Why we need inclusive design

The World Wide Web is for everyone, right?

Sadly, when it comes to digital experiences, it’s more of a bob and weave if you are not a ‘typical’ user.

Which is why inclusivity in design is much more than a buzzword now. As we edge toward a digitally native population with a vibrant and varied demography of people who are connected by a digital environment, it’s time to question some of the design assumptions we have.

In the real world, there are often only stairs where there must also be ramps. While for some, stairs might provide the best experience of climbing, for others, ramps and lifts might be more up their alley. Just like the real world and its myriad experiences, the virtual world also has barriers and stumbling blocks that hinder us from achieving meaningful experiences and interactions.

And all of this forms a part of the discipline called experience design.

As we take to the Internet in bouts and gushes, interaction design—web pages, applications, screen readers, and a gamut of other ways we interact with our virtual environments—becomes central. Today, design holds the potential to shape answers to fundamental questions about our society, including who get to participate and benefit from economic growth; who get to feel welcome as a contributing member of society; who are seen and heard and acknowledged.

To put it simply, ‘who’ matters.

Inclusive design is a human approach to product and interaction design. Building on empathy, it strives to include the diverse spectrum of human needs when crafting meaningful solutions that work for all and sundry. According to Olga Stella, Executive Director of Design Core Detroit, the process of design itself, whether formal or informal, involves a myriad of choices that shape how places, objects, and systems work in society. “When the process is intended to be inclusive of everyone in society, we get places that welcome all, products that work for everyone, and services and systems that benefit each of us,” she notes in an article.

We all deserve equal access to information

As a child, I was often overwhelmed by the cacophony that shrouded classroom conversations. The continuous clamor and clatter made it so difficult to concentrate on what was being said that I would often forget to write down homework assignments. This changed the day a new teacher—with curly hair and a friendly smile—noticed my problem of filtering information. She gifted me a cute and colorful pocket-sized notebook to write them down. And would you know it, writing down all I needed to do worked wonders for my grades!

My point is that we are all unique in our abilities, in the way we interact with the world around us—whether physically or digitally. 

In the virtual world, inclusive design can be that helping hand that ensures that no one is left behind by recognizing instances where exclusion occurs and taking measures to bridge the gap.

Inclusive design is accessible design 2.0

Imagine a scenario where a customer with a hearing impairment, a salesperson with an acute ear infection, and an end-user traveling in a cramped subway without headphones all try to watch a video.

It goes without saying that all of them would face distress but in varying degrees of discomfort. It’s also likely that UX designers who work according to the principles of accessibility will have guidelines in place to assist a customer who’s hard of hearing. It is less likely that such guidelines will include a temporary disability like an ear infection or even consider the end-user without headphones.

Bharat Balasubramanian, Senior Director of Design at Freshworks, says, “While accessible applications are a legal requirement, users expect products and solutions to be inclusive.”

While accessibility looks toward having specific requirements fulfilled, inclusive design tries to include each and every experience when designing products and solutions.

“Accessibility often comes to us as an afterthought based on stipulated mandatory guidelines, whereas inclusion is embedded in how we imagine the product, it is part of its function from the moment we start building it,” he says.

Bad design can spell trouble for companies

We experience products through our interactions with the product. That includes a long list of menu options, toggle bars, and whatnot. If the interface is not designed for inclusivity, it can often lead to broken user experiences.

In 2016, Domino’s came under fire when one of its customers filed a lawsuit of discrimination. The U.S Supreme Court agreed that the company violated the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ruled in the favor of Guillermo Robles, who was unable to place an order online despite using screen-reading software. In his lawsuit, Robles alleged that Domino’s did not follow commonly used guidance on how to make websites and apps more accessible.

Despite the fact that 37.5 percent of the world’s population lives with some or the other form of disability, accessible and inclusive designs often become an afterthought when building software applications. This is a sad state of affairs.

The most common reason provided by companies is that designing for inclusivity is expensive.

