Inclusive Design, Day 10/15: Making Your App Accessible Benefits Everyone

This is day 10 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed earlier posts, see day 1 here or view the full list.


Making your app accessible to visually impaired users benefits all your users. — Ayesha Zafar on the Invision blog

Taking the principles of inclusive design from idea to action means changing how and what we design. A reminder that technical details matter as much as the intention.

Via the design.blog/inclusive checklist under “Building inclusion into designs” we see how this relates to accessibility, “There’s no inclusion without accessibility.”

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Screenshot of the “Building inclusion into designs” section on the design.blog/inclusive checklist.

The amazing thing about doing the hard work for universal access is that the changes benefit everyone. Design for slow bandwidth? It’ll load faster for all people.

Here’s the full text for this checklist section, for reference:

There’s no inclusion without accessibility. Accessible designs will present differently depending on the medium you’re working in; consider physical, visual, auditory, financial, and other factors as well as an individual’s temporary or permanent limitations to accessing each. Is your video accessible to someone with hearing impairment? Is your website accessible to someone with a low internet bandwidth? Is your copy readable by individuals with different education levels, for whom the text is in a second language, or who are new to the subject matter? The more contexts you consider, the more accessible and inclusive your designs will be.


For a real-life example, I love this in-depth look at providing an accessible mobile app experience for visually impaired users by product designer Ayesha Zafar. Written for Invision, makers of software for digital designers. To understand inclusive design at both the highest level, the why — means you then need to deliver at the detail level, the what and how.

Read the full article to learn about: How to Design Mobile App Experiences for the Visually Impaired.

Screenshot showing the Invision app experience of inclusive design
Screenshot showing the Invision blog article about inclusive design applied to visually impaired mobile app users.

Ayesha also wrote a similar guide — focused instead on blind users — that’s also full of accessibility tips and inclusive design principles: How to design accessible mobile experiences for the blind.

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Ayesha Zafar says “empathy is key when designing app experiences.”

On a digital product team it is everyone’s responsibility to have empathy for users and thus all users, no matter their ability, should be considered in the design process. — Ayesha Zafar on the Willow Tree Apps blog

Thank you, Ayesha. 💯

For day 11 of 15 of inclusive design, another example of “solve for one, extend to many — accessibility and usability considered first in the design: the story of “OXO Good Grips.”


About this Inclusive Design series In 5 days 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 10 of 15. Read more about the series.

Inclusive Design, Day 9/15: Review of Principles

This is day 9 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed earlier posts, see day 1 here or view the full list.


Today I’d like to pause, take a deep breath, and review the principles of inclusive design as I’ve come to understand them.

Here’s the working draft we’re using in Automattic, with a nod to Kat Holmes’s work on Microsoft’s inclusive design toolkit.

1. Recognize exclusion.
2. Broaden perspectives and build empathy.
3. Bring diversity into teams and processes.
4. Solve inclusively for one, extend to many.


 

Kat herself describes these principles of inclusive design superbly in this brief video, from an O’Reilly design conference in March 2017.

For day 10 of 15 of inclusive design, I’ll share a story about making an app accessible to visually impaired users — which then benefits all users.


About this Inclusive Design series In 6 days 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 9 of 15. Read more about the series.

Inclusive Design, Day 8/15: Expand Your Market By Solving One Case First

This is day 8 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed earlier posts, see day 1 here or view the full list.


Adopting inclusive design isn’t just about being a good person. It’s a solid foundation for good business — focused on solving real needs for real people.

Barclays Bank understands this and is putting it into practice. Thanks to Beatriz Lonskis for pointing me to this example of smart business and good design.

We’re committed to inclusive design and accessible services — using new technology to make banking easier for you. — “Barclays Access” statement

The full case study is in The Guardian — Barclays Bank learned that embracing inclusive design, starting with accessibility, creates a better solution for all their customers. It’s a commercial opportunity when meeting a real need — not an expensive compliance issue.

 

Another Barclays accessibility piece in The TimesSmarter technology is improving the lives of disabled people.

Today, I manage all my financial affairs by smartphone,” she says. “It has genuinely transformed my life, cutting out all those frustrating trips to the bank.” — June Maylin (a blind customer of the bank).

