Inclusive Content, Ethical Design and All of Us

Ryan Mowery | 09/19/2019

EY Design Studio PDX Presents: An evening with Sara Wachter-Boettcher (Design Week Portland: Event Recap)

Implicit and unconscious bias impacts all digital products and experiences. Left unchecked, these biases reduce the usability, accessibility and quality of the product or experience. Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s work shows us that you don’t need to look far to see problematic tech. It’s why we sponsored her lecture for the Design Week Portland 2019 Festival. Sara’s lecture provided tangible examples of inclusivity failures, as well as actionable insights for creating inclusive and diverse digital experiences.

About Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a fierce user advocate and an expert on inclusive content and design. She speaks at business, design and technology events around the world. Her books and lectures catalogue examples of problematic tech and insights on how we can learn from those mistakes and make more inclusive digital products.

About Design Week Portland: Design Week Portland is an annual festival focused on design and creativity. It aims to foster growth and innovation through education, events and experiences. Creatives come from all over the world to tour creative agencies, attend workshops and guest lectures and really mix it up with the Portland creative community. For our team members, it’s an incredible opportunity to meet new people, expand our networks, learn new skills and get fired up again about the craft and possibilities of design.

5 Takeaways from the Event:

  1. Do what is right — not what performs well

    Increased engagement does not equal broader access. It is easy to get stuck in thinking that if a feature performs well (i.e., drives engagement), then it must be a valuable feature. However, this isn’t always the case. Sara provided an example of a digital product that utilized an algorithm-based push-notification messaging feature. The algorithm randomly chose trending content and pushed it directly to users, which drove significant engagement. But the algorithm was unchecked, and ended up promoting hateful content clearly unassociated with the product. This divisive content meant that a group of the product’s users felt alienated, unwanted and worse — unsafe.

  2. Not just use cases — you need use, misuse, abuse and stress cases

    We are leaving a lot unexplored. The product design world can get focused on shipping an MVP. The drive to get things out the door and into the hands of users can have unintended consequences.

    Sara introduced the concept of misuse, abuse and stress cases. We should ask ourselves questions such as: How could someone use a feature maliciously? Does the content assume anything about the user? By taking the time to explore how something could be taken advantage of and building in protections against those misuse and abuse cases, we can help prevent things from going wrong and also avoid people getting hurt. If we aren’t seeking alternate points of view and many different people’s experiences in the design process, then we are increasing the chances that our design will not resonate with our users.

  3. Rethink accessibility: optimize for as many people as possible

    We all have abilities and we all have limitations to those abilities. Leading inclusive design toolkits remind us that there is “no such thing as a normal person.” We all have different baselines. Additionally, a person’s hearing, sight, flexibility and reflexes are constantly being affected by the environment they are in.

    Accessibility and universal design practices make products better for everyone and should be the primary way of thinking about design — regardless of who the end user is. If we aren’t inclusive of all the different types of people, then we are failing.

  4. Homogeneous teams, homogeneous solutions

    We can and should be working with and learning from a wide variety of people. If everybody on the team is from the same place or has a similar background, the solutions they create will ultimately come up short. Working within a diverse and inclusive team will help ensure that designs are being approached from multiple angles and points of view. Engaging many different voices will decrease the risk that we’ve left users behind.

    That’s why design teams should have inclusivity and diversity goals at the core of their recruitment strategies. A diverse and inclusive team doesn’t happen without investment.

  5. We can get started immediately

    There is so much we can do. We really can change things. As designers we have the opportunity to dismantle exclusionary systems. Inclusive design is good for both customers and businesses. By taking the steps above in the creation of digital experiences, we are helping to develop products that are usable by everyone. The intention and the thoughtfulness of inclusive design and content needs to extend out into all of the decisions we make every day.


Our Design Week event was a success. We had a packed crowd of engaged people that listened, asked thoughtful questions and wanted to design digital products with inclusivity in mind. Our team enjoyed hosting Sara and we hope to put on more events in the future. To find more info about Sara, visit her website.