Inclusive Design? The clue is in the name

There have been plenty of key moments in history when technology catches up with ambition and the results have been world changing. But there are also many many other, smaller, eureka moments that have been a quiet revolution for millions of lives. We say ‘quiet’ because unless you needed them, you likely wouldn’t even notice.

And it is this complex simplicity that is at the heart of Inclusive Design. A movement that is far from new, ID is having something of a renaissance through a happy intersection of AI and Machine Learning increasing in power, an acceleration in digital transformation and important cultural and legislative shifts. Together, they provide the necessity, means and delivery of all manner of solutions that make life better for everyone.

But first, let’s get back to basics: what makes a design inclusive? According to the Inclusive Design Research Centre, it “considers the full range of human diversity, with respect to language, culture, gender and other forms of human difference.” This acknowledgement of the breadth of human experience is what differentiates it from ‘Universal Design’, which aims to create spaces and products that should be usable by all without any special adaptations. This largely centres on disability access and is often used as a framework to create products that fall within any existing disability legislation. Which is, of course, excellent but as we know, there are plenty of lived experiences which are not protected under the legislative banner.

A person uses a specially designed controller to operate a computer.

A person uses a specially designed controller to operate a computer. [Source: Shutterstock.]

‘Accessible Design’ too is specific to disability but focuses entirely on creating solutions that solve particular problems for defined disabilities. Inclusive Design is not linear in this way. It is less like travelling down a road, knocking on pre-selected doors to ask a list of pre-defined questions of the occupants, and more like a street party, where everyone volunteers their unique perspectives. So, clearly, the way you approach Inclusive Design must be fundamentally different from the point of conception.

It requires a shift in thinking

You might have seen the meme that illustrates equality versus equity versus justice. It shows three people facing a fence, trying to see over it. ‘Equality’ is illustrated by giving each person the same box to stand on. ‘Equity’ shows the boxes distributed so that the smallest person has two and the tallest none. ‘Justice’ simply removes the fence. When working towards an Inclusive Design, it is not about searching for workarounds. Instead, designers seek a new perspective that removes the fence. For example, if your product has an interface that cannot be used by everyone, should you change the shape of the buttons or adjust the height? Or should you question why you have that interface at all?

Design for legislation is not necessarily design for people

Broad strokes are the antithesis of Inclusive Design, so designing just to be compliant immediately ignores the needs of anyone who does not fall under legislative protection. It also limits the scope of what you could potentially achieve and fosters a design process that focuses on a single set of objectives. Reach outside of the framework – and your comfort zone – to seek new ways of looking at your design. Bring new people with a variety of lived experiences into your research, team and testing. A critical part of this lies in recognising and acknowledging the inherent biases that we all have and absorbing this awareness into your thinking. In the words of the Inclusive Design Research Centre, “At each iteration the design team asks, “who is still missing?”

People are complex – think intersectionally

Thinking in terms of single characteristics is not only reductionist, but it will give you a poor outcome in terms of usability. To realise any level of success, your users should be able to interact with your product, space or service in the way that speaks to their individual preferences. Choice is the key here, so there should be many ways for everyone to approach and use your design. For example, a live navigation tool should be able to help individual users get from A to B based on their personal needs. E.g., a wheelchair user may also have a breathing condition, such as asthma, which means that they need to access routes that avoid both obstruction and high areas of traffic pollution. And they would like this information to be delivered quickly and hands-free as they travel, but in a way that still allows them to clearly hear traffic and others around them.

Can your product create a virtuous circle?

Immediate perfection is not the goal here. A team aiming to design inclusively must reconcile themselves with the fact that it will never be finished. Ongoing data monitoring, responding to feedback, implementing updates and continual testing are a reality that needs to be built into the process, so that your product, space or service can grow, change and improve easily. In a changing world, nothing can or should remain static if it exists to create value. Of course, it is also important to remember that while change is essential, consistency is too. Making a necessary update shouldn’t result in a shock for users, otherwise the circle will break.

If you’d like to learn more about how to bring Inclusive Design to your products or want to discuss how Avnet Embedded can support your business, please contact us today.