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How inclusive design benefits everyone

If we’re not intentional about inclusion, we’re intentionally excluding members of our audience

One of my guiding principles is that “I am not the user”. What does that mean? It means that I’m aware of the fact that the things I design, produce or curate are for people who are not me. They have perspectives, experiences, opinions, and capabilities I don’t have. And sometimes, they have disabilities which, when considered, benefits everyone else, too.

Unconscious Bias

We all have biases at play in the background of every decision we make. These may serve us when making personal choices but as designers of experiences for people who are not us, we’re making choices for people with experiences very different from our own. An example of this could be something like handedness. I’m left-handed so I could, without even thinking, design a mobile experience to be accessible to a user holding their devices with a left hand. However, I’m aware of the fact that I’m a minority. Only 10% of people are left-handed so I design mobile experiences for the majority, not what works for me.

Other areas where you may have bias at play might be harder to dig up and become aware of.

Banishing Assumptions

We should never assume that just because something works for (or is pleasing to) us, it’s going to work for the audience. For example, I see most websites for residential construction companies being hyper-masculine. The greatest buying power for residential construction services is female. These platforms are being designed without considering the user. They are biased toward masculine because most construction providers are men. That doesn’t matter because they are not the audience. In each touchpoint a user has with a brand, they want to see their own perspectives mirrored back to them. We feel comfortable when people mirror our body language and even the way we speak. How can these insights be utilized in design to foster inclusion?

How do we become present to our own bias and design for the audience? Empathy. Being able to get out of our own head and step in behind the eyeballs of someone else is a function of empathy in brand.

Inclusive Design

If we’re not designing for inclusion, we are de facto excluding members of our audience. When we design experiences based on our own points of view, we are acting on bias. Inclusive design puts humans at the center of the experience.

When we lower barriers to participation, everyone can benefit.

Inclusive design and audience numbers

There are actually 4 squares. The bottom two are desaturated.

20% of people experience some level of color blindness which is a special need less about color and more about tone. If the tonal contrast of your site is off, that means 2 out of every 10 people who visit may not see there are words on the page. You’re spending money to design an experience for an audience you’re not reliably reaching at 100%.

If, for instance, you’ve hired a person or team to grow your Instagram channel and the audience grows to 100,000, it’s prudent to make sure the content pushed into that channel is inclusive. Don’t waste resources growing a channel and then exclude many of the people you have paid to gather into that 100k audience. This could mean that:

  • 20,000 of those people can’t see your visual content because of color blindness.
  • 20,000 of those people will be dyslexic and you will exclude them if typography isn’t inclusive
  • 55,000 of those people will experience visual impairment. This is especially relevant if your audience is women 40+ since that population experiences visual impairment more than others.

If you’re spending money to reach an audience, reach as much of that audience as possible!

Sensory Inclusion

When we consider our 5 senses in the design of experiences, we can find opportunities to design inclusively. There’s a great graphic from Microsoft in which we see how when we design inclusively for someone with a permanent disability, we also become inclusive for ones with a temporary or situational disability.

A great real-world example of where this has happened in the mainstream is closed captions. There was a time where closed captions were purely for people experiencing deafness. With the introduction of video in our social media streams, especially when videos started playing automatically while scrolling, the need to access the content with the sound off or in busy places made closed captions an everyday convention useful to people who don’t experience permanent deafness.

Touch

Consider the daily life of your audience. I worked this into the mobile version of my Grace for Rett platform. The audience for that website is parents whose children have the disease Rett syndrome. They are usually accessing content on-the-go so the mobile version of the site was important. Additionally, they might have a sleeping child restricting one arm or they are reading while using the other hand to hold a feeding tube. 90% of people are right-handed so I designed the site with a hamburger menu on the right side of the site and a swipe-to-open menu should the hamburger not be reachable at the time.

Visual

Regular readers might remember my piece on 5 reasons brands should stop using BLOCK CAPS. At the heart of this issue is the truth that when we stop using excessive amounts of capitalized typography, we’re designing for people with varying levels of ability:

  • Permanent – Dyslexics (capitalized letters have poor shape contrast and exclude dyslexics which are up to 10% of the global population)
  • Temporary – Headache or eye injury (pink eye!)
  • Situational – Busy person reading your packaging in the grocery store (CAPS take longer to read)

Culture also matters here. You’d be excluding millennials whose culture says that words in all caps denotes screaming. We millennials consider all caps aggressive so when you use this, you are SCREAMING AT US AND BEING MEAN.

Language

When we use more accessible language to speak about a thing, we reach not only the highly educated, but laypeople, beginners, and even highly educated people for whom English isn’t their first language. As much as possible, I like to banish pretentious lingo from my communications. All industries have specialized language and jargon they use inside. Pompous language excludes people. Unless you’re publishing in a medical journal or to a highly specialized audience (of people with English as a first language) at a closed event, just use regular words.

These are but a few ways in which designing inclusively solves for mistakes that would unintentionally exclude valuable members of the audience. Unless the designing of experiences is your wheelhouse, you don’t need to become an expert in inclusion. I like to think that at the very least, knowing enough to become aware that you don’t know what you don’t know is a great start. Becoming aware means you can seek to add members to your team who keep these principles in mind to further the reach of your brand.

Further Reading

Limiting Beliefs & Unconscious Bias this is an episode from my podcast experiment of 2019. The accompanying website no longer exists, but I’m very proud of this episode in which I sit with a psychotherapist and discover, on the spot, about my limiting beliefs. Herein lies exercises you can do to discover your own blind spots and limiting beliefs.

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