The Power of Questioning Design Defaults

Summary: The power of questioning design defaults is the most valuable thing a design team can do. Defaults that are inaccurate or biased can cause a poor user experience. Overall, defaults hold the key to creating better Inclusive Design by being sensitive to user needs.

To increase inclusion, question your defaults.

Defaults hold the key to creating better Inclusive Design. Inclusive design is an essential principle that aims to create products and experiences that cater to the needs of a diverse audience. It emphasizes accessibility, usability, and inclusivity for people of all abilities, backgrounds, and perspectives. However, achieving true inclusivity in design requires more than just good intentions. One of the most potent tools at a design team’s disposal is the ability to question design defaults. We can pave the way for more inclusive and user-friendly solutions by challenging the assumptions and biases embedded in these defaults.

Understanding design defaults

Design defaults refer to the pre-established choices, settings, and standards that guide the creation of a product or experience. They are often the result of accumulated decisions and conventions, deeply rooted in our culture, and can unconsciously perpetuate exclusivity. For instance, consider the default gender selection on a web form, which often offers only binary options, neglecting non-binary and other gender identities. These defaults may seem harmless, but they create barriers for individuals not fitting into the predefined categories. Ruth Ng provides a great gender-inclusive form pattern…

gender inclusive form pattern

Here is the power of questioning design defaults

Default settings play a significant role in shaping user behavior and influencing their choices. By setting specific options as defaults, designers often nudge users in specific directions without realizing it. While this can be beneficial in some cases, it can also inadvertently exclude certain groups of users. For example, setting the font size to a small default may hinder people with visual impairments from comfortably reading content.

Another example comes from Zoom, which in 2023 decided to remove default “full desktop screen sharing”. Now “whiteboard” is the default screen share (a rarely used option). Users now have to share app by app, which adds to more mistakes, forgetting what is shared, and more back and forth (share on, share off, re-share) when switching windows. Supposing they did this for privacy reasons, why not offer the option to choose that as the default, as it was for years?

zoom screensharing with desktop sharing gone

Leaving out sustainability from your product or service strategy is another standard “default”. However, since sustainability requires an equity and inclusion lens, we can redress this gap by bringing in Planetary Ecosystems. We call designing for sustainability and equity the Donut-centered Design approach.

See Understanding the Triple Ecosystem

The Pitfalls of Unquestioned Defaults

When design teams accept defaults without question, they risk perpetuating biases and unintentionally excluding certain user groups. This is particularly problematic when defaults are based on assumptions everyone may not accept. For instance, if an online platform assumes all users have stable internet connections and fast devices, it neglects users in areas with poor connectivity or using older technology. Consequently, these users may struggle to access the platform, creating a digital divide.

Promoting Inclusivity through Questioning

First, to increase inclusion in design, design teams must question their defaults continually. This process involves critically examining every design decision, evaluating its potential impact on different user groups, and considering safer (harm-reducing) options. By doing so, designers can uncover hidden biases and challenges that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Conducting user research with impacted communities is critical to this approach. To gain leverage, you must practice inclusive user recruiting. Why? Because user recruiting is where we leave out users and learn from users, we might not understand.

Next, diversity within design teams plays a pivotal role in questioning design defaults effectively. When teams consist of individuals from various backgrounds and lived experiences, they bring broader perspectives. This diversity encourages more comprehensive discussions about defaults and ensures that a wider array of user needs are considered during the design process.

Role of User Testing

User testing is a powerful tool for identifying and rectifying exclusionary design defaults. Conducting usability tests with diverse groups of users helps designers observe how people interact with their products in real-world scenarios. This process allows designers to gather invaluable feedback and gain insights into potential design flaws and overlooked user needs. User testing also validates alternative design options that better serve impacted user groups.

Conclusion

Defaults undoubtedly hold the key to creating a better inclusive design. We can foster a more empathetic and inclusive approach to design by challenging the established norms and questioning design defaults. Embracing this approach requires an org-wide commitment to continuous learning, user testing, and collaboration. Designers must recognize that defaults are not set in stone and that they have the power to reshape them for the better. Ultimately, questioning design defaults is a fundamental step toward building a more inclusive world where products and experiences are accessible to everyone, regardless of their backgrounds or abilities.

Go deeper: Request an Inclusive Design training for your team.

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