June’s story provides an insight into how the technologies designed to make banking easier for everyone can be particularly effective for people with disabilities, and are steadily giving people much more control over their money. Even small, relatively low-tech initiatives can make a big difference.

By the way, I love this aspiration for leadership in this emerging practice on the Barclays Access Twitter profile: “One of our ambitions is to become the most accessible & inclusive FTSE org. Tweets about accessibility & disability issues.”

Small changes make a big impact, and inclusive design can have a major impact on revenue and business success by solving for one and extending to many.

For day 9 of inclusive design, we’ll review the principles discussed so far: 1/ Start with exclusion, 2/ Broaden your perspective to gain empathy, 3/ Bring diversity into teams and processes and 4/ Solve inclusively for one, extend to many.


About this Inclusive Design series In 1 week 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 8 of 15. Read more about the series.

Inclusive Design, Day 7/15: Roku and the 10-Foot Rule

This is day 7 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed earlier posts, see day 1 here or view the full list.


“Solve for one, extend to many” is a key principle of inclusive design which I learned from Kat Holmes and her work with Microsoft.

Via fellow WordPresser Leo Postovoit, I learned more about how Roku followed this principle to achieve commercial success. “From a small hardware start-up to a publicly listed company with an estimated 2017 revenue of $500 million and a $5 billion market cap,” according to Variety.

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A typical Roku home screen. One click Netflix is as simple as it gets.

Roku is successful because of how user-friendly everything is. Along with Apple TV, Chromecast, Android TV, and others — the experience is a big improvement over traditional TVs.

CEO Anthony Wood explains in Variety:

Roku’s original user interface was anything but flashy. Wood instead aimed for simplicity, banning all but the most essential buttons from Roku’s remote control, and calling apps “channels” to help TV viewers in their transition to the new medium. “Companies commonly overdesign something and make it kind of pretty, but not easy,” he says. “Customers, what they really want is easy.”

Here’s what people love about Roku:

— The minimal interface takes full advantage of “10-Foot UI” principle by using simple, intuitive navigation based on a grid. Large and readable from ten feet because you have no mouse/keyboard, viewing from the couch. (The navigations options are limited to left, right, up, down — click to select). Requires no fancy 100-button or huge user manual. Setup is a breeze.

— A trimmed down TV remote with programmable buttons; plus dedicated buttons for popular streaming services like Netflix. No menus to scroll through, go straight to viewing.

— Voice commands to search via the remote, and the search matches available content quickly from your input. Leo says: “My favorite feature is the universal search, where it actually queries every channel for listings, fuzzy searches too. You can find every “Batman” movie, including the Dark Knight!”

— Packaged as low-cost hardware — basic streaming kit sell for $29 — Roku positions itself as an attractive alternative to regular TVs that require a cable or satellite subscription. Streaming requires WiFi, and increasing broadband speeds boost the value of high-quality, always available content.

— One of my favorite features is the earphone jack in the remote control — great for private listening and for those who need a little extra hearing assistance.

[More about the 10-foot UI, if you’re curious like me: Wikipedia article and a user design guide.]

Though I couldn’t find evidence for it, the person Roku seems to have in mind in solving the typical TV problems is a cost-conscious, non-technical person over a certain age. Your grandparent might prefer a simple gadget that does one thing well, for example.

Fewer cords to plug in. No need to tinker or walk through endless steps of complicated menus to set up the TV. They certainly don’t love or wish to understand how to operate 100-button remote controls. [That’s why they call you over! “Fix my TV again, please.”]

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Roku — a player for every kind of streamer; and more than a smart TV.
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Featured-packed. Entertainment filled.

The beauty of “solve for one, extend to many” is that the same elegant UI and intuitive remote works well for seniors and the elderly — but also works great for everyone else.

As Leo told me, “It benefits all people.”

Erica Manfred explains her love for Roku as a hard-of-hearing senior citizen: Aging With Geekitude: Why Roku is My New Crush:

Roku has terrific little feature, a headset jack on the remote so you can listen to your favorite shows and movies without bothering anyone. For a hearing aid wearer like me this is a godsend. The Roku also supports closed captioning, another huge benefit for the hearing impaired and anyone who can’t understand current slang.

