Inclusive design is the process of making design work accessible for and representational of as many people as possible. We say the term ‘process’ because it’s something that is constantly developing alongside technology and our individual learnings. Humanistic and empathetic, inclusive design forms the basis of any quality product or service.

Additionally, it’s become a standard practice for many businesses, including Microsoft and IBM, meaning brands that fail to adopt these principles risk falling behind their competitors. To this end, we’re going to walk you through what inclusive design is and how to promote it through your creative process.

illustration of four people with disabilities and respective symbols
Illustration by OrangeCrush

What does inclusive design mean?

Inclusive design is the ongoing process of designing solutions to accommodate the viewpoints, experiences, and situations of people that were not accommodated before. It shares an intense relationship with its opposite term: exclusion. Inclusive design is largely about eliminating points of exclusion.

The term “inclusivity” can sound like a political buzzword, but at the end of the day, it’s a very basic idea: making an effort to include where inclusion did not exist.

To understand this, let’s consider the many possible factors that can lead to someone being included or excluded. These can be physical or emotional, permanent or temporary, situational or non-situational. Factors that are physical, permanent, and non-situational might be along the lines of race, gender, mobility and age. Factors that are emotional, temporary, and situational might be someone using a design after a tiring day or under stress. Any one of these will influence their experience with or perception of a design.

Illustration of various app customers for a financial app
By VanessaBowman

Inclusive design, therefore, is a way of addressing these situations, and it can describe anything from using stock images with racially diverse subjects to making design considerations for people who are using a mobile phone instead of a desktop.

Accommodating for any one of these exclusions often has an effect on others. For example, captions on a video can help the hearing-impaired as well as the hearing-able watching the same video in a noisy setting.

As Microsoft puts it: “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.”

Lastly, I’ve highlighted a few times that inclusive design is a process. This is key to understanding inclusive design: it is a verb, a continuous act of doing. It is not an end result, where you step back and say, “We’ve done it! We’ve achieved maximum inclusivity!”

By moving a user from an outgroup to the ingroup your design caters to, you can accurately say that you’ve practiced inclusive design, but of course there are still excluded people out there. The work continues. Ultimately, it is both an approach to design with actionable steps and a mindset that you bring to your work everyday, requiring imagination, learning and empathy.

All said, inclusive design is a sometimes difficult concept to grasp as what it describes can be so broad. I thoroughly recommend reading the interview “What You’re Getting Wrong About Inclusive Design” with Kat Holmes, the progenitor of inclusive design at Microsoft, for more information.

Before we move on, there are a few, related concepts that often get conflated with inclusive design, and it is important that we differentiate these terms.

Inclusive design vs. accessible design

Accessible design (and accessibility in general) tends to be a piece of inclusive design, with both working towards the same overarching goal—making designs that accommodate a diverse range of people.

Book cover showing a cat in a wheelchair
By Carol Studio

Accessibility, however, involves the word ‘access,’ and this provides a clue to the key difference: it describes whether or not there are any literal barriers that prevent someone from experiencing something.

Common examples might include a set of stairs preventing wheelchair access or a website with text that is too small to read. In other words, the question of accessibility tends to focus on specific disabilities. Inclusive design, on the other hand, focuses on recognizing and rectifying all points of exclusion, and doing so sometimes involves making a design more accessible for the disabled.

Sometimes it is simply about making a user feel welcome where it may not have been obvious.

Inclusive design vs. universal design

Universal design is a term born from the architectural and industrial design world. Thus, it tends to describe an end product—a physical, unchanging thing—and an evaluation of whether it has been successfully designed for the widest possible range of people.

Inclusive design, as mentioned earlier, about an ongoing process. It is also typically used in the context of digital design, though it can apply to virtually anything. A universal design can be the result of an inclusive design approach.

With that said, a design can practice inclusivity but not be universal—meaning it includes some people but not everyone.

The inclusive design process

The process of inclusive design is not a straightforward one. As the goal is to include those who have previously been excluded, it ultimately depends on your audience, your product, and the history of your marketing strategy. But the following will give you some tips on how to discover the inclusive actions that will work for you.

Representation of the principles of inclusive design
via Microsoft

Make inclusivity a priority early on in the design process

As inclusive design is largely a mindset, it is not something that you turn on and off—it should be with you from start to finish. That is why you must avoid making inclusive design an afterthought. This can lead to shallow, rushed results. Rather, it is best to start thinking about inclusivity along with your early design ideation. Doing so is also more practical—it is harder to make potentially big changes to a project when the design is already in a semi-complete state than it is in the beginning.

All of this, of course, is not to say that you can’t make your design inclusive after it has already been implemented—only that it may be more of a challenge. As they say, better late than never. But going forward, remember that inclusive design is not merely a box to check but an entire way of thinking.

Avatar illustrations of different people
By Nandatama ✪

Identify your assumptions about your audience

Most brands perform market research to understand their target audience, and this, ostensibly, is your ingroup, the segment of people that your design is being built to serve. Understand that this information is inevitably fallible—target audience research is based on data as well as projections—but it can give you an idea of what assumptions you have already made about your audience. Identifying these assumptions is the first step to questioning them.

The next is to identify examples of audience segments that you might be overlooking, which requires you to supersede your unconscious biases. Let’s go over that in the next section.

Seek perspectives outside of your own

The whole purpose of inclusive design is to accommodate perspectives and experiences outside of your own. For this reason, inclusive design is not a venture any designer can take on their own—it is a collaborative effort that involves speaking to and learning from other people. In other words, expanding your perspective as best you can.

This can look like listening to negative reviews of customer experiences you consider to be edge cases, including diverse members of staff to work on a design, and testing a design in front of a diverse group of people. Pay attention to your competitors efforts to include as well as who they exclude. Read the writings of diverse industry thought leaders for insight into how they navigate the world and the challenges they face.

Representation of Microsoft’s persona spectrum
via Microsoft

You’ll want to use these viewpoints along with your audience research to create a breakdown of possible points of exclusion. Microsoft, in their Inclusive 101 manual, uses the Persona Spectrum for this purpose, in which they consider how design might work for people based on specific physical factors.

Focus on design as the solution

Once you’ve identified some points of exclusion, you will need to translate this into actionable design choices. Essentially, this is where you bridge the connection between problems and solutions. An example problem might be identifying that your design excludes users in a context of direct sunlight. The design solution would be increasing the contrast so that the relevant information is more easily visible.

A key advantage that digital design has over physical design is you can give people choices in how they want to experience your content. Customization tools such as the ability to change color schemes on certain features or multiple options for achieving a transaction based go a long way in promoting inclusivity.

Make inclusive design an ongoing practice

Inclusive design is the process for making design work for people it has not worked for before, and it is critical for helping businesses reach customer segments they’ve neglected. But as a practice, inclusive design must be ongoing. It should live beyond this article to become a part of your everyday design life.

Take your learnings from your own experiences in eliminating exclusion, write up your own inclusive design process, and train yourself and new employees on it. Not everyone is going to get inclusive design right the first time, but the beauty of being human is that it is never too late to broaden your horizons.

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