Design

Inclusion is designing the future

4 min read
Kat Holmes  •  Nov 30, 2018
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There is a growing interest in making inclusion a positive goal for companies, teams, and products.

Especially, as inclusion drives daily news headlines related to governmental policies, and representation of excluded groups in mainstream industries, the urgency to reach a collective consciousness about inclusive practices is more acute.

Though it may not be immediately obvious what the business case is for shifting toward inclusion, the market opportunity is exponential.

The accessibility that’s surrounding you

Consider the objects and tools around you: the adjustable chair at your desk, reading glasses, the touchscreen on your mobile device, your computer keyboard, email, flexible straws. All of these are ubiquitous and deeply integrated into our daily lives. But did you know that these tools are descendants of innovations that were created to remedy exclusion?

In my own journey, I learned that in order to write about inclusion, I needed to start with recognizing exclusion. We’ve all experienced exclusion in our lives, and we know how it feels and what it looks like.

Our own experiences with exclusion can be crystal clear. Most of us are less skilled at recognizing how it impacts someone other than ourselves, or might potentially impact them in the future.

What if we could anticipate the kinds of exclusion that someone might experience with a solution that we create, before we release it into society?

We may not be skilled at recognizing how others experience exclusion. We must identify our own ability biases and then connect with others whose abilities might be vastly different than our own.

This shift begins with interrupting old habits and building new ones. One of the exclusion habits that we all have is assigning fixed meanings to objects. But if we change the shape, context, or purpose of an object, it can take on a new meaning.

Stretching our assumptions about the purpose of an object or environment opens us up to exploring how a solution can adapt to a specific set of circumstances. A brick is used to build structures, but it can also be used as a doorstop or heated to help cook a chicken, or ground into sand.

Adaptability to the needs of a unique person or situation is a signature trait of an inclusive solution.

Where to start

My exploration eventually led me to ask, if we can understand how exclusion is built into these different parts of what I call the ‘cycle of exclusion,’ then can we start to shift it towards inclusion in different ways?

To be certain, developing and growing inclusive practices in a company culture is challenging. As with any expertise, inclusion is a skill that’s developed with practice over time. Where do we even learn inclusive skills?

As I grew in my career as a technologist, I noticed a void of information on how to practice inclusive design for digital technologies. It was unclear how to achieve similar outcomes in the design of mass-scale technology. In search of guidance, I realized that many people had the same question: where do I start?

This is a key reason why I wrote my book Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design. While I don’t claim the book to be the definitive resource about the inclusive design approach, it culminates my experience and learnings so far.

There are so many lenses with which to guide the design of an experience or product—including, at a minimum, accessibility—that it would be disingenuous to suggest that a single resource could be comprehensive.

To that end, my team and I also launched a companion website Mismatch.design, which provides curated content and original articles, and aims to serve as a virtual meeting space for those who practice or wish to learn about inclusive design.

Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design by Kat Holmes (MIT Press, 2018)

Valuing human diversity

So many of the strategies and behaviors that have led us to exclusion have been about avoiding uncertainty. As designers and engineers, we use mathematical models to homogenize the people we design for. Uncertainty is assumed away as degrees of error or deviations from the norm. It’s dismissed as an edge case.

We now face greater uncertainty than ever before. Not just in the ways digital technologies permeate our societies, but in our connections with one another. I like to think about the evolution of technological ages in terms of the relationship between humans and machines.

We are now in the midst of the next technological transition. Companies are scrambling to make use of the overwhelming amount of data being collected from people using digital interfaces—nearly 1.7 megabytes of new data per human per second, 90% of which is unstructured data, requiring a significant amount of human manipulation to translate it into useful information.

There’s great enthusiasm for the ways that machine learning models can generate, refine, and optimize better designs. As machine learning becomes the backbone of new human-computer interactions, the machines are the ones deciding how to respond to you without human consultation. They are making recommendations to engineering teams on how to improve products using data amassed from millions of people.

Mismatch.design provides curated content and original articles, and aims to serve as a virtual meeting space for those who practice or wish to learn about inclusive design.

Our future selves

But how do we avoid over-dependence on mathematical models that favor statistical probability while undervaluing human diversity? Can big data and machine learning algorithms respect individuality? For every area where technology facilitates human interactions, what extra degree of responsibility must be built into that machine?

These moments of technological transition are ideal times to introduce inclusive design. We can engineer these new models to ensure that they don’t lead to exclusion. Without inclusion at the heart of the AI age, we risk amplifying a cycle of exclusion on a massive scale. It won’t be perpetuated just by human beings; it will be accelerated by self-directed machines that are simply reproducing the intentions, biases, and preferences of their human creators.

When we design for inclusion, we are designing for our future selves and our ever-changing abilities. It’s designing how the next generation will treat and care for us. It’s making solutions to uphold the human connections that are most important in our lives. Our dignity, health, safety, and sense of being at home. Inclusive design is simply good design for the digital age.