(Leo notes 30-40 percent of Roku content still isn’t captioned.)

Roku proves to me that simple and inclusive hardware+software is good design and good business.

For day 8 of 15 of inclusive design, I’ll share a business success story — how to expand your market by solving for one, extending to many. Because inclusive design is great for business.


About this Inclusive Design series Coming up next week 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 7 of 15. Read more about the series.

Inclusive Design, Day 6/15: Recognizing Exclusion

This is day 6 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed earlier posts, see day 1 here or view the full list.


Missing the market

Exclusion is often about mismatched conditions. The opposite of a market fit — a market miss. Because we start from our own biases we naturally exclude people not like us.

Think about how you feel when using a product or website. Is it friendly and welcoming? Do you feel at home and valued? Or does the experience make you feel “dumb”? Are you left out, unable to fully participate? Maybe you don’t understand a key phrase or confusing jargon, and fail to continue.

Inclusive design starts with exclusion because finding the mismatch at the beginning of the process can lead to making impactful decisions to improve everyone’s experience.

Essential reading: Tragic Design and Technically Wrong

Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier explain exclusion succinctly in Tragic Design: The Impact of Bad Product Design and How to Fix It.

Without good design, technology quickly turns from a help to a harm. It can kill, but that isn’t the only negative effect. It can cause emotional harm, like when a social app facilitates bullying. It can cause exclusion, like when a seeing-impaired person doesn’t get to participate in socializing on a popular website because simple accessibility best practices have not been attended to. It can cause injustice, like nullifying someone’s vote, or simply cause frustration by neglecting a user’s preferences.

Exclusion is a failure of design. Good design listens to its users; bad design ignores them. Good design goes the extra mile to make sure everyone is happy; bad design takes the shortest path to meet business goals. Good design assumes the designer’s point of view is biased; bad design assumes it represents all users. Lastly, we shouldn’t wait until we or someone close to us needs it to start caring about accessibility.

Another recommended book on this topic is Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech. I also learned from her previous book, Design for Real Life with Eric Meyer.

Recap: “Design and Exclusion” conference

In April 2017 Automattic organized a Design and Exclusion conference — an amazing venue to hear stories from a diverse set of voices. The site includes the full program of engaging guest speakers, interviews, and articles. You can dive back in, anytime.

We tend to think of the digital products and services we build as tools that promote equality and access. Yet we often create inhospitable, uncomfortable, and non-inclusive spaces despite our best intentions, and despite design’s overarching goal to foster inclusion.

If you’d rather dip briefly into parts of the program, I recommend accessing the audio podcast format which includes transcripts and the clip of each section.

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Brief exclusion examples

Recent exclusion examples that I came across

Emoji in Twitter Titles. This one was mind-opening for me! I learned that emoji can be exclusionary to those who use screen readers to navigate the web. Note: Work is being done in this open Trac ticket to make emoji accessible in WordPress.

The “Cheatin’ uh” message in WordPress is more inclusive as of last week. Tammie Lister, design lead for the Gutenberg project mentioned this improvement.

Cost as exclusion, with expensive conferences. Prices for big events in the tech industry can be enormously exclusive, and if you’re a small company — or independent — it prohibits you from participating. Conferences can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. That kind of cost makes me extremely grateful for events like WordCamp. $40. Forty dollars. For two days of talks, meals, a workshop, and more. That is inclusively designed: more people can come participate, learn, and network.

Jargon, acronyms, and fancy words and phrases that set someone apart from others — read my take: TOA (Thoughts on Acronyms).

Other examples of exclusion could include inside jokes, arcane sports or pop-cultural references, stereotypes based on age, gender roles, sexuality, race, or ethnicity. And many other types of biases. Too many to list.


To be aware, notice, and shift

Once I recognize the exclusion, I can shift. I might even recognize and welcome it. Then, as teams and companies, we can work together to rework, realign, and redesign that flow or screen or phrase to make it more clear. More welcoming. More inclusive.

