Designing for Diversity

Inclusive design matters.

Image Credit: Matt Cardinal

Lately, in every article or newsletter I read about user experience design, the terms “diversity” and “inclusive design” flash before my eyes. The UX design community has been buzzing about diversity and inclusion. Design professionals, in the corporate world and agencies, are racing to show how diversity makes their teams strong and unique, how they design not only for users of all ages, but of genders, races, levels of impairment and disability, culture and ethnicity. Diversity and inclusive design are no doubt on the forefront, as we come together as a global economy.

I recently had the opportunity to be a speaker at an event hosted by Designers & Geeks in San Francisco. The theme was diversity and design — what roles do diversity and inclusivity play in design today, and why is that important?

This got me thinking about what these terms really mean to me. While I have been in the UX design industry for many years now, I started recalling experiences outside of my career. About 20 years ago I migrated to the United States, still at the earlier stages of my adult life. Anyone who has tried to make a new home in a country with a totally different culture and ideology can tell you it’s one of the most overwhelming things you could experience. Many of the problems that users encounter with a new environment, are caused by design teams with biases and assumptions about how things should work. When users encounter such design biases, they are often forced to unlearn their prior mental models and learn a new approach — essentially having to adapt their thinking and behavior in order to use the product. Clearly this is not user centered or universal design, and we should do all that we can to reduce this gulf of evaluation for our users.

I appreciated this speaking opportunity as a chance to highlight all the efforts towards diversity and inclusivity that I see around me at IBM Design. More so, I appreciated this chance to reflect upon what these concepts really mean to me. Those 20 years ago as a newcomer to the U.S., I experienced first hand what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. These kind of experiences help us see what it means to truly be inclusive, and how the presence or absence of inclusivity has a huge impact on people and outcomes.

Thoughts of diversity and inclusion were relevant and important to me long before these words were used in advertising campaigns. Today, I’m glad to be in an industry that has come to value them, and is working to make these ideas a larger part of our everyday lives. When it came time for me to prepare for my talk, I thought about how diversity plays a role in my job today. As design practitioners, we must pursue a diversity of approach in all that we do: from how we make things (that is, our design approach), to who we make them with (diverse teams), to who we make them for (our users). I didn’t need to look far as IBM Design Thinking features these two core principles:

  • Focus on user outcomes
  • Diverse empowered teams

You may have heard these principles being repeated so often that they sometimes almost lose their meaning. However these terms are truly embedded into our design culture. As designers, we don’t miss any opportunity to use our super power: empathy. Whether it’s the IBM Accessibility practice or the sponsor user program, our goals revolve around inclusivity and empathy. We constantly remind ourselves that we are not our users. As a global company, we recruit people and work with clients from different cultures, with different perspectives. Diversity and inclusiveness are close to the heart of IBM Design.

Source: IBM Design

I’ve seen these principles applied to everything we do at IBM Design, over and over again. With incoming design hires, we offer an in-depth, immersive design thinking bootcamp, where we not only educate new designers on the methods, tools and guidelines, but we also introduce and foster empathy, experientially via empathy map techniques, storyboards, journey maps, etc. From the very beginning, we teach all our design recruits to put the user at the very center of whatever business challenge they are working on.

When I was visiting one of our bootcamps some time ago, I got to sit in on a user research session where the organizers brought in a visually impaired person as part of user research study. The participants heard a first-hand account from the speaker of what it was like to navigate interfaces with a visual disability. I also got to see early career designers carry out low vision simulations and truly get a feel of what it’s like to lack visual acuity. Using filters that simulated various visual disabilities, designers were able to quickly test designs for contrast, type scale and visual clarity. These are just some of the many examples that I have seen inclusivity deeply integrated into our design practice. I was struck with the dedication of our IBM Design team to constantly put the user at the core of our work, and bringing that into our design education.

IBM Design bootcampers using visual impairment masks to test the accessibility of their designs.

I believe that we have a moral responsibility to embrace diversity in all that we do. It is also essential to the success of our teams. When building teams we have to realize that, we aren’t just assigning resources — we are framing our approach to the problem. Each team member brings their unique point of view and expertise to the team, widening the range of possible outcomes. If you want to generate a breakthrough idea, intentionally form diverse teams by design.

Diverse teams approach the same problem from many perspectives. They tend to generate more ideas, making them more effective problem solvers. While it takes effort to align different perspectives, it’s at the cross section of our differences that our most meaningful innovations originate. Diverse teams that believe and practice inclusive principles, will have the deepest impact in building products and experiences designed for everyone.

We need to consider all spectrums of diversity and inclusion: visible differences (genders, race, language etc.), non-visible differences (e.g., LGBT) and diversity of mindset (different thoughts, perspectives, experiences). Diversity and inclusivity are not just buzzwords. These words are burgeoning with potential, and have the power to move our society towards something better. A case in point is the “Inclusion drives innovation” theme of this year’s U.S. National Disability Employment Awareness Month (October). As I look around at the work we do at IBM, the design community, the design approach and ethos, I am proud to say that I am a part of a design culture that truly appreciates the meaning of innovation through diversity and inclusiveness.


Arin Bhowmick (@arinbhowmick) is Vice President, Design at IBM based in San Francisco, California. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.