Inclusive Design- defining the scope of the problem

Summary: Inclusion is critical as a concept because it is at the heart of all UX activities and intentions. Including user behaviors, needs, and desires in design decisions is core to good UX Design. Including users with disabilities when improving or designing for Accessibility is critical. Reaching diverse users from underrepresented communities is critical. This includes taking a cross-cultural approach to inclusion or localization. 


There is a stronger tradition in software engineering of excluding users. Why? Six reasons come to mind:

1. Historically, engineers were responsible for user interface design. “We don’t use designers, let alone talk to users!”

2. UX/UI Design was considered a secondary priority, with code as the highest-value product. “Ship it and skin it later”.

3. Designers had a traditionally minimized role in the design, so they were considered reactive or “window dressers”. Or today, “wireframers”.

4. As a result, Designers or UX professionals were relegated to the “clean-up” crew in the software development process. “We’re done, now test it”. 

5. Including users was considered inefficient, time-consuming, unpredictable, and relatively low value. “We have user stories; that’s close enough”. 

6. Historically, underrepresented users were left out of the marketing or business objectives; therefore, their voices and needs were not heard. 

So, excluding users was the norm. In this tradition, users on the edge were left out. These ‘extreme users’ were considered ‘edge cases’ or ‘not our customer’. 

See Extreme users and why you need them

Challenging exclusion in your Inclusive Design efforts

It’s important to question your defaults. Not just at the design level but organizationally. 

See The Power of Questioning Design Defaults 

Leaving users out of product or service design builds on convenient beliefs and excuses. The most common are: Not Enough Time, Not Enough Money; Users are Lazy, Unpredictable, or lacking in training. Bias comes from what we become familiar with. For example, in Accessibility efforts, all five types of disabilities or even a single user with a disability were traditionally left out. The main reason is the excuse of: Difficult to Find. This stems from UX teams lacking in accessibility know-how and being unfamiliar with the process of contacting users with disabilities. 

Bias starts with your own comfort zone: You went to school, have experience in your industry, and, therefore, know your organization’s business, rules, and procedures better than any user. As a result, user data (aka evidenced behavior) is left out of decisions. Instead, design decisions are made by assumption, by meeting after meeting.

As a result, organizations that do not align design decisions against user behavior and insights play the risky organizational game called Inside-Out Design. Good UX needs an Outside-In approach.

See Managing Outside-In Design orgs.

Tackling the problem of Inclusive Design requires a wider scope 


Digital Accessibility (making digital technology accessible for people with disabilities) has taken a long time to be noticed. Today, Google, Apple, IBM, and Microsoft evangelize it. These companies represent the high performers in accessibility efforts, with senior-level roles prioritizing accessibility compliance. But these players are the exception. When was the last time you conducted  Accessibility testing or discussed improving the accessibility of your mobile app or site, web application, or your Augmented Reality product? Probably never, or not very often. If you did, the conversation ended abruptly or was taken on as a pet project by the lone wolf advocate in your group. 

Worse, excluding users with disabilities in accessibility efforts seems to be the norm. Much of this comes down to unspoken stigma and lack of familiarity with how to approach UX design for Accessibility, let alone users with disabilities. Most, if not all, approaches to digital accessibility consist of using automated checker tools and W3 (WCAG 2.2) guidelines. For some reason, leaving users with disabilities out of the testing and optimizing process became the standard from a case study we are presenting next week at the HCI 2020 conference:

Most approaches to accessibility follow a guideline, checklist or algorithmic approach to compliance checking. Software tools for testing accessibility continue to be developed to meet the demand. The problem with this technology-centric approach, is that users are rarely included in the testing process. As a result, assessing software defects with users with disabilities (Accessibility Testing) is rarely done.

Worse, trying to understand and design to user needs before beginning the design or optimization of accessibility, is even less frequently performed.  User needs analysis, or ethnographic study, offers an opportunity for designers and developers to develop an advocacy approach to disability requirements. Field studies provide the ability to empathize as well as understand the context-of-use of a feature while using, for example a screen reader or magnifier. Understanding context-of-use in the accessibility user experience is rarely seen as a worthwhile effort. Official guidelines (e.g. W3C’s WCAG) fail to suggest its value and instead promote the technology-centric model to accessibility.

Read the whole Case Study here: Toward a disability-centric model of user participation in Accessibility efforts- lessons from a case study of school children

Localization- cross-cultural design as a way to expand inclusion

User exclusion occurs during the process of localizing for other countries. This is due to the misconception that localization equates to mere translation. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has become ingrained within the industry, shaping the decisions of product and localization managers who heavily rely on the translation (“Loc”) services offered by localization vendors.

Rarely do vendors who provide translation advocate for user studies or global user research because of the expense or time required. At Experience Dynamics, we conduct global research regularly, and I can tell you global user research is not expensive or time-consuming, or at least should not be. For example, we recently conducted Field Studies in three countries over six weeks (42 users) for roughly the same cost as a three-city US study– that included local moderators, simultaneous translation, and recruiting costs. With experience, you can scale and manage the cost of conducting localization user research or accessibility testing.

Localization requires you to get out of not just your building but also out of your country or cultural assumptions and expectations. Most localization efforts are experiments in calculated failure– this starts with defining it as a translation problem, but it is more than that. For effective user advocacy, prioritize crafting a robust user experience strategy tailored to the local audiences of your product or service’s target country. Like disability stigma, we tend to shy away from things that we do not understand or make us uncomfortable. Instead, we lean on Machine Translation instead of developing the UX/UI strategy to hold those translated words later.

Embracing Inclusive Design with User Advocacy is the key.

Inclusive product or service development can greatly benefit from the cultural competence that diverse team members inherently bring. Diverse teams and leaders doing user advocacy can improve your Inclusive Design efforts. User advocacy means “fighting for the rights of your users”. However, you need three distinct types of advocacy for your Inclusive Design efforts: 

  • Inclusion Advocacy: Acknowledging the historical bias contexting the needs of underrepresented users (LGBTQIA+, Black, Asian, LatinX, and more). Fighting for those needs where required. Doing Inclusive Recruiting is a starting point…
  • Disability Advocacy: Respecting disability-specific needs a specific focus. This starts by including users with disabilities in Accessibility efforts to validate and vet any gaps that checker tools or guidelines miss (Hint: it’s a huge gap). Design for users with disabilities and specific needs, usage scenarios, or Assistive Technology issues. e.g. Fight for ALT tags on images so blind users can access icons and images.
  • Localization Advocacy: Considering the impact of cultural sensitivity and fit is a starting point for Localization UX. Translation is important, but it is only 50% of localization. Observing cultural conditions, attitudes, and behaviors can illuminate the problem space. e.g. In Korea, there are two subway mapping apps, one for locals and one for foreigners or Korean-American users. Korean mobile apps emphasize time-saving (a Korean cultural value). Koreans say they are impatient, compared to Japanese, who are demonstrably extremely patient and whose culture emphasizes “kata”: the correct order, timing, sequence, and process to do something. The app for local Koreans had this cultural pattern reflected in the UI. Example from our global UX research on mobile payment systems


Including users in your product development process will lead to more inclusive design approaches over time. Start with regular contact with your users, including users from underrepresented communities, and if localizing, conduct global user research. Start by being more active with your advocacy and taking special positions on inclusion, disability, and cultural factors. 

Learn more, request an Inclusive Design training

See our Inclusive Design consulting services

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