It’s not about creating perfect solutions every time. It’s not about creating lowest common denominators or one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, it’s a new way of finding new design constraints to challenge old paradigms and outdated norms. It’s about being mindful of the gaps we create between people and the world around them. — Kat Holmes

To recognize exclusion is to gain empathy and make a connection.

Inclusive design has a way of pointing to something real. It’s both good design and good business. As I become more aware of exclusion — and fluent in inclusive design — I’ll connect with more people naturally as they see themselves welcomed and included in my work. And Automattic + WordPress can grow into a broader market because our products and services become more accessible.

For day 7 of 15 of inclusive design, I’ll talk about Roku’s usability and commercial success, the “10 Foot UI,” and principles of inclusive design for an aging population.


About this Inclusive Design series In 10 days 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 6 of 15. Read more about the series.

Inclusive Design, Day 5/15: To See Yourself in Imagery

This is day 5 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed the start, jump to day 1 here.


An inclusive design case study from the design team at Automattic.

Details matter for inclusive design, as noted in this item from the Inclusive Design Checklist found under the “Building including into designs” section: Choose copy and imagery with care.

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Screenshot from the inclusive design checklist.

As a practical example from 2017, I’d like to point to an inclusive illustration project led by Automattic designer Joan Rho with an illustrator named Alice Lee.

Quick scenario: You’re on your phone, going through the onboarding flow for a new app you just downloaded. Helpful illustrations appear, guiding and educating you through the process. Now hold up: are the characters in these illustrations diverse or mainly white? Do they seem to be young tech-oriented millennials, mostly men?

Tech illustrations often feature the same sets of things: young, white people (usually men), surrounded by gadgets, with a cup of coffee, in a beautiful tech world. For consumer-oriented products, this creates an incredibly limiting and exclusive brand image…

When the WordPress.com design team asked me to develop their illustration brand and 60+ product illustrations, these values were a major focus of the project, especially as part of their mission to democratize publishing. — Alice Lee

Here’s the end result of the work to create a more representative set of illustrations, showing the English-language WordPress.com blog home page as a visual example.


Read a full project rundown on the WordPress.com blog: Inclusive Illustrations, By Design (May 2017).

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The WordPress.com blog post explaining the project.

Alice Lee wrote up her thoughts on her site, as well: Inclusiveness in illustration — WordPress.com: Designing an Inclusive Illustration Brand.

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Screenshot from Alice Lee’s post about the project.

If there is one takeaway I’ve learned from this project, it’s that it is challenging but always necessary to address your own biases & assumptions in order to produce better, more inclusive work.

This was also an incredible learning experience with respect to the lessons in inclusivity. It’s by no means a finished product or a checkbox to tick off and forget about; it’s a constant work in progress, and I’m happy to have grown along this spectrum. — Alice Lee

To see a similar project from another company, check out Illustrating Balanced and Inclusive Teams by the Atlassian design team.

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Screenshot of Atlassian’s updated “meeples” illustration library for 2017.

(And let me know in the comments if you’ve seen other examples of this type of inclusive design work elsewhere; I’d love to see it and learn more.)


Inclusive design considers everyone. Wouldn’t you want to see yourself in the imagery?

Starting from a high-level ideal is important — diversity and a broader representation — yet the finished product must reflect that vision down to the smallest design details.

For day 6 of 15 of inclusive design, I’ll dig more into recognizing exclusion as a starting point for better design and good business.


About this Inclusive Design series In about 10 days 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 5 of 15. Read more about the series.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Inclusive Design, Day 3/15: Mismatched Conditions

This is day 3 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed it, start with day 1 here.


Kat Holmes’s work with the Microsoft Design’s inclusive toolkit illustrates the inclusive design principle of mismatched conditions.

First introduced by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2011, this concept speaks to the mismatch between humans and their environment. It reveals how we must look beyond the lack of ability as the only cause of the mismatch.

A mismatched interaction between a person and their environment is a function of design. Change the environment, not the body. For people who design and develop technology, every choice we make either raises or lowers these barriers. — Kat Holmes

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Screenshot from Microsoft Design’s inclusive toolkit about disability as a mismatched human interaction. “Diversity is not a personal health condition; it’s a set of mismatched human interactions.”

