I know on one hand, I know just how little the international design community has benefitted from design perspectives from a country with over 180 million people.
The reason for starting out with multiple definitions was to put the principle of my diversity principle to practice: any one definition or perspective is dangerous.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie may not have realized that her famous TED talk on “The dangers of a single story” is as pertinent to design as it is to our social environment.Diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility are symbiotic terms.
By allowing for diversity, you’re being inclusive. You are being inclusive when you invite perspectives that have so far been excluded. If you’re a diverse team designing for inclusivity, you’re primed for making effective accessible user experiences.
Here are three strategies I propose for designing for diversity, followed by a list of practical tips and resources.
1. Build a diverse team to design diverse experiences
Make sure your design team is diverse—or has a method for accessing diverse perspectives
Don’t design in isolation: create your designs by working with a diverse team and utilize varied focus groups when testing them out.
Through a slide show of various activities, Empathy Prompts helps you understand, to some extent, what having a certain condition feels like. Use these to design sensitively.
Diversity is not just good or ethical behavior—it’s also good business.
Shopify is an example of a business that knows that its products are increasingly used worldwide by very different communities. It responds by not only making its e-commerce products accessible on various devices but also in different languages and localized to users in different areas of the globe. Its user experience offers different currencies, seasonal and personalized trends, and, most importantly, the ability to operate the backend in languages besides just English.
Even theoretically, this means that budding entrepreneurs and start-up co-founders around the world no longer have to rely on English to set up shop on the web.
2. Design flexibly
Is your user experience a one-size-fits-all? Budget and time constraints are often blamed for overlooking the creation of inclusive experiences; however, quite often, it’s just a matter of not having the vision, empathy, or care that are essential for catering to users besides a default persona.
Pinterest recently redesigned its app to make it more accessible for the visually impaired
Inclusive design does not literally mean designing for everyone. You can still cater to your target audience while still accounting for “variation in capabilities, needs and aspirations”—defined as “user diversity” by the Inclusive Design Toolkit.
Your product can still be aimed at women in California aged 18-25, but it can also be accessible in multiple languages, responsive across assistive devices and include imagery that doesn’t assume a default skin tone and hair color for all Californian women.
Inclusive design does not also mean that the only special needs you’re addressing are of users with any medical disabilities. Otherwise, able-bodied people also experience temporary disabilities—whether it is trying to listen to an audio on a crowded train, tapping the right link when it’s jumbled within a whole list of links or scrolling in vain to get to the bottom of your lengthy hamburger menu on a small mobile screen.
Try to think of all the user scenarios your target audience may be experiencing your design in. By extending yourself to meet the user where they are, you prevent them from going over to a competitor who will.
3. Support new inclusive design ventures
A friend of mine at grad school, Nour Chamoun, took on a herculean task for her thesis: she created a platform for sharing projects and resources about Arabic type, called Tarkeeb, that could be used to put a dent in the hegemony of Latin fonts online.
A screenshot of the Tarkeeb platform, at launch.
It was not until she began working on the project that I became fully aware of how accustomed I was, as a native Urdu speaker, to only using the web in English.
In other words, I had to use a second language to access the web, the web was never made accessible to me—or the millions of people around the world who have Arabic or similar languages as their first language.
Projects like Tarkeeb are very ambitious, necessary and, yet, need organizational support to thrive. When thinking of inclusive design, make sure you find ways to discover and support designers on the forefront of it, and are not just following conventional practices of accessibility and inclusivity. We need diversity even when highlighting the voices talking about diversity.
Excited about designing inclusively? Here are a some practical tips and resources for getting started and we would love to about any that you would like to share.
Practical tips and resources
For developers, here is a handy checklist of inclusive design recommendations. For inclusive design alternatives to components in common interfaces, check out this blog by the aforementioned Heydon Pickering, the Accessibility Editor at Smashing Magazine.
It is okay to have a narrow definition of your target audience. Most marketers and designers would advocate being as precise as possible. However, knowing who you are designing for exactly is different from not knowing that it is an assumption.
For example, you may be designing a webpage with the implicit assumption that your user will be viewing it on a desktop and fully capable of using a mouse. Ask yourself: what it that was not the case and the opposite were true?
Err on the side of sensitivity
Humor is great and pushing boundaries is valuable. However, if you’re doubtful and are worrying about your copy or image choice being potentially offensive to any community, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Warn before harm
Any time you are using any snazzy animations or visual effects in your experiences, it’s best to kick off with a dose of trigger warnings.
Don’t just assume you’ve made something accessible (test it out!)
You can not claim to have made something accessible for a user that is wheelchair-bound until such a user uses it and tells you that they’ve found it useful.
Provide language options
English may be lingua franca but, increasingly, your user experience is being used by users who don’t have English as their first language. Just by adding support for one additional language, you increase accessibility for millions.
Think through color choice
There are a lot of good resources on the Internet for color choice such as this guide for picking a color scheme that takes into account factors like age and gender. However, to be truly accessible, you should also choose a colour scheme that doesn’t pose problems for visually-impaired users.
Use alt text
Always have alt text! Your images may not be visible or load for a subset of your users for a variety of reasons. You wouldn’t want them to miss out on important information about your web content.
Inclusive design helps you connect better with your users. That alone is reason enough to practice it!
Babar Suleman is a UX designer, artist, and writer. Currently reading for a Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Art at the University of Oxford, he has an MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design in New York.