Personal insights into the power of inclusive design
Most designers agree that their role is to understand users’ needs and create an innovative solution for a product or service that can both generate business value and match the user’s needs.
But this definition troubles me because it has in mind only the main group of users — the “normal” ones. Designers tend to use their own understanding of the world to make assumptions and drive their design towards the business objectives.
This generates an experience that may be valuable for the business and works perfectly for us — but what about the extreme users, those whose needs are beyond our current understanding? They are the outliers of our assumptions, yet the products and services we create should include them.
It’s vital to understand user mindsets, especially the ones we consider to be the outliers. We need to invest in accurate research to correctly interpret the quantitative and qualitative data, instead of aggregating users into simple, traditional segment groups. (For more on this, check out the Inclusivity Paradox Trend.)
Who are the ‘extreme users’?
Health care is ideal for illustrating the importance of design for extremes — after all, it can mean the difference between treatment success or failure, even life or death. I was a designer on a project in this sector years ago in Brazil. You’d expect that the project was about designing for the patient, but in this case, it was about designing for a forgotten side of the journey: the patient’s family.
The patient’s family journey
One case study involved a family with parents concerned that their whose baby boy hadn’t started speaking by the time he was two. When doctors ran tests, they discovered he was deaf. At that moment, the parents were thrown into a rollercoaster journey of fear (about his future), anxiety (about whether they would have the resources to cope with the challenges ahead), and — worst of all — lack of information (about how to deal with their child’s condition andhow to communicate with him).
For the boy, the world remained the same — he was happy as he’d always been. For the parents, frustratingly, all they could do was wait — for information, for an appointment, for a phone call with news from the healthcare provider.
Design for the patient’s family: what to consider?
When people experience a traumatic change in their status quo, they typically go through “Five Stages of Grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Behaviour such as this needed to be considered — it’s important to understand in what context your design will be reaching users.
When the patient isn’t aware of their condition, it’s the family and friends who suffer emotionally — yet they are often not seen as part of the ecosystem. In such cases, to design effectively for the family:
- Clarify the diagnosis: give them as much information as possible about the patient’s condition and the extent of the problem.
- Give emotional support: not only will they then be in a better state to support their loved one, but they can make important care decisions more effectively.
- Explain treatment possibilities: provide as much information as possible regarding all the possible outcomes, from success to failure of the treatment, and everything in between.
The family soon discover that technology is their saviour: it provides details about the diagnosis of their child, connects them to their extended family and other healthcare professionals around the world, and will be the enabler of a normal future life for their boy — turning a disability into a superpower.
A cochlear implant allows the boy hear again, listen to his favourite music and speak normally with his peers. He can even stream Spotify directly into his ears! With his bionic hearing, he might hear a butterfly flying, and when he chooses to, he can experience the purest silence — unattainable to most.
Now let’s meet the family:
Yes, this is my story, and it’s my boy. I’m so proud of him and all he has faced so far in his life, and so proud of the strength he has shown us. He is now learning to deal with his bionic ears and how to effectively communicate without using signs.
Not surprisingly, I’m passionate about how designers can make a patient and his/her family’s journey kinder and more human. But my story could be any family story — perhaps concerning an elder instead of a kid, such as an Alzheimer’s patient. What they have in common is that the patient isn’t aware of what’s happening and must rely on their family to support them.
Designing for extremes isn’t easy, especially when we have a pack of assumptions and points of view built around ourselves. Let’s understand that we are not designing for us — we are designing for a portion of the population whose challenges we may not even be aware of.
- Find your outlier: in my case, my family was the outlier. However, in many cases, you will need to focus your research to find these outliers, ask them about the biggest pitfalls they face and try to understand how design can help.
- Uncover the business value: all design work should deliver business value — not just the most innovative idea or the prettiest design. If you are able to uncover the real business value behind the design for inclusion in your product or service, it will not be seen as an extra, but as a part of the value you can create.
- Don’t just be empathetic, be inclusive: as designers, we always talk about being empathetic with our users, but it’s important to be more than that. We must be inclusive and conceive a design that can be accessed, understood and used by all users regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.
Inclusive design is not a methodology or a framework. It’s a mindset that should be present in all products or services to provide a lovable experience for every possible user.