Level up design to level up inclusion

Jennifer Greenhorn | 06/16/2021

No one offers better straight talk than kids. Case in point? My then four-year-old’s take on doing things independently:

“If I play by myself, no one has any bad ideas.”

She’s not wrong. I’m sure many of us can relate to feeling this way. But as time will undoubtedly reveal to her in ways big and small, she’s very far from right. And I’m not just talking about the context of play. From the conversations we have, to the teams we work with, to the experiences, products and services we create: when we limit who is included, we exclude others’ perspectives by default. Any ideas we have run the risk of being good for us but bad for others.

We need more people than ever shaping design decisions if we want to design inclusively to create more equitable access to products and services. Unless we bring others into the design process, we create an echo chamber. Similar people, with similar experiences, designing similar things. That doesn’t get us very far. Transforming that space into a veritable sandbox, where people bring a range of perspectives to the design process, can deliberately and systematically remove barriers. Doing so also helps enable expanded benefits for diverse individuals who make up our offices, cities, teams and families.

The World Health Organization has adapted its definition of disability since the 1980s. It now defines disability not as a physical health condition, but rather a mismatch between the features in a person’s body and the context or environment in which they live. Put simply, exclusion exists where those mismatches create a cavernous gap between human diversity and the broader context in which it exists. Many of us have seen this play out throughout the flow of our days, perhaps without realizing.

For example, in the context of a noisy environment, I quickly struggle with sensory overload at my local grocery store during peak hours. On Tuesdays, though, the store has a sensory hour. Lights and music are turned down to create the dream shopping experience for individuals with sensory overload issues.

In another example, consider my mom. Twenty years ago, she faced challenges attending university in person due to her use of a wheelchair and other concerns. Fast forward to the context of virtual learning decades later, and she’s earned multiple degrees and certifications.

Think about the many ways you, your family at home, your team at work, or anyone else you come across as you move through the day experiences these seemingly simple things, things you accept as they are. Then ask yourself: who might be excluded? Who might be facing barriers to accessing this service or product? Does it have to be this way? We need to ask how we can learn from individuals who have lived experience with exclusion and use our role as designers to design a new context.

Too often, we think we can rely solely on personas to get the job done. They act as aggregate representations of our core customers when designing. But these averages can be problematic when used without supplementary design tactics. The US Air Force learned this the hard way when they attempted to design the perfect cockpit by taking 140 measurements of over 4,000 pilots. In the end, their design didn’t match a single pilot. Personas can have a similar outcome, putting us at risk of designing for an average that simply doesn’t exist.

Although data-driven personas capture much more detail than physical dimensions alone, they can’t represent the nuances of the human condition. We need to augment our use of personas with other tools. An individual’s diversity is complex and includes many factors. From ability, sexual orientation and ethnicity to culture and personality: there are infinite definitions of diversity. The intersectionality of these factors is complex, and we need to bring diverse voices into the design process. As designers, we have a unique opportunity to move beyond relying on personas alone to adjust the way we work. This empowers us to support design that’s more inclusive, more diverse and much better aligned to the ways real humans live in real life. That’s the value we can create. The core question is, how do we do it?

On the upside, there’s no wrong way. Refusing to heed my own child’s advice, though, could be a good starting point. Including others in our design process brings diverse perspectives. The more we listen to those who face barriers to inclusion, the more relevant inclusive experience we can create in the market.

Still, the challenge is to intentionally and permanently change the design process itself. That means embedding inclusion at every stage of the game, not simply when we’re comfortable. How?

  • Analyze. Ask yourself who might be excluded? Who might face barriers? Invite them to the conversation.
  • Design. Employ co-design methods. Create the context that will allow others to contribute to the process.
  • Implement. Execute based on findings that extend beyond personas alone to provide a more robust understanding. Then, build for accessibility.
  • Test. Invite an even broader audience to validate and generate new insights for inclusion
  • Improve. Iterate continuously based on lived experience feedback and reduce exclusion over time. There’s always room for improvement.

Inclusive design isn’t a “one and done” skillset or method you roll out. It’s a continual learning process for everyone, myself (and my daughter) included. Just like we need to design adaptive experiences to meet individual needs, we need to adapt our design process for inclusion. We have the power to design new ways to live, work, learn, play and exist.

Imagine the possibilities we could unlock if more of us committed to designing with others instead of for them?

The views reflected in this blog are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.