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How to Design an Inclusive Product and Why it Matters

Estimated reading time ~ 4 min
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Inclusive design is a method that challenges designers and developers to design "mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible—without the need for special adaptation or specialized design." I like this method because it calls for every design process to have a central objective: to design for as many different types of people as possible. In the tech industry, designers and developers often imagine one, single “target” user. The “target” user could be from the majority population, who is then represented in user-testing, marketing, and design choices. In practice, no two users are exactly alike. People have very different abilities, circumstances, and identities, which is why it’s important for users to feel included and why product design that tailors to representational differences is important.

Recently, my team at Jopwell started using a virtual office platform to help us communicate throughout the day on projects and combat loneliness while we're in this work from home world. The product uses avatars to signal whether co-workers are at their desk, away, in a meeting, etc. You can customize your avatar with cute accessories (I went with a flower headband) and was able to pick from a few shirt options. I was excited about this feature until it came time to pick my avatar's hair. I am a mixed-race female with brown coily 3C hair. There was not one hair type that came even close to looking like my own. It eventually came down to having to decide between what I assume are dreadlocks and a bun hairstyle. While I still use the platform occasionally to communicate with my team, not being able to personalize my avatar in a way that felt authentic to me was frustrating and diminished my excitement for the platform. I felt excluded from the product.

Perhaps you've had a similar experience. Or if not, maybe you've heard about the now-infamous examples of more egregious blunders? Take, for example, the filter Snap, which was created to honor Juneteenth. It displayed chains that proceeded to break when a user smiled—as though structural racism can be dismantled with a grin or Google’s computer vision system that labeled African-Americans as gorillas. Unfortunately, these incidents are indicative of a broader diversity and inclusion problem in tech, and they're not going to go away on their own.

If we want products to be more inclusive, have advanced safety precautions, and foster belonging, we must tackle how technology is created—we have to rethink the design process. As daunting as this may seem, there are some practical actions product leaders can take to begin to create inclusive products or services.

Reference: OCAD, University's Inclusive Design Research Center - What is Inclusive Design?

Recruit a diverse team

You need diverse staff to create products for a diverse world. Technology products and services are still predominantly built by a niche group of society. A 2019 design census found that 71 percent of designers identified as White. While just 7.6 percent of designers identify as Black and 6.7 percent identify as Latinx who hold computer programming positions. Their absence shows from the racial prejudice baked into artificial intelligence to products that disregard minority user experiences—technology still, too often, magnifies exclusion.

Establish accountability

Management expert, Peter Drucker, famously said that "what gets measured, gets managed.” Incorporate clear and specific inclusion target goals early on in the design process that are part of the core metrics, not a secondary objective. Check-in on these metrics periodically as the project progresses to ensure you and your team are staying on track. Also, it's essential to establish baseline measures for released products; it's impossible to track progress unless you have initial metrics to compare them to.

Think deeply about representation in your product

Think in terms of how to reach as wide of an audience as possible rather than how to design for an average usership. Reflect on whether your product tokenizes certain communities' cultures or aesthetics and affords majority groups certain privileges. When possible, design with—rather than for—people bringing in voices of those who are traditionally excluded from the product development process. These are just three tips to get started. For a deep dive into inclusive design, I recommend OCAD University's Inclusive Design Research Center. It is important to note that the inclusive design process does not recommend designing one product to address the needs of the entire population. Rather, inclusive design provides a guideline for how to rethink the design process.

Susan Goltsman definition of inclusive design is one of my favorites:

"Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging."

A sense of belonging and authenticity is fundamental to a good user experience. It's time to address product development bias and reimagine what inclusive products could and should look like. By using the inclusive design process to consider a wide array of abilities, backgrounds, and perspectives; designers and developers can create products that work well for all people.

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