Design decisions impact people beyond those with a permanent disability. Designs that cover temporary or situational situations solve similar problems for a larger range of people and contexts.

Recognizing yourself in the other person might come more naturally when can imagine yourself in the same mismatched situation.

With this in mind, I realize I’m not that far removed from direct experience because I know I arrive in the same situation sometimes, even if it’s not permanent.

For example, the people in this video (courtesy of John Maeda) could represent anyone “temporarily disabled” when reaching for a doorknob while holding something in their hands.

Here’s how Microsoft Design explains the possible mismatched conditions:

Sometimes exclusion is temporary. Even a short-term injury or context affects the way people interact with the world around them, if only for a short time. Think about looking into a bright light, wearing a cast, or ordering dinner in a foreign country.

Sometimes exclusion is situational. As people move through different environments, their abilities can also change dramatically. In a loud crowd, they can’t hear well. In a car, they’re visually impaired. New parents spend much of their day doing tasks one-handed. An overwhelming day can cause sensory overload. What’s possible, safe, and appropriate is constantly changing.

— Excerpted from Microsoft Design’s inclusive toolkit

Microsoft calls this range of conditions “the persona spectrum.” Imagine a device designed for use with one arm — and even if conceived for someone with a missing limb, could also serve other temporary conditions.

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Screenshot from the same inclusive toolkit, illustrating “Different people benefit.”

This brings me to an important insight, something I’d never considered before hearing about mismatched conditions:

Inclusion isn’t just about the edge cases, the permanent lack of ability, or people different from me. Inclusive design is the starting point. The foundation that every organization needs to build an accurate representation of how humans interact with their work.


To learn more about mismatched conditions I recommend reading Kat’s in-depth piece, Who Gets to Play? from October 2016. She explains the evolving design practice of recognizing disability as a set of mismatched conditions in the context of children’s playgrounds.

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Screenshot from Kat Holmes’s “Who Gets to Play?” — an inclusive design article on design.blog.

For day 4 of 15 of inclusive design, I’ll consider the idea of “normal” and “average” — how “defaults” often don’t represent anyone.


About this Inclusive Design series In two weeks 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 3 of 15. Read more about the series.

Inclusive Design, Day 2/15: Building Empathy

This is day 2 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed it, start with day 1 here.


A key principle of inclusive design is broadening perspectives and building empathy. What is empathy? It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

To break it down even more, via Empathy by Roman Krznaric, we can experience two common types of empathy: 1) affective, where you feel the same emotions as others and 2) cognitive, where you’re able to put yourself in their shoes.

Start With a Genuine Connection

Empathy of any flavor is crucial to creating good designs and successful products because it means connecting with people — with your customers. And, these connections take effort and attention.

Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia explains the vision for… “a culture of sharing in which design helps foster community and connection instead of isolation and separation.” — via Airbnb.design.

Airbnb found out early on the value of using empathy as the starting point to work directly with their customers to find their pain points. They’ve used empathy to drive important changes at various times in the company’s short history. Airbnb now acts as a prime example for other organizations to follow to create value from a close connection with their community. (Examples include improving hosts’ listings by providing professional, high-quality photos; fixing UI flows and removing obstacles; and promoting diversity after uncovering racial discrimination. Read the well-documented stories on Inc.com, Fast.co, Fortune, The Verge).

Why are conversations with real people essential? Because reading reports or sorting through statistics isn’t enough. Often when discussing demographics — such as how many site visitors we might have in a segment of the population — someone on my team might point to a graph and say, “Do you see these numbers? Amazing.” It could be an uptick in pageviews on mobile devices, more non-US or non-English-speaking visitors than we expected, or a large cohort of some kind making a certain purchase. This data can get you started to make an informed decision, but it’s just data. As a product designer, the decisions still rests on human judgment and intuition. A judgment that is susceptible to biases.

When you sit down with a real person, however, you can often get straight to the truth. As you see what they see, over their shoulder, while they work through the product flow step by step, and hear: “I don’t get it, what should I do next?” Or, “I can’t get to the screen you showed me — it won’t load on my tablet; just keeps going back and forth.” With WordPress, this can commonly be something like, “What’s a custom menu. Do I need one? I’m not a restaurant.”

