Some thoughts on inclusive and responsible design

(Originally published here)

When December rolls around, the annual barrage of business/technology/design trends begins. Consultancies, agencies, and publications put out a list of what they thought would rule the world in the coming year. The first list — this year, Fjords’ trends was my first — is fresh, surprising, and insightful. By the third or fourth list, the trends felt old and I was ready for 2020.

But I was being unfair, these trends are ultimately a distillation from societal, market, political, and technological changes and movements. It will be odd if the lists are vastly different!

More importantly, these trends don’t and can’t gain traction on the power of one. Put enough consensus behind an idea or technology, and maybe, just maybe, there will be enough awareness, interest, and budget to move things forward. Once framed in a business context with the right numbers and value, maybe some of these ideas will get some tailwinds.

Among this year’s crop, I was happy to see a few design-specific themes surface — particularly, inclusive and responsible design. Yay!

I’ve been using my break from work to reflect and re-assess my attitude and approach towards work and design. As a designer working primarily in the digital space, my work in recent years has been mostly about removing friction in adoption and conversion. I digitalise and facilitate communications and transactions between the business and our customers. They were all fruitful pursuits, but designing an experience is more than just getting a user from A to B faster. It is more than just building little moments of delight along the way. It’s more than dangling a carrot.

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To be very honest, up till a couple of months ago, I had a rather simple and superficial understanding of the term, “inclusive design”. I thought that it was mainly about accessibility and about making design and content easier to consume and utilise.

Inclusive design is all that, but I’ve also learnt it is and can be also so much more. Rather than taking a retroactive approach, inclusive design lets people and their many abilities, limitations, and differences guide and shape its possibilities, conception, and implementation.

Instead of adding a ramp to make building entrances more accessible to people using a wheelchair, how about redesigning these entrances to make them barrier-free to everyone? And, how about including an icon for call-to-action buttons so that people who do not necessarily understand the language can infer the use of these buttons?

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How do we take into consideration our differences from one another, and start to design for a more diverse range of people?

Technology has been regarded as an enabler — and it definitely has opened new possibilities and created new realities for many of us. Take a look at the sharing economy, microloans, or even Google Translate. Technology has liberated the flow of knowledge and information, and that has in turn helped us to imagine different outcomes, lifestyles, careers, and futures. But how can we ensure that the technology we choose and implement do not categorically exclude certain groups of people? How do we also make sure that digital literacy and proficiency are not the basic requirements for essential services?

And then, what does it mean to design responsibly?

While technology has undoubtedly made us more productive and augmented our natural abilities, technology has also enabled us to blur lines between work and the rest of life, and also between our public and private lives.

Social media and messaging have made us available 24/7. We are constantly vigilant for the next ping. Our brain craves new information and those pull-to-refresh are way too satisfying.

Designing responsibly means that we should play an active role in taking care of our well-being; if technology commands our attention and minds to enhance our performance and intelligence, the very least we should do is to ensure that technology doesn’t make us lesser emotionally and mentally in the process.

But, what does all these really mean? After reading articles, toolkits, and Kat Holmes’ book on inclusive design (Mismatch: How inclusion shapes design), I was definitely more aware and informed, but I was at a loss. There is so much to be done, and there is a lot to change.

Where do I actually start, and what can I do on a day-to-day basis? How do I incorporate all that I’ve learnt into my current design activities? I don’t yet have satisfying answers for a lot of these questions, but thought that I would at the very least start planning for changes that I can make (next post).

I found a line in the closing chapter of Holmes’ book especially poignant.

Many of us are temporarily able-bodied and will face new kinds of exclusion as we age.

Every bit of design inclusion and responsibility we build into our products and services sets the stage up for more. And, I think that’s reason enough to start.

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Helpful resources:
Microsoft: Inclusive Design
Google’s UX for the Next Billion Users
University of Cambridge’s Inclusive Design Toolkit
Kat Holmes’ Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design (Goodreads)
Design Council UK’s The Principles of Inclusive Design