Inclusive Design: Digital designers have a serious problem

People are diverse. Let’s not ignore that

In the early days when jet fighters were developed, they had one type of seating based on the average body of a pilot. As a result, the seating didn’t fit perfectly with any of the pilots. Shoulders where either too broad or too small. Leg space was either too little or too big. In the tiny cockpit, this was a huge problem.

As a result, they started designing adjustable seating in which pilots could set their own leg space and recline. Because of this design change, the pilots sat more relaxed in their seat. But that’s not all. A whole new audience was able to join the air force as well: females.

Digital design

Let’s make a comparison with digital design. A website or application can be designed for an average group of people, or it can be designed to work for a wider range of people. Here are some topics that aren’t part of the average group we mostly design for:

  • Blindness
  • Transgenders
  • Hard of hearing e.g. because the user is in a bar
  • No stable internet connection e.g. because the user is in a riding train

These are all common topics: some permanent, some temporary and some situational.

Inclusive design is about reflecting how people really are and opening up services and tools for a larger audience than the myth of ‘average’.

Imagine a transgender subscribing to a phone subscription with only the option to select male or female whether it can’t relate to any of them.

A blind person not able to order groceries online because the website is not accessible for a screen reader.

Or yourself being in a foreign country trying to order local food but not able to read the menu.

The digital designer

This part is about a new stack of designers joining the work field. They aim to make products loveable, pleasurable and create a ‘wow’ factor for their designs. Reasonable aspirations. If done in the correct way.

Design Hierarchy of Needs

Source: Smashing Magazine

Recognise this? It’s a translation based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human needs translated into Design Hierarchy of Needs. For more details about this pyramid please check out the source link.

This stack of designers that I’m mentioning tends to focus on the top level of this pyramid. Making the user fall in love with the product or service is the new thing in success stories. As a result, micro interactions, motion and visual circuses become a huge trend in the field of digital design often without good reason. Sometimes these are in conflict with load speed, screen reader accessibility and a problem for people with e.g. concentration problems.

Inspiration & tools

Secondly, this group of designers look for inspiration on sites like Behance or Dribbble. They use tools like Sketch, InVision and Principle that help them create prototypes. This software is developed to make it relatively easy for a designer to ‘fake’ the ability of what code can do. No offence, those are great tools which I use daily but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.

It’s about the ease and the simplicity of the tools they work with, without having to write a single line of code.

Wrong inspiration and lack of knowledge about code are two of the reasons why designers tend to forget about the first three levels of the pyramid.

I’m not saying we should go back to the 90’s were website only consisted of HTML. But we should keep in mind that there are users out there that rely on e.g. a good code fundament, high contrast and just can’t face bright colours or read small typography.

Let’s think about what is a pleasurable experience for them.

We have a choice

Digital doesn’t need extra leg space or recline as the army did. But we do need to make digital more accessible for a wider range of people that do not have a choice themselves to be included.

We as designers and developers do have that choice. Let’s start recognising differences between people and design for all.

Extra: Inclusive design patterns

I’m currently working on a project where I’m collecting best practices on how to design for different symptoms and topics a human could face. It’s a work in progress.

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