Bharat propounds that this argument is one of the common myths surrounding inclusive design when it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Aparna Pasi, Director of Professional Services at Deque Software, reiterates this when she argues that bad design racks up most costs, especially when you consider retrofit expenses. Speaking on inclusive design at the SaaSD conference in 2019, Pasi recalled a design fiasco with Nokia E90 when she worked at the company as a software designer. After the handset was released, the design team showcased the handset to the European market to further their reach. In a curious turn of events, however, the size of the keypad rendered the launch unsuccessful. Germans were unable to use it because the keys were too small and German fingers, not so much. “They had to press 5 and they were pressing 3. To rectify this, the design team had to recall the phone—hardware and all—and redesign to fit all of our needs.”

Good design is inclusive

“Good design is always user-oriented and human-centered,” says Bharat. The human here is not necessarily the ideal human—the Vitruvian Man imagined by Da Vinci in the Renaissance that spawned the humanist movement—but refers to humans with differences in their creeds or capabilities.

In a word, good design is inclusive. Such design considers the full spectrum of human diversity with regard to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and myriad other forms of human difference.

As early as 1972, Julia Child’s cooking show, “The French Chef”, was one of the earliest shows in the history of television to include closed captions. The producers said they wanted to reach a broader audience, including deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

Things have started to improve since: according to a study by the Office of Communications (Ofcom)—the regulatory body for television broadcasting in the UK—around 80% of television viewers now use closed captions for reasons other than hearing loss. (Other reasons include easy comprehension for viewers for whom English is a second language and the ability to view a show in sound-sensitive environments.)

In September of 2018, Microsoft launched the Xbox Adaptive Controller and advertised it during the Super Bowl the following year with an emotional ad called “We All Win”. Children with limited mobility often face trouble gaming on consoles, which is where Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller helps.

Inclusive design raises brand value

Despite the fact the people with disabilities did not constitute a majority in the Super Bowl audience, everyone appreciated Microsoft’s position to put diversity before everything else.

Inclusive design says a lot about a brand; it puts out the message that a company cares for all its customers. As an approach, it can lead us toward creating a world that works for everyone, not just a few or even the majority. Olga Stella explains that “this is not a question of charity, but rather of business value.” She reasons that when inclusive design approaches are used, the pool of customers expands, their experience improves, innovation takes place, and retrofit costs are avoided.

Inclusive design recognizes exclusion

Exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases. In her recent book Mismatch, Kat Holmes describes an inclusive designer as someone “who recognizes and remedies mismatched interactions between people and their world. They seek out the expertise of people who navigate exclusionary designs.”

These ‘mismatched interactions’, for Holmes, are the barriers that individuals experience when things don’t work quite right if you don’t fit the checkbox of a “normative” user. It could be the playground equipment made only for children who can walk, a helpdesk software that isn’t compatible with screen readers, or even unconscious bias and discrimination in artificial intelligence applications.

According to Bharat, exclusion happens when the customer becomes the focus of features and applications instead of users. “We should look to the end-user and see how they use it and then see if we can make the experience better—whether that involves completely changing the flow or adding a few workarounds. The point is to always remember that customers and users are different personas,” he says.

The way ahead

“Inclusion is about welcoming, and advancing a diverse mix of individuals. It’s about making all people feel valued, including changing practices that might unfairly benefit any one group, and making sure that everyone feels they have the same opportunity to advance and make an impact. Creating that environment is where the real challenge lies,” says Ellen Taaffe, Clinical Assistant Professor of Leadership and Director of Women’s Leadership Programs at the Kellogg School of Management.

The strongest means of addressing exclusion is to incorporate inclusivity in the basic product concept and design. For Bharat, “The first step toward building such an environment is by investing in proactive research before initiating the design process. Such research must pay attention to customer and user feedback and their pain points.”

The design system is a living document. “When we redesigned Freshdesk, we made sure to reproduce our modern style in terms of tile interactions, navigation. We used our design system of Freshdesk as a base and then made sure all the other products adopted the style. We also looked at addressing accessibility from a design point of view, which included—among a host of other things—ensuring that we use the right color contrast and the right font. These small things go a long way,” he explains.

If we are to envision an inclusive future where no one is marginalized on the basis of their abilities, then companies must change their fundamental approach to design.

Cover imaging and design: Vignesh Rajan