Inclusion by Design

Why Inclusive Design?

So much to say.

Who are you missing?

Who can participate in society and who sits on the sidelines? For better or worse, people who create technology hold the key to this power. Something as simple as color choices can render a product unusable for millions of people. Yet companies are still releasing new technologies at a breakneck pace without addressing these issues. As inclusion grows as a topic of interest in businesses around the world very few leaders know exactly how to turn this critical issue into an innovation engine.

Designing for inclusivity not only opens up your products and experiences to more people with a wider range of abilities. It also reflects how people really are. All humans are growing, changing, and adapting to the world around them every day. Your designs can reflect that diversity. As technologists, every decision we make can raise or lower barriers to participation in society. It’s our collective responsibility to lower these barriers though inclusive products, services, environments, and experiences.

Description of image: A poster with three panels. In the middle are the words "It's a big world. Design for all." Under these words is an illustration of many different buildings, people, and many different outdoor scenes including the space needle in Seattle, Washington. On the left panel is an illustration of three people connected along a single line. The first is a person with one arm, the second is a person with an arm injury, and the third is a parent holding an infant in one arm. The panel on the right is another illustration of three people connected along a single line. The first is a person who's hard of hearing, the second is a person reading captions on an airport TV screen, and the third is a teacher teaching a child to read.

Inclusive Design Defined

Inclusive design: A design methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity.

Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives. Designing inclusively doesn’t mean you’re making one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways for everyone to participate in an experience with a sense of belonging. Many people are unable to participate in aspects of society, both physical and digital. Understanding why and how people are excluded gives us actionable steps to take towards inclusive design.

Accessibility Defined

Accessibility: 1. The qualities that make an experience open to all. 2. A professional discipline aimed at achieving No. 1.

We get many questions about the difference between accessibility and inclusive design. An important distinction is that accessibility is an attribute, while inclusive design is a method. And while practicing inclusive design should make your products more accessible, it’s not a process for meeting all accessibility standards. Ideally, accessibility and inclusive design work together to make experiences that are not only compliant with standards, but truly usable and open to all.

Principles of Inclusive Design

Recognize exclusion

Exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases. Almost from the moment the World Health Organization first published its formal definitions of disabilities in 1980, we’ve evolved our understanding of disability and limitations. A new definition issued in 2001 speaks to interactions between people and society. Today when we talk about disabilities and related limitations, we include situational impairments, activity limitations, and restrictions on participation. We encompass mismatches between individuals and their environments, situations, and society as a whole.

Disability happens at the points of interaction between a person and society. Physical, cognitive, and social exclusion is the result of mismatched interactions. As designers, it’s our responsibility to know how our designs affect these interactions and create mismatches. Points of exclusion help us generate new ideas and inclusive designs. They highlight opportunities to create solutions with utility and elegance for many people.

Sometimes exclusion is temporary. Even a short-term injury or context affects the way people interact with the world around them, if only for a short time. Think about looking into a bright light, wearing a cast, or ordering dinner in a foreign country.

Sometimes exclusion is situational. As people move through different environments, their abilities can also change dramatically. In a loud crowd, they can’t hear well. In a car, they’re visually impaired. New parents spend much of their day doing tasks one-handed. An overwhelming day can cause sensory overload. What’s possible, safe, and appropriate is constantly changing.

Learn from diversity

Human beings are the real experts in adapting to diversity
Inclusive design puts people in the center from the very start of the process. You need fresh, diverse perspectives to make it work. Human beings have amazing capabilities to adapt to different situations, and understanding those adaptations is the key to real insight.

The insight is in the adaptation. When experiences don’t serve people the way they should, people adapt. Sometimes in astonishing ways that the designers never intended. We can try to imagine how a person with a given set of abilities would use an experience, but we can’t imagine their emotional context, what gives them joy or frustrates them. Insights come when we understand those adaptations, and from what’s shared across everyone’s experiences.

Interactions with technology depend heavily on what we can see, hear, say, touch, learn, and remember. Mobile technologies can make situational limitations highly relevant to many people today. Mobile puts in focus questions like: Are we forced to adapt to technology, or is technology adapting to us?

Empathy is an important part of many different forms of design. When building empathy for exclusion and disability, it’s misleading to rely only on simulating different abilities through blindfolds and earplugs. Learning how people adapt to the world around them means spending time understanding their experience from their perspective. When done well, we can recognize more than just the barriers that people encounter. We also recognize the motivations that all people have in common.

Solve for one, extend to many

Focus on what’s universally important to all humans. There are universal ways human beings experience the world. All people have motivations and build relationships. We all have abilities and limits to those abilities. Everyone experiences exclusion as they interact with our designs. On the other hand, a solution that works well for someone who’s blind might also benefit any person driving a car. Inclusive design works across a spectrum of related abilities, connecting different people in similar circumstances.

The beauty of constraints. Designing for people with permanent disabilities can seem like a significant constraint, but the resulting designs can actually benefit a much larger number of people. For example, closed captioning was created for the hard of hearing community. But, there are many benefits of captioning such as reading in a crowded airport, or, teaching children how to read. Similarly, high-contrast screen settings were initially made to benefit people with vision impairments. But today, many people benefit from high-contrast settings when they use a device in bright sunlight. The same is true for remote controls, automatic door openers, audiobooks, email, and much more. Designing with constraints in mind is simply designing well.

Different people benefit. By designing for someone with a permanent disability, someone with a situational limitation can also benefit. For example, a device designed for a person who has one arm could be used just as effectively by a person with a temporary wrist injury or a new parent holding an infant. We call this the Persona Spectrum.

More people benefit. Being mindful of the continuum from permanent disabilities to situational impairments helps us rethink how our designs can scale to more people in new ways. In the United States, 26,000 people a year suffer from loss of upper extremities. But when we include people with temporary and situational impairments, the number is greater than 20M. Source: United States Census Bureau, Limbs for Life Foundation, Amputee Coalition,,, Disability Statistics Center at the UCSF

Going Forward

Traditional user-centered design has many techniques to clarify human needs, from personas to scenarios to usability testing. But, we also need tools that reintroduce diversity back into our design process. We need ways to check, balance, and measure the inclusivity of our designs.

Technology that’s designed through inclusive practices pays off in many ways including: 1. Increased access 2. Reduced friction 3. More emotional context The impact of inclusive design is more than just the products that people use. It’s also a shift in our mindset, methods, and behaviors. What we design is a byproduct of how we design. Measuring the benefits includes measuring the shift in our culture and ourselves.

Most design processes are iterative and heuristic. The inclusive design toolkit aims to complement, not replace, the many existing types of design process. There are great human-centered design methods available from multiple sources. Like a chef’s recipe, your own design process should be the primary direction for your design. The elements of this toolkit can be added, like ingredients, to improve the inclusivity of your process. How and when you integrate them is up to you.

To start practicing inclusive design download this set of activities and check out multiple short-films at this link. You can also watch a 20-minute documentary Inclusion, with audio description at this link.

Click here to contact Kat Holmes for more information.

Source: Microsoft Inclusive Toolkit