Who Gets to Play?
“Inclusive Design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so everyone has a sense of belonging.” - Susan Goltsman, Founding Principal of MIG, Inc., co-author of Play for All Guidelines and The Inclusive City.
Where did you love to play as a child? Maybe it was a hill near your home. Or the fort you built out of boxes and blankets. Or, like me, a tower of climbing bars rising up from the asphalt behind your school.
I’ve been talking about playgrounds a lot lately. I’ve been sliding on a lot of slides and trying out a lot of swings. I’ve listened to people talk about why they came to play and wondered who wasn’t able to join in. I’ve spent time with pioneers in playground design, like Susan Goltsman, who was an extraordinary advocate for inclusive play and healthy human habitats. All this may seem odd for an adult who designs technology for a living, but here’s why it matters: Designing for inclusion starts with recognizing exclusion.
A playground is a perfect microcosm for learning how to start.
I fell in love with the promise of human-centered design many years ago. I believe in the potential of technology to create equitable opportunities and empower people in meaningful ways. Yet, how do we know which human, exactly, belongs in the “center”?
How often are we using ourselves as that central human, even unintentionally?
When we design using our own abilities and resources as a baseline we can end up creating things that work for people with similar circumstances, but excluding everyone else. Imagine a playground full of only one kind of swing. A swing that requires you to be a certain height with two arms and two legs. The only people who will come to play are people who match this design. Because the design welcomes them and no one else.
And yet, there are many different ways you can design an experience of swinging. You can adjust the shape and size of the seat. You can keep a person stationary and swing the environment around them. Participation doesn’t require a particular design. But a particular design will prohibit participation.
The same phenomenon applies to technology. If writing stories requires a keyboard, screen, and fluency in English, the only stories we’d hear would be from people who match these requirements. If purchasing food in a café requires a touchscreen and credit card, anyone who is unable to see the screen or doesn’t have the right form of payment is excluded. Each feature created by designers, developers, or employers determines who can interact with an environment and who is left out.
So, who’s at the center of human-centered design? “Designing for the 80%” is a term I heard early in my career. Yet the defining traits of people within that 80% are often based on demographics and marketing segments, two categorizations of humans that have more to do with social and business power structures than with how people actually experience the world. Even methods that focus on designing for the edge case or “extremes” are based on an assumption that there’s such a thing as “normal” humans with normal use cases.
All human beings are constantly changing, growing, and interacting with the world in diverse ways. Each day we have dozens of interactions with technology. The more we move, change, and grow, the more our technology should move, change, and grow with us. This diversity is a reflection of how people really are. There’s no such thing as normal.
When developing inclusive playgrounds designers spend time with children who have a wide range of abilities and disabilities. For user experience design, very little time in our education or career development is spent on learning about disability. When taught, it’s often under the topic of accessibility requirements. Yet one of the most powerful statements regarding the future of interaction with technology comes from the World Report on Disability, published by the World Health Organization in 2011:
“Disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which they live.”
A mismatched interaction between a person and their environment is a function of design. Change the environment, not the body. For people who design and develop technology, every choice we make either raises or lowers these barriers.
A few things have become clear as I’ve looked to playgrounds as a guiding analogy. It’s not about creating perfect solutions every time. It’s not about creating lowest common denominators or one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, it’s a new way of finding new design constraints to challenge old paradigms and outdated norms. It’s about being mindful of the gaps we create between people and the world around them.
By recognizing exclusion we can start to build empathy for people who interact with unwelcoming designs every day of their lives. When we include people in our design process who have a range of abilities and disabilities, we can discover solutions that benefit everyone.
A design that works well for someone with one arm can also benefit someone with a broken elbow, or a new parent cradling an infant. Ultimately, we all experience exclusion in our lives. Places where we don’t fit. Mismatches between us and a product or environment. Even if it’s temporary, situational, or simply the progression of aging, we each face barriers to participating as we move through the world.
The physical, digital, and social spaces where we interact with each other are inclusive or exclusive by design. When we design diverse ways for people to participate, we just might be surprised by who shows up to play.