7 tips for writing more inclusive language

Robyn Chmelyk
Sep 15, 2020 · 6 min read
A black, non-binary person using a laptop at work
A black, non-binary person using a laptop at work
Image courtesy of The Gender Spectrum Collection by Broadly.

When women speak truly they speak subversively — they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.

- Ursula K. Le Guin

This quote by Ursula Le Guin has been my guiding light in my journey to learn to be more inclusive. While her work is mainly focused on female empowerment, I think that what she says touches on something super important: the spoken truth of marginalized people is inherently subversive and powerful. It’s easy to speak about inclusivity and diversity as abstract ideas, but we must take action to create a more equitable future and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. As designers and content creators, the language we use is an incredibly important part of making our content more inclusive.

To design more inclusively, we must radically prioritize and center the lived experiences of marginalized people — particularly in regards to their gender expression, ethnic background, socio-economic status, disabilities & accessibility needs, sexual orientation, age, and religious or spiritual affiliation. More specifically, designing inclusively is community-informed, well-researched, and done with empathy for the diversity of your users. It is important to design in a way that acknowledges the varying needs of our users without making sweeping generalizations about how those needs should be met. For example, someone who is dyslexic and grew up with less access to educational support could have significantly different reading comprehension levels compared to other users.

Tips to write more inclusive language

Simplify your language

Simplifying content by reducing the complexity of words or concepts wherever possible makes it more accessible to users. Avoid industry terms and idioms wherever possible. While they may seem clear and easy to understand for yourself, they can be confusing to those who have less of an understanding of the language. For example, English slang terms and sayings can be confusing to users who speak English as a second language. Phrases like ‘by and large’ are hard to understand if you only know the literal meanings of those words.

Do your research

Inclusive language regularly changes because the accepted terms used by marginalized communities change over time. Additionally, some common terms are ingrained with problematic or noninclusive language, such as the words ‘mankind’, ‘master/slave’, or ‘blacklist/whitelist’. This language typically centers the experiences of already-prioritized groups and/or it has a problematic historical context. Regularly researching the appropriate language to use when referring to marginalized folks helps in speaking about others in a way that is respectful and inclusive.

Think beyond the labels

It’s important to value people more than the specific rules we have around language. We should always focus on the person rather than specific aspects of the person as it is dehumanizing to refer to someone using just an aspect of their identity. Essentially, writing inclusively is using language in a way that is respectful, caring, and informed by how an individual prefers to be addressed. It is best to research how an individual or community chooses to identify when writing about them. For example, person-first language is used when referring to people with disabilities because it describes the person before a condition they may have and avoids dehumanizing them while discussing their disability — such as ‘a person with a disability’ or ‘people with disabilities’.

Leave out unnecessary information

Unless it’s essential to what’s being communicated, avoid identifying people based on characteristics such as their race, skin color, national origin, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, and religious or spiritual affiliation. When creating content around these topics, consider what information is relevant and if a certain topic is even necessary to reference. For example, instead of using gendered pronouns in user interfaces, it’s more inclusive — and simpler — to use gender-neutral pronouns like ‘they’ and ‘them’ instead of ‘she/her’ and ‘he/him’.

Optimize your designs and products for most users

Making change within an organization takes time and benefits from being aligned with existing business needs and constraints. To design inclusively, a ‘one-size-fits-most’ approach should be utilized to address the needs of as many users as possible while still being mindful that you can’t solve every problem. Optimizing for most users involves providing options for users to customize the content to their accessibility needs — whether through changing color contrast, increasing or decreasing text sizes or sound volume, and having captions or non-text alternatives to your content.

Recognize the diversity of your users

Users come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Depending on the user’s gender, they may have a different learning style that requires a product or informational tool to be formatted in a way that best suits them. For example, men tend to prefer to ‘tinker’ with a product to learn new features, based on data collected by GenderMag in 2016. In turn, they found women have less self-efficacy with technology — likely due to harmful stereotypes and noninclusive work and education environments — which leads them to be less likely to persist in learning hard-to-use features. Delightedly, GenderMag found all genders preferred features designed for diverse self-efficacy levels and learning styles. Alternatively, the length of words and the direction words are read varies by language — such as top-to-bottom for Japanese and right-to-left for Arabic. Finding ways to let the user customize a product or design — such as through offering a variety of reading direction options — is key to designing for these user’s needs.

Get marginalized users involved in the design process

Use participatory design methods to include marginalized or misrepresented folks as key stakeholders in the design process. This acknowledges the value they have to offer to the design process in discovering problems that are too often overlooked. This is especially important during the initial development and research phase, as well as the user testing phase of a product or design. This will help iron out any key issues with the product while keeping the needs of marginalized users at the forefront of the design process. Artefact, a strategy and design firm, designed an app in partnership with the Seattle Children’s Hospital to digitize their PRISM program — a mental health support program for children with serious and/or chronic illnesses. They drew from extensive feedback from children with these illnesses and their families by asking them how they are currently coping and what they thought would help people like them. Artefact used this feedback to digitize the strategies the children already found useful in an easily accessible format.

Moving forward

It’s easy to allow our ideas of what is ‘right’ and ‘inclusive’ to be informed by opinions that are already similar to our own, but our work towards being more inclusive needs to be community-informed and in a way that fights ingrained confirmation bias. I’ve realized my process of learning to be more inclusive benefits from being more inclusive (hah!) and to recognize that no individual can speak for an entire community.

Empathy — through understanding the diverse needs of our users — is critical to designing inclusively. Empathizing with user’s experiences that are radically different from our own can help us design more socially responsible products while also helping us become better designers overall. It may be difficult to look at things from a radically different perspective than our own but ultimately it is essential to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This article is part of a series exploring diversity and inclusion from the team at SurveyMonkey. In this series, we share perspectives, ideas, and learnings from our team that are part of this broader — more vital than ever — dialogue.

Read our second article on building a more inclusive future here, and our third article on cultivating diversity, equity and inclusion here.

Curiosity by Design

We’re a passionate group of designers, content strategists…

Robyn Chmelyk

Written by

Associate Designer at SurveyMonkey. Graphic/Product Design student. Virgo. Poutine aficionado. View my work at www.studio-rc.ca!

Curiosity by Design

We’re a passionate group of designers, content strategists, and researchers who create the SurveyMonkey experience. We’re as diverse in thought as we are similar in experience — and we’re curious…by design.

Robyn Chmelyk

Written by

Associate Designer at SurveyMonkey. Graphic/Product Design student. Virgo. Poutine aficionado. View my work at www.studio-rc.ca!

Curiosity by Design

We’re a passionate group of designers, content strategists, and researchers who create the SurveyMonkey experience. We’re as diverse in thought as we are similar in experience — and we’re curious…by design.

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