Inclusive Design, Day 4/15: When Defaults Don’t Fit

This is day 4 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed the start, see day 1 here.


When do defaults fit?

This is a key question to consider when bringing inclusion to design. Can we assume that using “default” content and “default” appearance will represent our audience?

Inclusive means design or products that consider and acknowledge that their users experience the world differently, based on many factors that are out of our individual control. Design should not assume a default user with default characteristics or background. — John Maeda

What does it mean to design with the understanding that there is no normal case? Throwing out the notion of an 80/20 rule — a mental model we often take for granted as product experience designers. In practice, we see that every human is unique with their own set of abilities, experiences, and expectations. To ignore “normal” is to start with exclusion — asking questions and investigating and learning — and see what to build from there.

To design inclusively is to look at the full range of human ability with a genuine interest and curiosity.

Microsoft’s inclusive design strategy

Kat Holmes underlines the importance of human beings in all interactions. “Inclusive design is about creating a diversity of ways for people to participate.” Because there is no single “normal” type of person.

In this video (March 2017) Kat explains the now-famous example of the United States Air Force designing a new flight deck in the 1940s, for World War II, based on an average of many measurements. Meant to fit everyone — the cockpit ended up an ergonomic disaster because fit no one. Down the road, this led to advancements in adjustability and customized equipment, so pilots could dial in the settings to get a better fit. (This story is detailed in the book The End of Average by Todd Rose.)

Coming at problems with this broad range of diversity informs and guides the design from the start, explains Kat Holmes in a the #13 interview with High Resolution (May 2017). I’m paraphrasing a bit here:

  • “We seek to understand how people adapt and find out what motivations people have in common.”
  • “It starts with those most excluded. [At Microsoft] we bring in expertise from people using technology in a different way, then we consider “normal” as being their perspective. We find a diversity of designers from these backgrounds so we can apply their skills to new challenges. For example, someone with limited mobility who’s an expert at working with assistive devices might be an idea designer to consult with for building a code editor UI for small screens [intended for anyone to use].”
  • “It’s not about creating a bland or trimmed down product experience. We use the constraint from the beginning as a starting point.”

An example of solving for exclusion first is Microsoft’s OneNote dyslexia learning tools that display a variety of ways, giving the student control over the interface. Based on educational research, this UI lets people adjust to make it work best for them. However, even if dyslexia is the starting point — it applies to lots of other contexts including first-time language learning.

Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 21.10.42.png
Screenshot of a Microsoft news story explaining how OneNote can help dyslexic children read and spell.

Clear, strong voices for inclusion at Automattic

At Automattic, we might not have as wide an array of representative human abilities as Microsoft and other tech giants, yet I’m proud to say we represent many clear and diverse voices.

Cate Huston, head of mobile and a talented engineer, explains how diverse teams make better decisions.

…That is why representation matters, not just to those who are represented, but to all of us. Because it expands our sense of what’s possible, and what we have reason to expect.

cate-on-hiring.png
Screenshot of Cate Huston’s article on improving diversity in hiring.
  • Cate’s leadership has taught me to better understand new points of view, such as underrepresented people in technology. Including introducing me to amazing women in computing history like Grace Hopper, Anita Borg, and many others.
  • She’s also pushed me and other hiring managers to pay more attention to details like gender, cultural diversity when finding the best candidates — for a better, more inclusive team culture.
  • Bonus — in hiring we use a tool called Textio to create more inclusive job descriptions for our open positions. It’s helped me reveal my biases and improve the language I use when describing the expectations of the ideal candidate.

Marina Pape, a marketing designer for the WooCommerce team recently shared key inclusion insights learned from marketing.

All we can do is stay open to learning where we have a bias, be relentless in our effort to reduce our own, and gentle and honoring in pointing out that of others.

Is it possible to create brands that are still full of flavor, personable, alive and bold whilst keeping them inclusive, non-cultural and in a sense ‘neutral’? Yes.

What it takes to produce something inclusive is a diverse group of makers so we should build diverse teams. And/or surround ourselves with diverse discourse and break out of our echo chambers.

We need people alongside us who will be radically honest with us. A variety of people.

Marina uncovered an unconscious bias and is now more aware of situations for exclusion in our messaging, characters in brand stories, or virtually any branding decision we make. Even more crucial in companies like ours than span the globe — as shown in her example of “Spring” marketing copy as viewed in the autumn for anyone living in the southern hemisphere.

marina-pape-on-woo-inclusion-marketing.png
Screenshot of Marina Pape’s article on inclusion lessons from WooCommerce marketing messages.

Davide Casali, mobile designer/developer and UX leader, found a stellar example of inclusive design in action on a Google signup form — shared via maeda.pm. Adding the “Other” option for gender choice to the form allows anyone to enter their own identification and not choose from a defined preset.

…When designers are able to address the “mismatched human interactions” that can be presented with solutions that are more likely to match then that’s a much better design. — John Maeda

Every situation is different when it involves people, John reminds us. No default will every do the trick perfectly.

For day 5 of 15 of inclusive design, we’ll look at a recent applied design example of inclusive illustrations for WordPress.com — “to see yourself” — with Alice Lee and Joan Rho.


About this Inclusive Design series In a week and a half I’ll give a talk on inclusive design at WordCamp Phoenix 2018. Leading up to the conference I’m publishing notes on voices, stories, products, and other resources: everything I’m learning about this emerging practice. This is day 4 of 15. Read more about the series.

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