Diversity creates more precise design constraints and better solutions.
Our planet is home to about 7.85 billion people, each different from all the others, for one thing or another. All of them, not one less, have to deal with some limitation or difficulty, be it physical, cognitive, or emotional. However, they all have to relate profitably and effectively to their context.
Yet we designers forget this and design for subjects that are the ideal projection of ourselves in terms of physical condition, level of education, set of values. We design for super entities that we would like to resemble us and that are not even archetypes, because their nature derives from the mental form of those who created them.
Exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases.
— Microsoft Inclusive Toolkit Manual
As designers, we have quite a bit of responsibility for this. Innocent because it results from the typical habit of extending one’s condition and values to the rest of the world. It’s the result of a simplification, or as psychologists say, a cognitive bias.
Instead of being self-indulgent, we should ask ourselves how to ensure that the services and products we design are beneficial to most people and not just to those we think to look like us. In other words, to include most human beings and limit the conditions of exclusion that our designs may generate.
As we recognize this need as urgent, we must also come to terms with how to transform the way we design. Sketchin has a history related to the dimension of disability linked to the theme of accessibility. We have collaborated in defining the Italian guidelines of digital accessibility inaugurated by the 2004 Stanca law, and we have firmly included them in our projects ever since. By computer accessibility we mean the possibility that people with permanent or temporary disabilities or conditions (elderly, minors, poorly educated), can use a website even without the aid of auxiliary devices. It is an important dimension, a great requirement for participating in and benefiting from many opportunities, but it is only a part of the problem.
The times call now for a further step.
The focus is on the ability to design better products and services. A big help in this comes from inclusive design as practiced by Microsoft, which, mind you, is different from doing design for inclusion or design for all. Accessibility is a side effect (a significant effect, nonetheless, because every design choice we make facilitates or hinders full participation in social life).
The Inclusive Design approach relies on the concept of disability, the definition of which has changed a great deal over time and now no longer involves only the dimension of an individual’s health or the integrity of their functions.
The World Health Organization now defines it as follows: Disability is a generic term that includes impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Impairments are problems in body functions or structures, while activity limitations are difficulties experienced by an individual in performing tasks or actions. Problems experienced by an individual in life situations are called participation restrictions.
In other words, disability describes a complex phenomenon that reflects the interaction between a person’s body and the characteristics of the environment in which they live. The disabling condition can be permanent (the lack of a limb), transient (a fracture that prevents its use), or situational (a person holding an infant and having only one free arm, for example). All of these conditions have in common the inability to use, for example, an arm.
Learning from diversity
Humans have extraordinary abilities to adapt to different situations, and understanding the strategies they adopt from time to time opens up a broader understanding of design possibilities. When something doesn’t work out the way people expect, they adapt: they look for ways to achieve their goal with what they have available. Adaptation brought us out of the savannah a few million years ago. Quite relevant, isn’t it?
Interactions with technology depend heavily on what we can see, hear, say, touch, learn, and remember. And we use it functionally to achieve a purpose.
The growth of mobile technology use disproportionately increases situations of impartiality between our condition and context.
That’s why the knowledge that comes from understanding diversity is so valuable: it allows discovering accommodation strategies and deeply understanding people’s emotions and motivations.
Pretending you don’t have an arm, putting earplugs in your ears to simulate deafness, or blindfolding yourself, besides being a bit silly, gives a distorted perception of what it’s like to live that condition. As designers, we need to ‘enter’ the emotional world through research, understand these elements, define whether there are repetitive patterns, and act on those to produce change. And that’s why including extreme personas in design activities has such significant results.
Solve for one, extend to many
Designing for people with permanent disabilities may seem like a significant constraint, or worse, a way to take advantage of an uncomfortable condition. Still, their condition does not define people, and every one’s experience is valuable precisely because it allows those who cannot experience it to access additional levels of knowledge.
Instead, the resulting projects can benefit a much larger number of people. If we design for someone with a permanent disability, those experiencing a situational limitation can also improve their experience.
For example, high-contrast screen settings were initially created to serve people with visual impairments. But today, many people profit from high-contrast settings when using a device in bright sunlight. The same goes for remote controls, automatic door openers, audiobooks, emails and more.
Or again, a device designed for a person with one arm could be used just as effectively by someone with a temporary wrist injury or a new parent holding a newborn. People are no longer archetypes but universes of experience.
We use the people spectrum to understand correspondences and relative motivations across an assortment of permanent, temporary and situational scenarios. It’s a quick tool that helps foster empathy and shows how a solution fits a broader audience.
The importance of a constraint
Often constraints, even in a project, are perceived as limitations or boundaries to possibilities. Instead, from the limit, we derive the sense and the directions along which to develop solutions. It seems a paradox, but let’s consider the concept of limits in educational dynamics, the production of knowledge, or even the evolution of biological systems. The limit is testing and growing ground from which innovative solutions spring.
Thus, the more limits are defined, the more precise and effective the designed solutions will be.
Adopting an approach inspired by inclusive design allows us to identify and define better design constraints and thus be able to design better products and services for the benefit of all, with a truly inclusive and user-centric approachable to enhance human diversity well beyond the statements.
It’s also worth considering the business impacts of this design paradigm shift: more inclusive solutions serve more people and are therefore more economically viable. But that’s not all: the results are even more valid, serve a wider target and offer the best possible experience in a plurality of conditions and to different people. They are ultimately better.
For some years now, Sketchin has begun to adopt these tools more extensively in its projects, starting with those involving public administration and services to citizens, as in the case of Enel. Adopting tools such as Extreme Personas or complying with the guidelines for accessibility has been rough terrain on one hand, but also extremely fruitful on the other.
However, it is now highly relevant to take a further step in that direction in order to integrate inclusivity in our design practice and therefore to think about inclusive solutions that, by starting from the conditions of impartiality, can trace a path from Human Centred Design to a definition of Society Centred Design.
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