A quick guide to inclusive design

By Suzanne Chapman

One of my first user research sessions at USDS was with a Veteran who has Parkinson’s. He apologized the whole session for forgetting our questions–and because he had trouble using the computer mouse, he said he probably wasn’t the best person to get feedback from. I told him that he’s exactly who we want to make sure our site works for. Our entire design team agreed and collectively made it a priority to ensure we were deliberate in our research, design, and content practices. As a parting gesture from my tour of duty with USDS, I am sharing some of our best practices for the broader design community.

Inclusive design is just good design.

If you’ve ever applied for federal healthcare, jobs, visas, student loans, small business loans, or other benefits, you know it can be hard. For some people, it’s just about slogging through a long application or making sense of dense instructions. But the reality is that most people face additional obstacles. We have to do the hard work to understand these obstacles so we can design better solutions. Because good design is design that works for everyone. Designing for inclusion isn’t just about accessibility or section 508 compliance, it’s about the whole experience.

We want our users to feel informed, empowered, prepared, and in control.

Understanding the range of contexts our users come from is key to designing quality government digital experiences.

1) Design with users, not for them.

One of the six USDS values is to “design with users, not for them.” What’s implicit in that is that designing with users means all users regardless of their ability, context, or demographics. We’re designing technology for a diverse population so our research participants should be equally diverse. Don’t only talk with people who are convenient to talk to. Sometimes that means a little extra recruiting footwork.

We have many different users with many different–and often evolving–needs. They may be (or have):

  • Print disabled (e.g., visually impaired, low vision, dyslexic, color blind)
  • Deaf or hard of hearing
  • Physical or motor disabilities
  • Cognitive differences (e.g., traumatic brain injury, anxiety, PTSD, memory loss)
  • Limited access to internet on different types of devices (mobile, tablet, or desktop)
  • Assistive technology users
  • Deep knowledge and experience with our processes or are encountering it for the first time
  • Tech novices or experts
  • Female, male, and/or non-binary
  • Limited literacy skills
  • Non-native English language skills
  • Different cultural expectations
  • Under high pressure or stressed conditions

2) Make content easily readable, skimmable, and understandable.

Users are often better served by fewer pages that contain the most important details, than many pages that are exhaustively thorough.

  • Use inclusive language: use “they” and “their” as singular pronouns. Advocate with agencies to use more inclusive language on forms.
  • Use a “business casual” voice: be friendly (but not their best friend), address users as “you”, use contractions where appropriate.
  • Be concise. Try cutting your content in half. Then cut it in half again.
  • Use plain language: avoid jargon, figurative language, formal, and complex words when simple ones will do (utilize –> use).
  • Put help information in context of where it’s needed (not in a separate FAQ).
  • Retire content that’s no longer needed.

3) Design for simplicity, consistency, and ease of use.

The best way to “delight” users is to design experiences that help them get their work done quickly and easily.

  • Start with the US Web Design System and only stray from it when necessary.
  • Walk users through complex processes (aka “progressive disclosure” or “wizards”).
  • Use high contrast colors and avoid unnecessary visual graphics.
  • Design to support your content (e.g., strong visual hierarchy, structured, chunked). Make sure users always know what they need to do next (e.g., action-oriented layouts, noticeable call-to-actions, and subway map visuals that help highlight stepped processes).
  • Keep it simple. Avoid bells and whistles that are more complicated to execute well, don’t add a lot of value for the users, or might cause problems for certain users (e.g., avoid infinite scrolling, carousels, moving images, complex layouts).

4) Design for mobile first.

Designing for mobile first isn’t just about designing for mobile users. Mobile design principles more generally help ensure your designs don’t become overly complex — which helps many of the groups mentioned above. It also helps counteract impulses by stakeholders, lawyers, and subject matter experts to include exhaustively thorough content because when you show them their content on a small screen, the problems with their long content become unavoidable. Even internal users benefit from mobile responsive tools because they may shrink multiple windows down to fit on their screen.


It’s always nice to end with a quote, so here’s one from a user research participant to one of our USDS Designers:

“As a disabled Veteran it means A LOT to me that this type of site is being built up for us! It already appears to be more user friendly than [the old site] and that is going to be so helpful for the older disabled Veterans, like my father…. He is constantly asking me for help. I can start sending him to this site now. Thank YOU for this opportunity to help.”

Special thanks to:

USDS designers, researchers, and content strategists for being awesome.

The UK’s Government Digital Service for paving the way with their design principles.


The best of technology.
The best of government.
And we want you.

We’re looking for the most tenacious designers, software engineers, product managers, and more, who are committed to untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services. You’ll join a team of the most talented technologists from across the private sector and government.
If you have questions regarding employment with the U.S. Digital Service, please contact us at usds@omb.eop.gov and visit usds.gov/join.