Decentralized Design for Disabilities and Inclusion

This week our group at Stanford HCI launched a collaborative effort with Mozilla to work towards a more inclusive web. The goal is to bring together people with personal experiences and expertise in disabilities, design, and programming to work together to make Firefox more accessible. We’re starting with a one-week design drive happening Aug 28-Sep 1.

As part of my dissertation research in computer science I am working on designing social systems that can be used by large groups of people towards collaborative, open-ended, and risky goals.

The web enables us to connect and exchange information, but our culture of “immediacy” and the means of monetizing social systems has lead to short-term and fast-paced interactions (see Irani 2015 and Barassi 2015). Counter to an early vision of the internet as a place for strangers to come together and talk -building identities and solidarities- much of our interactions with each other are limited to clicks, likes, and retweets. The real problems we face however, are complex and multi-faceted and require us to work together to deliberate and produce knowledge.

Most social software supports collaborative knowledge production by modeling communication as a one-way act of transferring a message (e.g. an idea) to another person. Knowledge is pictured as a physical object that can be extracted, stored, exchanged, and “liked” (Dourish 2004). In this model, the information itself is center and the identity of the communicators and their relationship is assumed to be irrelevant. Another way of thinking about communication can be described as a two-way process where participants create and share information with each other toward reaching a mutual understanding (Rogers 1981). Strong ties, trust, and acceptance between the actors is crucial in this process. How might we imagine alternative ways of creating knowledge together online?

The Process

Building off of a long tradition of human-centered design, decentralized design is centered around people and their relationships.

A while ago I met with Rosana Ardila who works in the Open Innovation team at Mozilla. While Firefox is open source, we talked about how Mozilla can be more open and involve users earlier on in the process of creating new tools and features that meet their needs. Together with my advisor Michael Bernstein, we decided to use the decentralized design process that we had been working on for over a year toward Mozilla’s goal of accessibility.

Design is personal (Louridas 1999). Our process brings together people who are invested in the problem to collaborate (see Schuler 1993). Traditionally design teams are made up of a small group of people with a diversity of backgrounds and expertise who work together over a long period of time. Similarly, we place participants into small teams where they can get to know each other, share personal stories, and build the kind of trust and psychological safety needed to design for their needs. Design also benefits from engaging with a diversity of viewpoints and ideas. This tends to keep us from becoming too comfortable in our assumptions and can lead to “aha” moments that dig deep into the source of a problem. To promote this, we gradually change team membership over the course of the design drive so that each person interacts and builds relationships with a number of other participants. Our research has shown that this membership change, which we term network rotation, leads to sharing ideas and insights across teams and to better and higher quality outcomes.

In our effort to design for a more accessible and inclusive web browsing experience, it is very important that disabled people not only be involved, but lead the effort. We have reached out to communities of people with disabilities and invited them to take on team-lead roles. As a thank you, they will be acknowledged in Mozilla’s blog and will receive a $100 gift card.

The goal of our accessibility design drive is to spark long-term collaborations and familiarities that extend long after this week has passed. We hope for continued collaboration with participants who want to prototype and test their ideas that might make it into Firefox, or invent whole new ways of surfing the web.

Who has joined so far?

We are excited to announce that so far over 110 people have joined the effort!

Of these people 43% have accessibility needs or are close to someone who does, 68% have design experience, and 48% have programming experience. Participants are 48% female, 49% male, 1% genderqueer, and another 1% have preferred not to say.

Reading people’s motivations for joining has been very inspiring for us. One is a CS student interested in using their skills to create tools for real-world issues and social good. Another participant’s grandmother has cognitive impairments due to an illness and is invested in designing for web accessibility. Another has ADHD and wants to help other people who struggle with the same problems to learn the methods that they have created. Another is invested in making it easier for him/herself to surf the web. People have also mentioned that they are motivated by the experience of design and thinking through these challenges with other people “to learn how other designers think about accessibility around the world, all the while making an impact in a community that deserves way more love than it gets”.

This is just a small sample of all of the amazing people who have joined this effort. We expect that even more people will join before the start date on Monday, Aug 28th.

Inclusive Design

Inclusive design values every person and strives to build a culture and environment in which everyone can participate. The poster at the top of this blog is a favorite of mine because it symbolizes how we might go back and reconfigure our environment to make it more accessible for people of all abilities, but also how these practices can lead to design that does not have accessibility as a separate add-on, but as a widespread and ingrained practice, like curb cuts (see Hamraie 2013). In preparation for the design drive here are some resources to learn more about inclusive design and disability studies.

This video by Microsoft on human-led, inclusive design is a great starting point:

Prof. Titchkosky at the university of Toronto is a leader in this area. Her book “The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning” (2011) provides an inspiring critique of accessibility design not as a series of problems to be fixed, but as a question of the social meaning of access. I’m currently reading her book and really enjoyed this panel she was on called “Rethinking Creativity and Innovation from a Disability Studies Perspective”. She starts with the story of a fire and evacuation:

Finally, here is a thought provoking critique of universal design practices using feminist and disability studies theory that examines “ways in which to conceive UD [universal design] as a project of collective access and social sustainability, rather than as a strategy targeted toward individual consumers and marketability.”

Through this project I’m already learning a lot about inclusive design and disabilities. Special thank you to Lilly Irani, Kevin Gotkin, and Louise Hickman for their helping guiding me in this process and for their invaluable feedback along the way. I have yet a lot to learn and I look forward to next week’s design drive!


Barassi, Veronica. Activism on the web: Everyday struggles against digital capitalism. Vol. 4. Routledge, 2015.

Dourish, Paul. Where the action is: the foundations of embodied interaction. MIT press, 2004.

Hamraie, Aimi. “Designing collective access: A feminist disability theory of universal design.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33.4 (2013).

Irani, Lilly. “Hackathons and the making of entrepreneurial citizenship.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 40.5 (2015): 799–824.

Louridas, Panagiotis. “Design as bricolage: anthropology meets design thinking.” Design Studies 20.6 (1999): 517–535.

Rogers, Everett M., and D. Lawrence Kincaid. “Communication networks: Toward a new paradigm for research.” (1981).

Schuler, Douglas, and Aki Namioka, eds. Participatory design: Principles and practices. CRC Press, 1993.

Titchkosky, Tanya. The question of access: Disability, space, meaning. University of Toronto Press, 2011.