By Kat Holmes
My first mistake in writing a book was assuming that I’d simply expand on stuff that I’d already written. I had spent years researching, practicing, and writing about inclusive product development. My team and I had worked with thousands of engineers, designers, and leaders to apply these methods to their products. The toolkit we published was raising awareness of inclusive design across the tech industry and had taken on a life of its own.
Yet, immediately after signing a contract to deliver a manuscript in six months, all I could think about was how much more I needed to learn before I could write.
Then, right on cue, a water supply line burst and flooded my house with 50,000 gallons of water.
Thus began my reeducation in inclusion.
We were out of town when it happened, so the damage was extensive. While repairing our home, my family spent six months between hotels, apartments, and houses. The pages of Mismatch were written from hotel lobbies, friends’ couches, public libraries, coffee shops, coworking studios, and playground park benches.
While moving between these odd spaces, a pattern started to emerge. I’ve come to think of it as the art of welcoming. When we stayed with friends and family, it was their reassuring comments that our lives could easily merge together and how they pointed out ways we could contribute to the household. It was the quiet details that welcomed us like unlocked doors, family dinners, and thoughtfully prepared places to sleep.
We also learned how to make ourselves welcome. As a family, we each had our comfort items that moved with us. Each child had specific toys, blankets, and even a clock radio, that were packed and placed with great ceremony. Once those items found a place of belonging in a new home, we felt like we belonged in that place.
Over the months, we entered many new spaces as strangers and quickly became welcomed guests and better friends. In other cases, we remained outsiders. These were homes where we had an unsettling feeling of being out of place. The habits and idiosyncrasies that made sense inside the walls of our own home sometimes conflicted with our new surroundings.
As I settled into my nomadic writing process I sought out unfamiliar spaces where people came together to work and play. In each place, it was clear that inclusion was more than just extending a warm hello. I witnessed so many examples of how inclusion and exclusion are designed. Everywhere around us, design is one of the strongest indicators of who does and doesn’t belong in a place.
Sometimes it’s a touchscreen at a subway ticket station that only works for people who can see and touch a screen. Or a job application that can only be submitted over a high bandwidth internet connection. Or a video game controller that requires two hands to play.
These were familiar examples of the kinds of inaccessible designs that I had worked with many teams to improve. But I was now spending more time in places that were designed to be inclusive, especially public libraries, playgrounds, and even our friends’ homes. In these spaces I noticed a common nuance that distinguished access from inclusion: contribution.
Contribution is essential to inclusion. It’s an opportunity to help shape the bigger picture. It’s the difference between feeling like a guest versus being a true member of the household. In our many temporary homes, it was often as simple as cooking a meal. In design, it’s a matter of seeking out people who are traditionally excluded from a solution and including them in the process of building better outcomes. With the complex challenges that our society is facing in the 21st century we can’t possibly know where, or who, a good solution will come from.
Contribution, and my many questions about how it works, became my writing guide. How does design lead to exclusion? What types of contributions might have the greatest impact on how people use technology? Can 7.4 billion people be designers? A book’s worth of words took shape with each new question that I pursued.
I turned in my manuscript one week before we moved back into our house; refreshed with new perspectives and grateful to be home.