By Frank Spillers

inclusive team

Summary: Inclusive Design is the process of ensuring representation in your design, your team, and your design and development process. Inclusion is core to User Experience (UX) efforts. UX professionals are uniquely positioned to help drive inclusion in design teams, projects and processes. 

User Advocacy is a core skill

First of all, UX Design (UXD) and UX Research (UXR) are rooted in user advocacy. In fact, UX could be termed “UXA” (user experience advocacy) since we’re always advocating: advocating for a better experience, advocating for users' needs, advocating for designs that empower users. Next, note that most UX work, discussions, and decisions are colored by advocacy. Advocacy is critical for inclusive design work, in particular reaching underrepresented users such as users with disabilities. 

Disability advocacy starts with bringing users into your process, listening deeply to their needs, and amplifying their issues, needs, and concerns (throughout your design decisions). 

Finally, W3 digital accessibility guidelines (WCAG 3.0, draft Jan. 2021) are recommending testing with users with disabilities (Accessibility Testing):

"WCAG 3.0 includes two types of tests:

Atomic tests: simple tests (usually of the code), like the way we test today. You use these tests to reach the bronze level.

Holistic tests: usability tests and manual tests with hardware and software used by people with disabilities (assistive technologies). You use these tests to reach the silver or gold level.

Some content will meet outcomes if it passes atomic tests--but that content still might not be usable by all people with disabilities. Holistic tests can help you fix that."

Accessibility is not a technical problem

Including users with disabilities is a welcome development because historically W3/WCAG has taken a light touch to this recommendation. The result? Accessibility being seen as a purely technical fix (automated or tool level code testing). Today, a new generation of AI bot-based testing tools also follows this high-risk ‘exclude users’ model. Even the term “accessibility test” means a “tool” — meaning testing users with disabilities is perceived as not. The belief that accessibility is a “technical problem” stops here. 

Similarly, efforts to improve usability followed the same approach. However, after the Dot-Com bubble burst in 2000, testing with real users became the default. Shortly thereafter new tools leveraging direct end-user feedback flooded the market (eg UserTesting.com; User Zoom; Look Back; Loop11 and many more). To date, there is a single accessibility testing crowdsourcing service using actual users (Fable). However, there are plenty of automated or AI-based tools, and checker tools but none replace user accessibility testing.

Research (Law et. al 2006; Farmer & Macleod 2011) shows accessibility efforts are more likely to fail when designers do not include users or consider themselves the end-users... 

Yet the art of excluding users seems to be an ongoing ‘instinct’ of many IT-trained professionals. For instance, “We don’t need to talk to users” seems natural since naturally, answers come from analytics, quant data, analysis, asking other employees, hard thinking, creative thinking, or interpreted empathy. It’s second nature to not talk to users. Note: I’ve heard this from four different teams in the past few months! 

In other words, user exclusion is a risky behavior when designing experiences…Projects, managers, designers who exclude users are increasing their risk, of making a bad decision. But where can you start?  Start by connecting your companies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts to your design process. 

Who’s the Inclusion champion? Everybody and UX teams can help

Firstly, Inclusive Design is not the sole work of your DEI team, it is a shared task and specifically requires UX teams. Why?

UX brings users in, by default. UX teams perform necessary User Research (User Needs Analysis and User Testing). Ethnography, above all, studies human behavior within a culture and can help deepen understanding of underrepresented communities and user groups. User Testing brings user feedback to a design starting by recruiting underrepresented users. Consequently, user inclusion unlocks the same innovation and market growth opportunities as staffing diversity within your team.

Include Users= improve quality of design decision-making

Most importantly, bringing users into your design process is the single most important quality improvement you can make. An Inclusive Design approach means including historically underrepresented users in your design process.  Likewise, DEI efforts extend from design strategy to the button pressed by users. That includes users with disabilities; aging populations, lower socio-economic communities, people of color; women; the LGBTQ+ community, and more. 

venn diagram showing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging at the center

Image above: DEI-B for Inclusive Design: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with a feeling of Belonging holding the balance in the middle. Without a doubt, the key idea of Inclusive Design is to bring representation of users and teams fostering diversity, inclusion, and equity while amplifying their contributions and voices. 

Image contents described:

Diversity: Inclusive design starts with diversity. Design teams are diverse and represent diverse users in experience design efforts and in recruiting for User Research.

Danger point: The dominant group influences design decisions. HIPPOs dominate (Highest Paid Person’s Opinions).

Inclusion: Your insights account for the needs of all user groups (and employees). Users are involved in problem definition, design prototyping & testing.

Equity: Addressing historical patterns of exclusion of underrepresented users and team members. Constantly and consistently enabling access, participation, and empowerment.

Danger point: Unconscious bias dominates, eg. personas are unfairly prioritized or driven by profit only over societal gain.

Belonging: Teams embrace diverse users and team members; outside-in design thinking thrives.

Danger point: Org does not engage diverse users or teams and navigates with assumption.

To clarify, the DEI acronym can be extended: DEI needs a feeling of Belonging (DEI-B) as well as justice (JEDI).  Add a much-needed sustainability lens, since human fabric and environment overlap, eg environmental racism, and you get JEDIS. With Belonging, we extend the DEI acronym to B-JEDIS.

Inclusive Design adds value to design decisions and profitability 

That is to say, involving diverse users and team members yield smarter teams, with more holistic viewpoints. Diversity encourages sensing opportunities and dangers that are good for the business and protect users. 

“Companies with more inclusive business cultures and policies see a 59% increase in innovation and 37% better assessment of consumer interest and demand.” -International Labour Organization (2019 study)

For example, Airbnb started embracing DEI-B when it was clear that their app-powered service experience was excluding people of color.  Airbnb now sees inclusion as an innovation engine. The company offers service experiences promoting disability inclusion as well as an Inclusive Design toolkit. The toolkit offers design and development teams a way to question design biases.

Inclusive practices rank high among quality of life indicators across the world. Studies by Wilkinson and Pickett (2010) found that the richest countries with higher inequality did worse on almost every quality of life indicator. In other words, inclusivity brought better results due to: diverse perspectives, recognition of the interconnectedness of users and systems, and better adaptation in design.

inclusive design dimensions from Wilkinson and Pickett in their book 'The Spirit Level'

Above: Wilkinson and Pickett in their book ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’ found that inclusion (bridging economic inequality) leads to better results. Image: Inclusive Design Research Center OCAD University. 

Design with, Not For users

Firstly, in UX, we know that bringing users into your design process is the single most important factor. In other words quality, ROI improves if your users participated — see ROI of UX infographic. Secondly, focusing on who you think can afford your product is a short-sighted strategy. Equity means giving users who have been historically left out of the design process a seat at the table. Finally, inclusive design goes past assumptions and stereotypes and connects you with hidden opportunities by including left-out user groups.

To sum up, it is time that our research, design, and dev efforts include representation of underrepresented users. Users with disabilities; people of color; women; the LGBTQ+ community, and more. Finally, industries across the board are starting to recognize that user inclusion leads to new opportunities, hidden revenue as well as mitigated bias. Above all, UX teams are key players in the Inclusion challenge. To succeed, manager involvement is critical

Learn more about Inclusive Design, check out this FREE webinar: Inclusive Design: "How to bake inclusion into your process and experience"

And this 3 hr. Inclusive Design workshop, ($99) join my UX Inner Circle for this and more…

Best wishes,

Frank Spillers (CEO/CXO Experience Dynamics)