People Are Not a Statistic

“Empathy isn’t triggered by a statistic,” said Krista Tippett to her guest Isabel Wilkerson on a recent “On Being” podcast interview, The Heart is the Last Frontier.

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Screenshot of Isabel Wilkerson’s interview on the “On Being” podcast in January 2018.

I think “changing your heart” is a synonym for overcoming unconscious bias. There are these things that — it’s becoming more conscious about what’s going on inside us and then working with that. Another thing we’re learning is that empathy is — and this is a problem with journalism, frankly — empathy is not triggered by a statistic. — Krista Tippett

It’s looking into the human heart and examining it and allowing ourselves to feel the pain of others. You don’t want to feel your own pain; why would you want to feel someone else’s pain? …It’s an act of love and an act of faith to allow yourself to feel the pain of another. — Isabel Wilkerson

Stories based on facts and historical figures, as those featured in Isabel’s book, are an effective way to build empathy. Stories are powerful. You can’t argue with someone’s story — history is literally his/her story, their story. What you can do is soak it in, breathe it, consider how it overlaps with your experiences. You can break down a personal bias by simply bringing in a fresh source of data, be it a book, podcast, poem, movie, you-name-it.

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“Read more to broaden perspectives and build empathy.” Via Automattic’s inclusive design toolkit.

De-biasing via stories is an activity we practice amongst ourselves at Automattic, where we tell each other what most people wouldn’t know about us when looking at the surface. One of my favorite examples comes from Jan Cavan Boulas, a designer living who moved to the USA for a job, after growing up in the Philippines: How WordPress Changed My Life.

When you hear someone’s voice, or watch their face, you can make a connection with them. When you hear the steps they took on their path, you can follow along. When you experience what they experience — to me — this is the deepest of empathy.

In addition to going from data to judgment to stories — we can also build empathy and broaden our perspectives when we interact with people who aren’t different from us.

Diversity is Essential to Broaden Understanding

Take a look at these amazing “Meet Our Colleagues (aka Automatticians)” videos (YouTube playlist). We’re building a diverse team — already about 675 people across 60 countries and speaking 80 different languages!

Kerry Liu is a software engineer and team leader whom I admire for her organizational skills, clear communication, and technical expertise:

The Automattic inclusive design toolkit explains the principle of a diverse team:

Diversify your team. Homogeneous teams create narrow designs; teams with diverse experiences create more inclusive designs. Be sure that members of your team don’t come from the same culture, age group, gender, or gender expression, and don’t all have similar experiences and educations. If your team is limited and you don’t have the ability to expand, actively seek out people with other perspectives to consult or act as project advisors, and give special consideration to their feedback.

Besides promoting empathy and bringing in fresh perspectives, diverse teams make better decisions, according to Mary Meeker, of VC firm KPCB in their annual “Internet Trends” report.

Rituals and Habits to Build Empathy

So, what can you do to build empathy? Practice rituals and habits like these:

  • Listen, care deeply, and be open to making connections with people — whether existing customers, a potential customer, neighbors, friends, and family — everyone fits into this category.
  • Seek out new advisors, refresh my mentors, travel someplace new and different, and read a lot more. Tip: ask your peers and community for a diverse set of authors and books — women, minorities, under-represented voices — and not just from the same type of author, or same subject.
  • Use the products that you make daily to understand your customers’ point of view, the pain points, the dead ends, and any broken flow.
  • Practice de-biasing activities with people you encounter, and those you work with. Don’t assume what you see on the surface is representative of their entire person and life experience.
  • Ask active questions and approach everything with an open mind.
  • Discover many more practical examples we use at Automattic: How We Build Empathy With Our Customers, from Filippo Di Trapani.
  • Find inspiration from the WordPress mobile team’s Quarterly Rituals: Empathy Challenges, by Cate Huston.

For day 3 of 15 of inclusive design, we’ll learn about mismatched conditions with more insights and stories from Kat Holmes and her work at Microsoft.


About this series In two weeks 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 2 of 15. Read more about the series from day 1.

