Why and How To Foster Inclusivity in Your Design Process

Design team for fostering inclusive design article

As a designer at Seven Peaks, my colleagues and I have the privilege of affecting human lives every day. We design experiences that humans interact with daily, and it is, therefore, part of our core responsibilities to make sure what we create is ‘usable’.

But ‘usable’ is a relative term that relies heavily on a user’s context. Being design professionals, we already know that people have different abilities and limits. We design in compliance with several ‘Accessibility Guidelines’ published by large conglomerates and government agencies to keep our products in check for benchmarked usability. Why then, do you need to read an article about it? Well, like all things in design, It could be better.

What’s wrong with Accessibility?

Accessibility: a 13 letter, 6 syllable word so difficult to pronounce that it needs a short-form: a11y. Accessible design as a methodology follows guidelines that focus on the outcome or final design being usable. It aims to make sure that people who live with disabilities can access digital products as easily as anyone else.

When it comes to users, it categorizes them into two groups: those who are “typical” and those who are “disabled,” which is us who live normally and those who need special help to perform. Consequently, it creates an aura of exclusion.

Accessibility guidelines often take into consideration people with common disabilities, like an inability to hear. But while it does so to the user who cannot hear due to a permanent hearing impairment, it completely ignores the bartender who cannot listen to their phone in an environment full of loud people and music.

It is consequently important that designers don’t take such guidelines as gospel, and instead, move towards a more process-based, people-centric ideology. This kind of practice we call it ‘Inclusive Design.’

Why we should foster Inclusive Design?

Inclusive design is a methodology in which products are designed intentionally to be usable by the largest number of people. But at the same time, they are able to satisfy as many user needs as possible.

It is based on principles applied throughout the design process. It asserts that there is no ‘typical’ user and that humans are all temporarily capable depending on their context.

It argues that unless designers are intentional about including the widest possible array of people with different abilities, we will continue to unintentionally exclude large groups of possible users from our designed experiences. Accordingly it will result in a smaller user base hence poorer business growth.

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The Principles of Inclusive Design

As UX/UI designers, it’s part of our job to make sure our design is usable to all of its intended users. But how do we become intentionally inclusive? According to Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Guidelines, the first step has to be recognizing exclusion.

Recognize Exclusion

While many accessibility guidelines will tell us to design for people with only one hand, they will not take into account the new parent who is always carrying an infant in their arms and can only use one hand. Hence, it is important to keep in mind that people may experience temporary impairments and limitations in their ability to carry out their daily routines.

By the way, humans tend to assume that everyone else experiences the world in the same way we do. As designers, however, that can be a dangerous predicament resulting in unintentional exclusion, and we call it ‘Design Bias’.

Inclusive Design doesn’t treat humans as a monolith of unchanging ability, instead, it advocates designing for a wide array of ever-changing contextual impairments.

All in all, we must actively work to let go of our biases. It is important to identify our assumptions about our users and seek perspectives that are outside our own. Only by learning to recognize exclusion, we can start to be more inclusive.

Solve For One, Extend to Many

Inclusive Design asserts that if we create a product by thinking of contextual exclusions, our designs are in turn more accessible to a larger group of people. In the new parent analogy, if we consider of the new parent who can only use one hand, we also provide solutions for those with a single hand. Except this way there will be no alienation of humans as part of the design process. The process will frame these solutions as essential for all humans, rather than a perceived minority.

Learn From Diversity

Change doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Historically, we have seen that real change is brought about by humans collaborating. Large, incredibly diverse movements like the LGBTQ rights movement were successful in bringing about real change in the legislature because humans stood together.

Early on in the design process, we must strive to learn from a wide range of people. We can get some insight from their unique experiences. Plus, we will also gain perspectives from different genders, cultural backgrounds, languages, ethnicities, and abilities, as we go along. This helps us further recognize our biases, listen objectively, and ultimately design experiences that don’t leave anyone feeling excluded.

How can designers help?

If you find yourself in the lucky position of designing an experience that real humans will interact with, know that you must actively step away from all perceived notions of a ‘typical’ user. The onus is on you to question whose voice is being left out? Who else could have a seat at the proverbial table? How can you in your role ensure that the experience actively includes people from different backgrounds?

Write up your own inclusivity process and make it an ongoing process. Be fierce advocates and allies, talk about inclusivity with other people and get their insight. The point is, be intentional about it. Because if we’re not intentionally inclusive, we are unintentionally exclusive.

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