Building for Everyone: 3 Ways to Expand Your Inclusive Design Skills
When I moved to San Francisco almost five years ago, one of the first things I did was start working out again — and that meant sore muscles on a regular basis. Fortunately, I found Katelyn, an incredible massage therapist and all-around lovely human being. During our sessions together, I learned a lot about her and her work. She was not only a professional massage therapist but also attended school and worked at a local cafe. She’d lived in San Francisco for over a decade and traveled regularly for her education. And she’s been blind since birth.
When I’m not earning sore muscles at the gym, I am a content strategist who helps build products for Facebook’s business users, with a focus on service-based businesses. Katelyn is a great example of the type of person I design for: someone running a small business on their own and juggling a lot to make it happen smoothly.
Part of my job, if not most of it, is to empathize with experiences I don’t know firsthand — and that means adopting a new mindset so that empathy results in products that work for the people who depend on them.
I’ve spent most of my career creating tools and resources for small businesses because I love making hard things easy for people who need it to be. As a content strategist, I specialize in the realm of understanding: do I understand the people I make things for, and can they understand the tools I help create for them?
I use a few key approaches to build my inclusive design muscles in my everyday work. Expanding my own mindset with these specific techniques has been crucial in building products that work for more people.
1. Get Curious
Empathy of all kinds begins with a desire to understand someone else’s experience of the world.
Whether you’re building for hundreds of operators on a factory floor or a one-woman business owner like Katelyn, understanding people’s everyday world in a firsthand way exponentially increases your capacity to build the right things.
Getting curious doesn’t have to be complicated. Tools I use include:
- Reading industry blogs. Listening in to the common problems — and existing solutions — your business owners face will help you understand common pain points and perspectives more deeply.
- Conduct one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and surveys. I know Mom always said not to, but talk to strangers. You might be surprised at how often you meet people who can teach you more about what you’re designing. When you start hearing the same things, that’s when you know you have something to work with.
- Create journey lines. Mapping out the full experience your users have (outside of and within your product) helps capture the goals, challenges, and emotions of the people you’re designing for.
At Facebook, we have incredible researchers to help with this — but every time I saw Katelyn, we chatted about how her business was going, what challenges she faced, and what she loved doing. Not only did this keep me grounded, but it also kept me motivated to solve the real problems she faced.
2. Embrace Humility
Immersing yourself in the world of the business owners you’re creating for is an excellent first step toward combating what threatens to derail almost all of us: our own ego.
It can be really hard to find out that an idea we’re excited about doesn’t land well with the people it’s for, and it’s happened to the best of us. Learning how to dig deep to define problems with precision before proposing solutions is one of the best ways to get to strong solutions.
One way I keep myself honest when designing for experiences I don’t have firsthand knowledge of is by using what I call “No Edge Case Cards.” I made these cards so I could actively consider many issues I’d otherwise overlook. I keep them on my desk and pick them up throughout the design process to help me consider how identity, environment, technology, and product roles affect the usability of my work. I can flip through the deck of 100-plus attributes in under 10 minutes to spot issues I didn’t naturally consider the first time around.
I end up asking myself things like:
- Will this solution work if I have limited data?
- Would this make sense if I’ve never done something like this before?
- Can I understand these instructions if I’m using a screen reader?
- How might this feel if I’m working on two hours of sleep?
- Does this make me feel confident about spending my time or money on this tool?
In the case of designing for people like Katelyn, I’ve spotted issues I had otherwise overlooked. For example, the appointments tool we created has a lot of powerful capabilities — but setting it up for the first time can be a little overwhelming. With that in mind, I was motivated to focus on creating a contextual education experience. A series of suggestions at the top of the interface helped people complete one relevant task at a time, articulated the business benefit crisply, and was upfront about the time commitment it would take to set up.
3. Keep Yourself Accountable
Even with the most well-researched product, you can’t be certain of whether you’ve built something that actually works for your users until you examine it critically in the real world.
- “Dogfood” the product yourself. It’s everyone’s responsibility to confirm that what you’ve made works the way it’s supposed to. What good is a great design if real users never get to experience it? Dogfooding is also one of the best ways to learn where it fails (deviate from the happy path!) — and where new opportunities might be.
- Pick the right metrics. Before you launch your product, think critically about what metrics would signal you’re solving the problem you set out to solve — and what counter-metrics will keep you honest about any undesirable consequences. Data should help you improve your design.
- Follow up with qualitative research. The rigor you spent on digging into business problems should be applied to find out how your work holds up with businesses in the real world. Empathy only matters when it results in meaningful change. It can be especially difficult to be objective at this point because you’ve worked hard to make something people will love — but only honest assessment will be useful.
With the contextual education project, I was closely involved in making sure the product we released worked the way it was designed. After launch, we looked at how many people engaged with the content, how many successfully set up a given feature, and what impact using the product had on their business achievements. Each level gave us unique insights about how effective each feature was, and we’re using that data—paired with qualitative insights—to further improve how it works.
At the end of the day, designing for businesses means designing for people. Whether you’re creating a tool for a busy sole proprietor trying to make enough to pay their rent every month or a large call center team, you’re designing for people with emotions, challenges, and unique needs. How much better could everyone’s work life be with a solid dose of design thinking?