There are many different interpretations of the word “inclusion”. Then there are related concepts such as accessibility and universal design. What does inclusion really mean, and how is it different than accessibility and universal design?
To understand what Inclusion means, we have to take a look at a universal human experience — Exclusion. Every choice a designer makes either creates inclusion or exclusion. Think about who you are designing for — We tend to design things for our own ability level. We rely on our own perception and intuition to generate and test ideas. Everyone with similar abilities to the designer are assured ease of use.
Consequently, there is a gap between the designer’s ability level and that of others. These people will face difficulty accessing and using the product. Meaning, unintentionally we are excluding a huge number of people from our solutions. We are designing disability.
For example, imagine a cafeteria where people have ordered food by interacting with human for years. Now we suddenly change that interaction to be completely digital. We require people to order using a touch screen, hence creating friction. It is a friction created for people who can’t see or touch the screen and are unable to use the system. It also creates social friction — if you are unable to participate in a rather simple and crucial process of ordering your food, it is very unwelcoming. That makes a person less likely to participate in a social gathering for lunch or dinner. Suddenly now we are missing out on those human to human interactions — we are excluding a whole group of people based on their ability to touch and see.
By using our own biases and not translating human to human interactions to human to tech interactions, we are creating disability.
Even design processes that focus on edge cases are based on the assumption that there is such a thing as ‘normal’ use cases. However, we are all diverse in the way we interact with the environment around us. There is no such thing as ‘normal’.
So, we have to shift our perspective to see disability as context dependent rather than as an attribute of a person. The World Health Organization radically revised their definition of disability in 2001 to make this shift.
“Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”
–World Health Organization
What that means is that disability happens at the points of interaction between a person and society. Disability is not your personal attribute or health condition rather it is a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the product, service, environment, or social structure offered.
As designers, it’s our responsibility to know how our designs create mismatches and barriers to technology.
Accessibility and Universal design ≠ Inclusive design
As we are talking about disability, its easy to mistake inclusive design as designing for people with disabilities. Inclusive design goes beyond accessibility, which focuses on people with disabilities and how to make products usable for them. Apart from permanent disabilities, there are temporary and situational disabilities that affect all human beings. For instance, we use mobile devices in noisy environments, or have moments when our one hand is occupied holding things, which makes us temporarily excluded from experiences.
The underlying seed of inclusive design isn’t disability. It’s the exclusion that people experience based on the mismatches between them and their environments. It is about understanding that one person who is MOST excluded from participating in an experience. The person who experiences the strongest constraints when using a product or environment and including them in the design process in ways that benefit a much broader population of people.
Design with, not for excluded communities to create truly inclusive experiences. What we design is a by-product of how we design.
Universal design on the other hand, is designing products to be usable by everyone, without the need for adaptation. It is one size fits all, where as inclusive design is one size fits one.
Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of thing so everyone finds a way to participate.
— Susan Goltsman
The inclusive design process might not lead to universal design. You are creating multiple access points for the same product — a diversity of ways for people to participate so everyone has a sense of belonging.
Defining Inclusive design
So here is the definition for inclusive design that we at Microsoft have come to embrace today —
“Inclusive design is a methodology born out of digital environments, that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, it means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives, voices and ways of interacting”.
Including these perspective early on in the product designing process and often.