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Rethinking Inclusive Design, Beyond Technology

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You don’t have to be a technology expert or in the tech field to benefit from understanding inclusive design.

Inclusive design (and universal design) are UX principles that developed around better technology design for a diverse user base. After all, most of the people designing technology have been white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men. And now thankfully, technological design is starting to evolve with the people around it. 

I am not a UX expert, but when I heard about these principles in the LIBERATE 2021 Workshop (Living Better Through Rehabilitative and Assistive Technologies) co-hosted by Innovatorsbox, I was inspired because they can be applied to business practices that extend beyond technology. I took some of the principles that the UX experts have laid before us, and got curious about how we can apply them to design our entire workplace – such as the company culture, physical workspaces, and content and communications (my bread and butter).

It’s like Play Doh. The colorful putty was originally created as a wall cleaner and it does quite well at that. But we have re-adapted the salty (don’t ask me how I know that) substance to be one of the most popular children’s toys. UX principles are like Play-Doh, and with just a little imagination, we can mold them into having a better understanding of inclusive design across endless applications, including the one I’ll explain in this blog.

What is Inclusive Design?

But first, let’s understand the original use of inclusive design – technology. 

The goal of inclusive design is to find technological solutions that meet the different needs of traditionally excluded people such as those of various disabilities, race, economic statuses, languages, ages, genders, etc. One useful definition created by Microsoft is: inclusive design is “a 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.”

“Workforce Strategies for Accessible and Inclusive Workplaces,” LIBERATE 2021

It’s a “solve for one, extend to many” solution, meaning solving for one type of user can extend to many other types of users. For example, while closed captioning provided for videos was created to increase accessibility for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, others may turn them on if they are in a loud environment or if the audio is dodgy.

Inclusive Design vs Universal Design

Notably, inclusive design often offers different design solutions while it’s alternative, “universal design” is about creating one solution for everyone without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University calls universal design, “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

“Accessibility is for Everybody: Considerations for Universal Program Design,” LIBERATE 2021

This approach has been criticized since a single design can lose effectiveness when you have so many intended users. Universal design reminds me of when I’m shopping and I see “one size fits all” jeans. The idea was to make the jeans more accessible to everyone, but tell that to the zipper that I can’t pull up. 

But just because inclusive design is more about adapting to different solutions, it doesn’t mean it’s trying to be inclusive to EVERY SINGLE human possible. The process often starts with designing for one type of user and then extending that application to others and building upon that continuously through testing.

Accessibility design is an aspect of inclusive design, that is specifically designing for people with disabilities, not just from a technological standpoint, such as with assistive technologies like screen-readers, but a cultural standpoint.

“Activities of Daily Living using Assistive Technologies,” LIBERATE 2021

When persons with disabilities or those who have been traditionally excluded from technological processes encounter an inaccessibility, it not only halters them technically but it’s incredibly frustrating! It can make one feel less prioritized as a team member and psychologically be quite challenging in the workplace and affect productivity.

“The Power of Design in Accessibility,” LIBERATE 2021

Taking this into consideration, one way we can expand on the traditional definition of an inclusive design approach is to say that it should enable the delivery of solutions that are not just easy to access, but also make people feel welcomed, safe, and valued.

Rethinking Inclusive Design Beyond Technology to Build a Culture of Inclusion

Let’s review the core principles of inclusive design:

  • The goal is to make a solution(s) accessible to a diverse range of users
  • It’s a “solve for one, extend to many” solution that is tested and evolves in steps
  • The end result is often multiple solutions, not just one

That is “sticky note above the desk” material. This technological principle can be applied to building a culture of inclusion in your workspace in general! 

Let’s take one example – Physical Design of Workspaces – to illustrate the importance of inclusive design beyond technology.

Physical Design of Workplaces:

With hybrid workplace models being tested all over the world at the moment, what better time to reflect on the design of the physical space? Of course, accessibility standards for physical disabilities such as persons in wheelchairs is incredibly important, but using the inclusive design principles – let’s think beyond that. What other “users” can we design for?

