Designing with an Inclusive lens

Ankita Arvind
Sep 2, 2020 · 6 min read

Have you ever felt that this world is not designed for you? Do you need help from others to do basic daily activities? If not, can you imagine a world where everything is a struggle, starting from brushing your teeth all the way to changing into your night clothes and going to bed? This is a reality for many people.

Why should anyone feel like this world isn’t designed for them? How dare the world make anyone feel like that. Let’s change that!

A person on a wheelchair

Everyone has heard of the word ‘inclusion’ by now. To each one, it means something different ,and it’s dependent on your values, the causes you support, the life situations you are in and how your family/friends/colleagues define their views on inclusion.

To me, inclusive design has always been about designing for people who have special needs or disabilities — physical or cognitive. This is because I am clued-in to the problems that a person with cognitive challenges faces when it comes to living their lives and getting a job. As I learnt more about other aspects of inclusion, my perspective on it has broadened. It now includes keeping in mind:

  1. Abilities — physical and cognitive
  2. Genders
  3. Ages
  4. Language
  5. Geography
  6. Ethnicity
  7. Culture
  8. Mental status / well-being

Temporary/Situational, such as:

  1. Being injured
  2. Being pregnant
  3. Holding a new born
  4. Just being really preoccupied at the time!

…and I’m sure there’s a lot more I’m yet to think through. The point is that ‘inclusion’ is broad and is always going to be. As a designer, you need to create designs that work well for permutations and combinations of this list and more.

It’s overwhelming, no doubt. But do we really have a choice to ignore any of this? Design is about problem-solving using creativity. Problem-solving for everyone. Having said this, my first thought about inclusion is and always will be around disabilities.

People in different situations
People in different situations
Gif by Kris Woolery for Microsoft

As a designer (or developer or product manager, or anyone shaping a product really), you actually have a lot of power to make people feel included.

How does one get there? How do we think about every decision with an inclusive lens?

Let’s break it down…

Watch & learn

Watch people use things! There are a lot of YouTube videos of people trying out products, apps, etc. and you’ll definitely find whatever you’re looking for.

Understand what exclusion is

There’s a difference between someone actually not being able to use something and someone feeling excluded. Both are valid, but know that there is a way to prioritize things. If we are up in arms about every issue, there will be no solutioning in sight. The tough problems require a lot of thinking and iteration and testing.

“Disability is a mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live” — World Health Organization, 2011 World Report on Disability.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve done enough

This is a lifelong thing. The more you do, the more you can do. If you look at an app design (let’s say), are you able to quickly tell what problems people with vision impairments, cognitive challenges, and language barriers would possibly have? If no, let that be your goal to start with. If yes, move onto the next goal. Can you always create an accessible & inclusive output? If yes, then what next?

Twitter is pretty useful!

I recently joined Twitter (yeah I’m one of those weirdos who got the memo late) and have been following a lot of design and accessibility related topics, people and organizations. So whenever I scroll through my feed, I get some valuable info, including videos of people using things!

Expand your circle…

Weird advice maybe. What I’m trying to say is that we may not have a very diverse group of people within our immediate peer group whom we interact with regularly. If we look a little harder, we are likely to have a diverse network that we’re not necessarily engaging with or learning from. To those who are already expanding their circles, kudos! To everyone else, there’s room to grow here, and you’ll generally have more empathy as a result of it.

Through a lens
Through a lens

This is all good advice about approaching problems with an inclusive lens, but how do I put it to practice?

Let’s learn to see differently…

What do you see?

Nike’s FlyEase shoe designed after hearing from a teenager with cerebral palsy who sought a shoe he could put on by himself.

Is this just a cool Nike shoe? Or is it a shoe designed for a person with cerebral palsy who couldn’t tie his laces? Inclusive design turned out to work not only for him but for the general population! And Nike probably made a profit because they were able to sell to more people with and without disabilities. https://www.closingthegap.com/nikes-revolutionary-flyease-designed-athletes-abilities-ages/

A cushion cover with a large ring attached to the zipper to make it easier to grab/find.
A cushion cover with a large ring attached to the zipper to make it easier to grab/find.

Is this just a cushion cover from IKEA? Or do you notice the add-on ring to the zipper that makes this simple cushion cover also accessible to people who have gross/fine motor problems or even arthritis? It simply makes the cushion zipper easier to grab or to find. More about IKEA’s range of ‘Thisables’ here: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/03/18/thisables-ikea-disabilities-furniture-design/

X box’s adaptive controller
X box’s adaptive controller

Is this just a gaming setup or is there something different about it? Here’s one situation where the basic controller for the Xbox couldn’t follow a one-size-fits-all approach. A separate adaptive controller was designed with customizable components so that a range of people could play Xbox, regardless of ability. https://www.xbox.com/en-US/accessories/controllers/xbox-adaptive-controller

Some questions to ask yourself when you’re designing/developing something:

  1. Can I test this with a wide-range of people? Especially people with disabilities?
  2. Is everything visible? (Check font readability, size and contrast: https://color.a11y.com/?wc3)
  3. Are we using simple language that people understand?
  4. Who can’t use this? List the answers down and start looking into why.
  5. How would this look if it was to be designed specifically for _____? Keep replacing it with people you might have excluded and see what comes to your mind.
  6. Does this offend anyone in a serious manner?
  7. How does this come across in different languages?
  8. How much cognitive load is this cause for the user?

Remember, sometimes you need a universal solution that works for all, but many times you need specific solutions that help a small set of people.

If you watch one talk on this topic today, let it be this one by Kat Holmes (SVP Product Experience, Salesforce) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYu6wnZhrBU.

Your job may not give you time to do any of the above, so yes, it’s something to do on your own time. In a few years, your expertise in inclusive design will be in demand, don’t doubt that! And what’s more, you will have probably made many lives better in a small (or big) way.

If you’re wondering, ‘Hey Ankita, you’re preaching so much about inclusive design, what have YOU done?’ — Well, I’m also just starting. I’m in the ‘learning and gathering knowledge’ phase. I want to keep writing about what I learn with the hopes that it helps someone else take this path.

Thanks for reading!

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CMU Innovation