Inclusive Design, Day 1/15: Introduction, Discovery, and Voices

Inclusive design is our passion. We’re inspired by the work of Kat Holmes and her clear articulation of design as needing to be increasingly inclusive — especially in the technology world. Our journey to understand how to best empower inclusive design in products began in 2016 with John Maeda joining Automattic as head of design and inclusion. — Automattic, Design From Anywhere

For day 1 of 15 for the short series on inclusive design, I’d like to introduce John Maeda and Kat Holmes, two strong and clear voices in the conversation about bringing diversity to our product and design practices.

Without these two people speaking the truth about inclusion, I wouldn’t be writing these words.


My journey to discover inclusive design began in August 2016 when John joined Automattic, bringing a much-needed infusion of fresh ideas, able leadership, and organizational energy. Not to mention a burning desire to modernize the craft and process of design for Automattic and WordPress.

As I heard often from John and other coworkers about the value of diversity and inclusion, I mostly watched from the sidelines, even though the concepts made sense to me. It struck me as logical for a strong voice to guide an evolution in our product experience — combining the disciplines of design + technology + business — into a new era of awareness. Building up consciousness, empathy, and candor. Yet somehow I still wasn’t fully grasping how it would change my own practices and thinking.

John’s arrival forced an immediate, honest assessment of how Automattic presented itself as a company, as a culture, in our industry. Within WordPress as a broader community, too, how we would live up to our mission to bring freedom and livelihood to everyone in the world. If we didn’t get serious about inclusion, we’d never reach a broader audience to grow our company and our cause.

Later in 2016 Matt Mullenweg highlighted Kat Holmes in the 2016 “State of the Word” at WordCamp US in Philadelphia. Watch this clip (at the 23 min 30 sec mark) to hear Matt quote Kat’s brilliant essay for design.blog titled “Who Gets To Play.”


Fast forward to August 2017. I attended a session organized by John, where I met Kat Holmes via a video chat as she shared an introduction to her work to a group at Automattic. Kat then presented a longer, in-person version at our in September 2017 Grand Meetup — the annual company offsite.

Kat spoke to us from her heart, how inclusive design turned her thinking about diversity on its head. Why was accessibility and diversity always last on the list? Inclusion for her means viewing all human ability as an overarching theme.

Kat had recently left Microsoft where she was Director of Inclusive Design, and is now taking it to the world with her own consulting and writing.

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Screenshot from Kat’s work on inclusive design as a “toolkit” from Microsoft.

Her research highlighted how the products, services, and tools we create can change how people contribute to society. Rather than solving one small problem, inclusive products adapt to create many paths to get to the same goal.

During the discussion period of Kat’s presentation, an insight arrived. When I think of the products I create — I don’t think of “normal” people having any trouble, I tend to think only about people with disabilities. When I consider that there are many pathways to success in WordPress, there must also be many obstacles.

The choices we make could exclude people who assume they are “doing it wrong” and don’t want to be ashamed to find out they are “stupid” and not advanced enough to make a post, create a menu, place a widget in a sidebar. Who even knows what a “widget” is in the first place!

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What is a “widget” exactly? I think I need one. Do I need one?

Without even trying, my work could exclude people who can’t describe their problem in the right words, people who say, “I’m not a computer person.”

This introduction hit home for me. I finally got it. I understood how my work and thought patterns are influenced by my background and biases. How I’d minimized accessibility — access as part of inclusion — into a corner case affecting a small number of people. Of course there’s much more to being inclusive, yet I now had an insight into where my product work and the values of inclusion line up.

Listening to John and Kat’s voices I’ve started thinking more broadly, more openly. Inclusive design means design for everyone. People like me, people like you. Inclusive design connects us.

For Day 2 of 15 of inclusive design I’ll share about building empathy.


About this series — In 15 days 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.

You could say WordCamps serve as models of inclusion based on their affordable price tag. Typically around $40 for two full days of talks, workshops with experts, lunch and snacks, cool swag, networking, and a fun after-party. Bargain-tastic, don’t you think?

I hope you’ll follow along, dive in, and learn with me. I welcome your comments and back-links to share your stories and resources, so I can discover what inclusive design means to you.