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.
UX teams are ideal to help lead Inclusive Design efforts. First, UX designers and Researchers are user advocates. They fight for the rights of their users. UX could be termed “UXA” (user experience advocacy) since we’re always advocating for a better experience, for users’ needs, and for designs that empower users. Next, 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) recommend 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 issue:
Including users with disabilities is a welcome development because, historically, W3/WCAG has taken a light touch to this recommendation. The result? Accessibility is 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 testing with users with disabilities or accessibility testing. Why?
Automated testing tools have an estimated 20–30% coverage rate, and the tool axe by Deque claims it hits an industry high of 57% coverage of finding accessibility issues(source: Deque report 2021).
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 answers come from analytics, quant data, analysis, asking other employees, hard thinking, creative thinking, or interpreted empathy. It’s second nature not to talk to users. 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, and designers who exclude users increase their risk of making a bad decision. But where can you start? Connect your company’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts to your design process. Next, help stakeholders learn by including diverse users in your user research.
Who’s the”Inclusion Champion”? Everybody, that’s why UX must embrace Inclusive Design:
Firstly, Inclusive Design should not be the sole work of your DEI team. Instead, it is a shared responsibility that UX teams can support. 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 by recruiting underrepresented users. Consequently, user inclusion provides the same innovation and market growth opportunities as staffing diversity within your team.
Include users in your development process and improve your design decision’s quality while lowering your risks.
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.
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.
UX teams must embrace Inclusive Design:
Inclusive Design adds value to design decisions and profitability by innovating for “extreme users“. Studies show that inclusion inside your team also brings out diverse or ‘extreme team’ voice. 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 excluded people of color. Airbnb now sees inclusion as an innovation engine. The company offers service experiences promoting disability inclusion and an Inclusive Design toolkit. The toolkit offers design and development teams a way to question design biases.
Inclusion as a quality indicator
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.
Image: 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.
To sum up, it is time that our research, design, and dev efforts include representation of underrepresented users eg users with disabilities; people of color; women; the LGBTQ+ community, and more. 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 participate — 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, industries across the board are starting to recognize that user inclusion leads to new opportunities, hidden revenue as well as mitigated bias. Companies like Google and Microsoft are showing this to be tangible. Moreover, Inclusive Design surpasses assumptions and stereotypes and connects you with hidden opportunities by including left-out user groups. Above all, UX teams are key players in the inclusion challenge. To succeed, studies show that manager involvement is critical.
Note: To 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…