Inclusive design: a blueprint in progress

Jamie Gadette
OM Design
Published in
7 min readDec 8, 2022

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In Chloé Cooper Jones’ memoir, Easy Beauty, the philosophy professor and freelance journalist attends an Italian opera in a venue set amidst the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. As she sits down in her assigned seat, she’s struck by what she later recognizes as a distinct and unique absence of pain.

“I have an anxious feeling like I’ve forgotten something I’ll need, and I stare out ahead of me into nothing until I realize the uneasiness is just surprise that I’m comfortable.”

Jones has spent her life moving through a world in a body that looks different than most; one that is rarely accounted for in spaces and products designed for the “general public.”

Such friction is the result of a one-size-fits-all mentality that O/M is working to unravel through inclusive design.

Back in Autumn 2021, the studio issued a renewed mission, which solidifies their commitment to “creating a world that is accessible and beneficial to all by using design as a tool for bettering people’s lives.” The mission is intentionally ambitious to set an aim for the studio that can’t be easily achieved and that can live beyond the company’s own capabilities.

Designing for inclusion to create a better world.

The Just Cause distills the values that have been a part of O/M since the beginning — open-mindedness, transparency, mutual respect and support, and the belief that a team with varied identities and experiences is essential to good work. It builds on this foundation and gives O/M a way to apply its values even more directly to all.

Everyone at O/M is passionate about inclusive design but the team needed to align around a common set of practices and processes in order to do the work consistently. To that end, O/M made a conscious decision to free up a seasoned designer to lead a team in building out their inclusive design practices. Anna Nguyen filled the role and was soon joined by team members Kristin Waites, Mika Albornoz, and Rob Young.

By dedicating specific resources to the effort, the studio has been able to take big leaps in a matter of months, accomplishing things that might otherwise stall in a less structured environment.

A commitment to inclusive design sometimes means taking big leaps.

In a relatively short time frame, O/M’s core group has learned some important lessons that could prove useful for anyone who wants to put inclusive design theory into practice.

Lesson 1: You can’t do everything at once

Speaking with O/M about inclusive design, the term “nebulous” comes up a lot. It’s a massive challenge that no one has completely solved, partly because it lacks a singular definition. It’s not a fixed outcome, but rather process-based and highly dynamic — so much so, that people can easily get overwhelmed.

There’s no universal solution that works for everyone, so people don’t know where to focus and wind up getting nowhere.

O/M recently toured Microsoft’s Inclusive Tech Lab where the facility’s co-founder, Bryce Johnson, explained, “When you start making something accessible for someone you’re moving it away from someone else.”

In other words you have to pick a lane to move forward.

“We can debate forever if we’re going to take the right step but at the end of the day we just have to take a step and learn from it,” says Alboronz.

For O/M, the first big step was a design sprint in late Spring 2022. The core group spent six weeks planning for the rest of the year by defining specific needs, wants, goals, and timelines to achieve them.

Before putting anything into motion, they involved the broader studio team to understand where individuals stood in respect to inclusive design. What did they know already? What did they need to know? How could O/M better support designers in putting their shared vision into practice?

“This allowed us to really spend the rest of the year doing work that feels much more tangible,” says Waites. “I don’t think we would have been able to do things as successfully without having that baseline.”

From there, the inclusive design team developed a set of principles and an intention statement that would ground their deliverables in Q3. It gave them something to reference as they marched into the unknown.

Lesson 2: Get everyone on the same page

One of the biggest hurdles to inclusive design is confidence (or lack thereof). Even designers with decades of experience are entering new territory and wrapping their head around concepts that may contradict tried-and-true design practices, like the idea that good design is always measurable.

“Everyone wants to learn and feel more confident and comfortable, not only in their own understanding of what inclusive design means, but also being able to advocate for it with clients,” says Waites. “So we are starting a study hall — a low lift way for us all to sit and learn about specific resources and have a discussion about how it applies to our work.”

The goal is to help team members recognize how their work connects to inclusivity, and to establish a shared understanding around language, including what it means to center excluded communities.

It’s equally important for O/M to establish a common understanding and language with clients as well. And the team is experimenting with different ways to do so during client kickoffs.

Albornoz says, “We start at the personal level by asking, ‘What was an affirmative experience you had with a particular product?’” The question brings to mind Chloé Cooper Jones in her surprisingly comfortable chair; a small but meaningful interaction that could have been completely random but that could still convey the sense that, “Oh, they thought of me.” Other examples include pants that come in different lengths, so shorter and taller people don’t have to always go to the tailor for a good fit; surname inputs without character count restrictions; a dating application that lets users choose from 30 gender identity options.

By starting from a place of revelatory positivity, O/M can center clients on a shared end goal of inclusive design. This feeling is why it’s worth approaching things differently; carefully; empathetically.

From there, they can get into more project-specific logistics.

O/M is also working to adjust processes so that teams can bring inclusivity into initial client conversations, no matter how long or short their kickoff might be. The dialogue can unfold quite differently in an eight-hour workshop versus a 60-minute call. How can people incorporate ideas about inclusivity into the questions they usually ask to launch a project? This is something O/M is continuing to test and refine.

Lesson 3: Reinvent the wheel

Product design has long relied on personas as an essential aspect of meeting people’s needs. But personas are inherently generic. They’re composites of anonymized demographics that lack the nuance of what makes any given person unique.

O/M has been exploring an alternative approach.

Instead of basing design decisions on identity, base them on roles. This person works in marketing so needs to perform a particular task; this person is an engineer and must accomplish a different task. “So, thinking about the action first and keeping the door open for what people will actually need to do,” says Albornoz, noting that this task-forward approach acknowledges people who don’t think and act like a “persona” but could still be performing the duties folded under that role.

“We can feel confident we are considering a wide variety of folks in our research efforts and not just thinking about personas,” says Waites. “We’re really asking questions and interrogating who we think the product is for and who will actually use it.”

The team is also diving deep into user research, tapping studio members’ expertise and interrogating internal processes to make user-experience research more ethical and productive.

Reviewing our internal processes has been key to creating more ethical research practices.

Lesson 4: Get ready to fail

Getting involved in inclusive design can be intimidating — and humbling. Just remember the adage, “perfect is the enemy of good.” The pursuit of progress is paved with mistakes that, if you pay close attention, serve as guideposts for what you should leave behind and what you should do next.

“Failure is inevitable,” says Albornoz, adding that the best strategy is to adopt an MVP mindset and reframe it as an opportunity — because that’s where innovation comes in. “We have to be brave as designers, and as an industry. It’s being brave and leading forward that’s going to create change.”

O/M doesn’t claim to have all of the answers. They’re just trying to break patterns that are holding back the industry and making life unnecessarily difficult for those long overlooked by conventional standards. These challenges aren’t unique to product design nor the sole problem for designers to solve but rather a reflection of the world we live in.

As Nguyen notes, “We’re just doing our part to be responsible for our bit of it in our industry, in our small day-to-day lives, to build it up rather than settle for what it is at the present.”

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Jamie Gadette
OM Design

Writer, Storyteller, Music Maven, Comedy Nerd.