Let’s start with a home truth: the average user doesn’t exist. If you’re still buying into this myth, this post is for you.
Consider the most basic rule of good design: Understanding the user and catering to their needs.
Be it a mobile app, a kitchen appliance, or a car, everyday objects and experiences need to be user-friendly and accessible. Without this consideration for the user, design is little more than a question of aesthetics.
Most businesses and brands would accept this without question, yet many still fail to practice inclusive design.
Inclusive design is not just a buzzword: It holds the key to better user experiences and has the power to create a more inclusive society.
So what exactly is inclusive design, and why is it so important?
What is inclusive design?
Since the beginning of time, we’ve been hung up on the idea of an “average” user—but they do not exist. Even within the same target group, users have different needs and abilities. Inclusive design recognizes these differences and ensures that everyday products can be accessed and enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Consider the World Health Organization’s definition of disability, a highly complex phenomenon that covers impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions; essentially anything that affects the interaction between “features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”
Accessible or inclusive design is all about removing barriers—whether it’s adding tactile elements to assist visually impaired users, or providing supplementary visual information for users with hearing impairments.
Inclusive design also addresses situational or temporary barriers. Designing an interface with contrasting colours helps to improve visibility in bright sunlight, for example. Likewise, adding subtitles to a video enables the user to watch it even if they’re on a crowded, noisy train.
When designing any product, it’s essential to anticipate various usage contexts—and this is exactly what inclusive design does.
According to the Paciello Group’s inclusive design principles, designers should aim to:
- Provide a comparable experience
- Adapt to situational barriers
- Be consistent
- Put the user in control
- Provide the user with options
- Prioritize content
- Add value
Inclusive design: The key to innovation
When we talk about inclusive or accessible design, we often consider the benefits for certain user groups, such as the elderly or the visually impaired.
What many people fail to recognize is that inclusive design benefits everyone. As Roy Stanfield, Design Lead at Airbnb, explains, inclusive design holds the key to innovation:
“In design, again and again, we see that looking to the average does not produce cutting-edge innovations. Instead we should be looking to extremes. What gets forgotten is that people with disabilities are great examples of extreme users. We experience the world in such a different way. They are a gold mine for helping us to think differently.”
Designing purely for the so-called “average” user is a creative and commercial dead end. Inclusive design not only empowers the individual user; at the same time, it builds a society where everyone has access to the same experiences and products. It compels designers to think outside the box and explore every possible avenue, improving the user experience on a universal level.
From a business perspective, logic dictates that there’s a direct correlation between inclusive design and commercial success. If you only design with one type of user or situation in mind, you can only appeal to a limited pool of users. Designing for a diverse audience makes your product much more accessible, giving more people the opportunity to enjoy and advocate your brand.
What does inclusive design look like?
Inclusive design is still far from being a mainstream practice, but certain brands and organizations are leading the way.
Airbnb recently unveiled a new font to improve readability across different platforms and devices. This isn’t their first foray into the world of inclusive design: last year, they released their inclusive design toolkit, encouraging designers to “balance your bias, consider the opposite, and embrace a growth mindset.”
Meanwhile, a new exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt design museum explores the future of sensory design. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision looks at different ways that users can experience the world around them. As explained on their website:
“The Senses demonstrates that by opening up to multiple sensory dimensions, designers reach a greater diversity of users. Maps that can be touched as well as seen facilitate mobility and knowledge for sighted, low-vision, and blind users. Audio devices translate sound into vibrations that can be felt on the skin. Tableware and kitchen tools use color and form to guide people living with dementia or vision loss.”
“The larger the user group we take into consideration throughout the design process, the more inclusive many of our products in our society will be.” –@caramccarty. @CNN reports on #DesignAccess https://t.co/KvoMyva6W9
— Cooper Hewitt (@cooperhewitt) February 21, 2018
CodeTalk is a plugin that aims to help visually impaired programmers tackle some of the biggest challenges in their everyday work, such as sight-based navigation and debugging. Built by a group of researchers at Microsoft Research India, CodeTalk replaces visual cues with audio feedback to alert programmers of errors in their code, enabling them to write a program 5-10 times faster than usual.
Another Microsoft project known as Canetroller focuses on making virtual reality accessible to blind users. Canetroller is a haptic cane controller that provides the user with different types of feedback as they navigate virtual environments, including physical resistance, vibrotactile feedback and spatial 3D auditory feedback, which simulates the sound of real-world cane interactions.
Whether it’s using a more legible font on your interface or inventing virtual reality canes, every single decision a designer makes has the opportunity to be inclusive. By involving a diverse group of people in the design process, brands can ensure that the right decisions are being made from the very beginning.
Design for all
While inclusive design has made great progress in recent years, we have yet to reach the point where it’s the norm rather than the exception. Accessibility to everyday products and empowering user experiences is a right, not a privilege—and designers have the opportunity to make this happen.
Billy Gregory, Senior Accessibility Engineer at the Paciello Group, sums it up perfectly: “When UX doesn’t consider ALL users, shouldn’t it be known as “SOME User Experience” or… SUX?”