What about…introverts? Or older generations? The “modern” office is now seen as one with an open floor plan – no cubicles and big tables. But according to several  studies, most “open-plan” offices that were seen as the most sought-after structure of an office do not accommodate the needs of every employee.  Some people, particularly older generations and introverted personality types prefer workstations where they feel they have privacy and are surrounded by people they are comfortable with.

Therefore, designing a completely open office space may not be the most inclusive design — perhaps keeping a few cubicles up for those who prefer it would be better – multiple solutions for multiple users.  

Some companies take this flexible office design concept to the next level. In Amsterdam, Deloitte’s office design utilises apps that organise workstations for employees built around their schedule. The computerised system knows which work environments they prefer to perform certain tasks and assigns them to an appropriate workstation. I mean come on! That’s the future! But it’s also quite complicated.

A simpler thing one can do to create a more inclusive work environment is to encourage your team to work in different plants. Research shows that changing environments can spark new ideas and encourage collaboration, especially those with natural light.

Go Forth and Create the Next PlayDoh

Of course this just scratches the surface in terms of illustrating the importance of the inclusive design principles. And another reminder: While inclusive design is all about building a workplace for all, you don’t have to solve for literally every user up-front. Prioritise certain people first and involve them from the start, knowing that you’ll expand the solutions to others. After all, your next workplace design solution could be the next PlayDoh. 

It was great getting to see LIBERATE 2021 this year and get inspired by all the scientists, entrepreneurs, and other innovators who are asking the hard questions about accessibility and inclusivity in the workplace. 

Learn More About Liberate

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It’s a reminder that accessibility is not an issue for a certain industry or role. Anybody and anyone can benefit from these discussions. And what’s more exciting, more diverse perspectives are joining the conversations of accessibility, which will undoubtedly bring more progress. 

You can watch many of the events yourself by heading over to the LIBERATE 2021 Youtube Channel

For more resources on inclusive design and accessibility, here’s a brief list of key resources and experts to follow to just get you started:
  1. Tiffany Yu, Disability Awareness Educator and Advocate, Founder of Diversability
  2. Xian Horn, writer, speaker and founder of the non-profit, Give Beauty Wings
  3. James Sulzer, Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering at UT-Austin doing research on biomechanics, neurology and motor controls. A Peer-Reviewed Portrait of Suffering, by the Atlantic, an inspiring and gripping story about a couple that spent their lives developing assistive technologies, and how their daughter’s freak accident changed it all.
  4. Petr Kucheryavy, Senior Accessibility Manager and Outreach, Charter Communications, who’s passionate about universal design, and one of the speakers at LIBERATE 2021. 
  5. Larry Goldberg, Senior Director and Head of Accessibility at Verizon Media, and also one of the speakers at LIBERATE 2021.
  6. Gallaudet University, School for the deaf and hard of hearing that is a great resource and inspiration hub for innovation in the space
  7. Tim Kettering, Melissa Malzkuhn, Matt Malzkuhn, and Megan Malzkuhn, the founders of The ASL App, a brilliant educational app to learn ASL (even just learning the basics can get you far, and it’s fun!)
  8. Bernadette Hagans or “the girl with the colorful leg,” one of the first models with a false limb and advocate/influencer 
  9. Karen Thomas, founder of Conscious Craftied and Kind Shop in the UK – advocate for talented disabkled entrepreneurs 
  10. Mary Babbili, President of LaSaRa Hi-Tech Consulting,  helped multiple government organizations to achieve 508 compliance certification for their mobile and web applications
  11. Becky Kekula Director of DEI at Disability:IN, leading nonprofit in the U.S. working globally to push laws and standards for access to a wide range of disabilities 
  12. Look Me In The: My Life With Aspergers, an award-winning memoir by John Elder Robison transforming our perspectives about the emotional toll of living in an inaccessible world

And many more! 

About the Author

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth is a writer and sustainability & culture specialist located in Austin, Texas. She studied Journalism and Environmental Science At The University of Texas at Austin and partly at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She worked as a freelance writer for several years, eventually founding my own LLC where she helped mission-driven organisations understand and connect with their audiences through clear, impactful communications. She now works at Flex International, a global manufacturing partner dedicated to creating products that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. Her specialties include writing/editing, research, customer relations, community-building, and data. The views Sarah expresses are her’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Flex.

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