Making design more inclusive

Why inclusive design is an important practice and how to get started with it.

Illustration of a large crowd of people of all ages including people in wheelchairs, pregnant people and people walking dogs, many are together and talking in groups

The Singaporean government is committed to creating a more inclusive society, yet there’s a lack of initiatives which will make this a reality for all.

My interactions with designers and the general population point me to three barriers.

  1. A lack of awareness about the need for and importance of inclusion

  2. Those who are aware of its importance do not know where to begin or how to move forward

  3. Naysayers are dismissive of the idea and say that it’s impossible to cater for everyone’s needs and wants

Here, I attempt to inch us forward from these barriers, I offer three tips to help you start taking the practice of inclusive design seriously. It isn’t as difficult as many suggest, but it takes a clear understanding of what inclusive design is to see why.

Inclusive design vs Accessibility vs Universal design

When I first started exploring inclusive design, I used these three terms loosely and with little care, but having a clear distinction between these close cousins is important.

I apologise if this next line offends grammarians, but I consider inclusive design to be a verb; it’s an act of doing.

Both universal design and accessibility describe an end-product, with an emphasis on how successful the product or service is in serving everyone universally.

Universal design and accessibility guidelines are standards for spaces, products and services to include people with disabilities (PWDs).

Inclusive design is a process

Inclusive design shifts our focus from product to process.

It is a human-centred design process that embraces diversity from end-to-end. While universal design and accessibility guidelines are valuable for auditing spaces and digital services respectively, these guidelines are prescriptive, non-contextual and don’t account for emotion.

That’s where the process of inclusive design brings value - it helps us to empathise with human stories and emotions - the bedrock of lived experience.

Driving innovation and business growth

We embrace inclusive design when we expand our target audience to people we once excluded, and involve them in the design process.

While this is not limited to PWDs, I will focus on this community here, because it’s a clear case for inclusion.

Cost and logistical challenges often make the engagement of PWDs in design processes the first to be struck off the project plan. But every time you do this you lose valuable insights and opportunities to design better products and services for everyone.

The challenges and constraints of designing for PWDs is fertile ground for creative thinking and innovation. It challenges conventions and assumptions whilst forcing us to think outside of the box.

OXO’s cooking tools are a classic example of great design inspired by disability. Known for ease of use, the cooking tools were created because Founder Sam Farber saw his wife struggle to use a standard peeler given her arthritic condition. After more than two decades, the homeware brand continues to be known for reinventing kitchen gadgets.

On the digital front, auto-complete technology aimed to help the physically-impaired type faster and YouTube’s automatic text captions were initially designed for those with hearing-impairments.

Yet, many including myself have benefitted from these advances. Not only have companies created customer delight for more people, they have also expanded their customer base and pushed the boundaries of inclusive design.

3 practical steps to get started with inclusive design

Here are three steps which will help you put theory into practice:

1. Include a group that you’ve previously excluded as part of your target audience

A myth about inclusion is the need to serve everyone. This is an ideal end state, but many are daunted by the amount of time and effort required to execute on any inclusive design project, meaning they chose to abandon the cause all together. That’s unfortunate.

Instead of despairing at our inability to change the world overnight, we can make marginal progress towards inclusion by breaking down this vast problem into smaller digestible chunks.

Just as a masterpiece begins with a brush stroke, an inclusive service or product begins with considering the needs of one additional group of people whom you have previously excluded.

I adopt the perspective advocated by Kat Holmes. Each time we consider the needs of a new group of users whom we had previously excluded in our design, we make our product or service more inclusive than it was before.

2. Conduct contextual research to identify the problem

Be it contextual inquiry, in-situ research or ethnography, contextual research methodologies drive empathy as you immerse yourself in the context and environment of the user. It creates opportunities for you to see the world through a different lens.

We partnered with and The National Library Board (NLB) to organise a workshop on inclusive design for the public.

Our workshop participants conducted a UX audit of Tampines Regional Library using a light version of accessibility guidelines we prepared. Participants found the guidelines informative and detailed, albeit technical and lacking definitive guidance.

To contrast with this prescriptive exercise, we ran another audit. This time, guests with different disabilities led the groups through the audit. Using a think-aloud methodology, they performed various tasks in the library that allowed other participants to experience the library through their lens.

The discussions and insights from the second audit were richer and deeper than the first. The audit experience shifted from being a checklist exercise to a sharing of personal stories and challenges.

3. Collaborate with your target audience in the design process

Collaboration allows the diversity of experiences and perspectives to build on each other. This opens the space for ideas and decisions that can only come through conversations.

In the inclusive design workshop we ran, we had a diverse range of people for ideation which included wheelchair users, the visually impaired, caregivers, an autistic person, designers and public servants. The diversity of experiences and perspectives contributed to a richer discussion and opened a collaborative space to resolve conflicting user needs.

A case in point is lighting. Do we dim the lights for people with autism or turn them up for the visually impaired? These are decisions that cannot be prescribed by guidelines, they’re made possible through conversations which illuminate the context. Coming together as a group allows you to weigh the solutions, discuss the amount of pain they eliminate for different groups of people, and agree on the best outcome for all.  

Inclusive design is a journey worth starting

Beyond driving innovation and business growth, the greatest reward of inclusive design is doing social good.

In my work I help design products and services that create a positive impact for people.

If you believe in the value of your service vision, it’s time to improve - reinvent and innovate with inclusivity as your mandate.

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