Inclusive Design Principles

Principle #1: Recognize exclusion in order to call on your humanity and powers of empathy

By Doug Kim

When we train folks to practice Inclusive Design at Microsoft, we start by taking people back to childhood. Everyone can relate to the emotions and experiences we all had as kids. Those memories can be powerful tools for building empathy for our customers and partners.

So let’s go back there a second. When you were a kid, what was something you wanted to do but couldn’t? Maybe you couldn’t afford the uniforms for a sports team. Maybe it was a game you didn’t think you were smart enough for. Maybe there was something that other kids just wouldn’t let you do. For me it was baseball. I liked playing any position but outfield, because I really had a hard time anticipating where balls would land, and I couldn’t get there in time to catch them. And where do they put the lowest-skilled kids? In the outfield. (That is bias in action, but more on that later.) And because I was hopeless there, everyone assumed I was bad at everything. That assumption only got stronger throughout my childhood, so much so that even I started believing it.

Many of us can identify with that kid in right field.

That’s one kind of exclusion.

At Microsoft, our CEO Satya Nadella has given us a very strong mission statement: Empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more. If we’re going to do that, we need to think hard about the “every” in that statement. Building for every person means we can’t just let our instincts run unchallenged. We’re humans, which means we bring our biases to everything we do. If we don’t realize that, we’ll automatically create exclusion in everything we build. There’s someone out there, with a different set of abilities from yours, who wouldn’t be able to use or enjoy your product the way you would. Who is that person, and what would you do to even the playing field for them? That’s the first principle of Inclusive Design: Recognize Exclusion. It means examining what you build, and recognizing who would be excluded from using it.

Gaming, for example can require fine motor skills to compete, or even to get going on a new game. But what if you have limited mobility? Or if you’re brand new to video games? The Xbox engineering team came up with a new “co-pilot” feature that allows two controllers to work together, so that two people can control the same character, or car, or whatever’s featured in the game. Now a more advanced or skilled player can play alongside someone who might need more assistance. It opens up gaming to all kinds of people, including folks with disabilities or temporary injuries, newbies, kids, and people who just want to play together without competing against each other. The Xbox team recognized who was being excluded, and found a way to help bring them into gaming.

This is not an easy process, and sometimes the hardest part is realizing that exclusion just happens when we don’t pay attention to our biases. When we do pay attention, we can turn exclusion into a weapon for good. If we know those points of exclusion are out there, we can hunt them down, use research and testing to understand them, and use them to fire up our creativity.

There’s a beauty in recognizing exclusion. It calls on our humanity and our powers of empathy. And when we answer that call, beautiful things happen for our products, our customers, and us.

So let’s hear from you, what’s your story of exclusion? And did something meaningful come out of it? Let us know in the comments below.


This is the first in a series on inclusive design principles.

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