Diversity and Design

How inclusive design and accessibility can make a difference with everyday products.

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Leaning Bar at the 110 Subway Station

Have you seen these new benches at recently renovated subway stations in New York City?

They’re called leaning bars and they were installed by the MTA as part of the initiative to redesign stations for the 21st century. Instead of installing more benches, the MTA installed leaning bars in various renovated subway stations around the city. Subway riders who wish to use these new leaning bars while waiting for their train, will not be able to fully sit but rather lean on them and take some of their weight off their feet.

If they sound inconvenient to you, that’s the point. In fact, these leaning bars are designed with inconvenience in mind. They are designed to allow you to get some rest without getting too cozy. This restrictive design is called defensive design. The goal of defensive design is to control behavior and limit the ways an object or space can be misused.

The benches below, which have begun to appear in renovated subways as well, were also designed with discomfort in mind. They intentionally have a lower back and metal arm rests that prevent people from lying down. The design of the bench conveys that this bench is temporarily yours — but, again, don’t get too comfy.

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Defensive design is also know as hostile design. This is design that makes use intentionally restrictive and difficult. The leaning bars, for example, can not accommodate people with disabilities, mothers with small children and the elderly. Not everyone can stand and lean. Not everyone is tall enough to rest themselves on the bar.

Defensive, or hostile, design is especially a problem for people experiencing homelessness. In fact, several hostile designs are specifically targeted against homeless people. They send a message, implying that public spaces are not where homeless people should be. Around New York City you can spot metal spikes in front of stores and metal rods in front of buildings, all of which send a clear signal: “You can’t stay here”.

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Defensive design can also happen with digital design. For example, Airbnb forces their users to sign up when they initially open the app. The users don’t get a chance to explore the app before they commit and provide their information. If the same user goes on the Airbnb website they can easily browse and will only be asked to login if they are trying to make an active action, such as booking a space or lending a space. Why not allow users to freely browse the app without forcing them to sign up? If the app is useful the users will want to sign up. Some apps only allow you to join if you have a Facebook account or Google account.

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Airbnb app and website design 2019

In the future many home appliances and everyday objects will become digitized. That is why diversity is so important when designing. The design should take into account all genders, ages, races and accommodate all skin colors and different physical features.

This guest at the Atlanta Marriott filmed himself trying to use a soap dispenser to demonstrate the fact that the dispenser didn’t recognize his dark skin color. The manufacture, a British company called Technical Concepts, clearly hadn’t tested it on a large group of people and had instead focused only on pale skin users. In the video on twitter they are laughing and making fun of the device. Can you imagine this happening if this same sensor were needed to open a door, or leave a room, or operate a medical device?

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However, it is not just small companies that create non-inclusive designs. The biggest companies in the world struggle with this as well. Amazon’s echo, the voice command device which allows you to ask ‘Alexa’ for a weather update or to buy products from your Amazon account, only focus on specific users. For example, Alexa will not respond to you if you have a stutter or heavy accent. You will not be able to use this device if you are among the hearing impaired or if you are nonverbal. It is not designed with all in mind and does not provide accessibility for all.

So how do you design inclusive cities? How do you design inclusive products with all in mind?

Many companies, including some of the world’s biggest, are making changes in the way they design, including people with hearing, visual, physical and learning disabilities. Facebook has released a visual system called “Portal” that incorporates Alexa and its functionalities. Portal includes a touch screen so you don’t have to rely on voice commands and can easily tap and navigate between the various functionalities. It will allow more people to use it since it has visual aids and a touchable control panel. Google has released a product it’s calling Google Home Hub, a device that includes a screen and touch control as well as audio commands. Even Amazon will release Echo Show in 2019, which will include a screen in addition to Alexa’s functionalities.

Google Home Hub, Facebook Portal and Amazon Echo

Apple has also shown itself to be interested in making products accessible to a wider audience. For example, if you go to the settings app on an iPhone and search for accessibility you will find many functionalities allowing you to increase the size of the text on your phone, set listening cues, program simplified gestures, and integrate hearing devices. In addition, Apple has created Accessibility API to encourage developers to make their devices and apps more accessible. You can find out more here.

Lastly, I want to introduce to you Sandy Paulson. Sandy gained a degree in Cinematography with the help of technology. She is non-verbal and restricted to her wheel chair. Sandy states that technology has allowed her and others to achieve their maximum potential. Through a device called “switch control,” Sandy is able to control the video editing software, Final Cut Pro. A large circular button, located at the head rest of her wheel chair, “switch control” executes commands when she pushes it with her head. Thanks to “switch control” Sandy has been able to pursue her passion to be a film creator and editor. You can watch Apple Accessibility video with Sandy here.

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Sandy Paulson using Switch Control technology for video editing

We still have a long way to go but what if future products will be designed in a way to empower us? What if future products and designs will allow people with disabilities to function at the same level of people with no disabilities? What if future daily product designs allow us to look past our differences so we can simply focus on creation and progress?

Although progress is being made, it is important that we remember that intelligent, inclusive design can not only improve our day-to-day, individual lives but can also help to create a more equitable and inclusive society altogether. By continuing to demand and support less hostile, more accessible design, we contribute to the creation of that society.

Dana Morgan is an iOS Developer and UX Designer based in New York City. Dana is excited about innovating and using technology and design for good.

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Product Development | User Experience | Public Speaker | Co-Founder of The Melody Book

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