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.

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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.

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.

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 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 — “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

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.

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.

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

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 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,, 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.

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.

“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 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.

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!

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.

Head of HR Lori McCleese on Automattic’s Learning and Development


I’m excited to see that Culture Amp’s blog features Automattic’s Global Head of Human Resources Lori McCleese sharing our latest efforts for learning and development: Three tested approaches to driving learning and development.

As an Automattic employee and team lead I’ve benefitted directly from these perks and benefits — from private leadership coaching in a 1-1 setting to in-person training course led by Reboot to diversity & inclusion speakers and courses. We’ve upped our game and it’s already born fruit in my own teams and relationships, as well as given me new resources and ideas.

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Footnote: I highly recommend following Lori’s personal blog, too — her photos, stories, and thoughtful essays on life and travel and friendship bring joy to my life. For example, see this fun inside look at her recent move across the US from San Francisco to Asheville, NC. 🌰

Automattic Holiday Video à la Remote Work (2017)

Automattic is an all-remote company comprised of over 500 people across 50 countries. We work from homes, shared offices, cars, and planes to make the Web a better place. At Automattic our motto is, ”I will never stop learning.” In that spirit, we made this video.

Automatticians shared home-shot videos from all over. And we stitched them together… Don’t worry. Based upon this video, we don’t expect to try to go into the entertainment business anytime soon. But you’ll certainly get a sense of the many environments we work from. Come join us!

I had a ton of fun singing this cheerful holiday song and dancing along with coworkers all over the world. 🎄 🎅🏼

Curious about how it came together? See our Party Wrangler John’s How To Make A Fully Distributed Company’s Holiday Video.

Home is Where the Work Is

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In Home is where the work is my colleague Cate talks about remote working, tools for communicating in distributed teams, and fascinating bits of detail about her daily routine and habits for getting work done. (Via “Increment” Magazine).

See also: Where is Automattic? Our HQ is right near you.

Data for Breakfast, via Reader

Have you checked out yet? Data for Breakfast – Ideas and Insights from the Data Team at Automattic. Geektastic.

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Bookmarked and now following new posts with the Reader. Speaking of which, with significant improvements in recent months I’ve now stopped using other RSS readers and moved everything there.

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A great way to get lost in streams of wonderful content like Discover and Longreads and all your friends’ blogs.

Scott Stancil: Effective Bug Discovery and Management (WordCamp DC 2017)

If you’re on the East Coast and love WordPress, here’s a great chance to catch my Automattic colleague Scott Stancil speaking live about our work on Flow Patrol for — this Friday July 14, 2017 at 2:15 PM Eastern.

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Details on the WordCamp DC 2017 website. Learn more about what “flow patrol” is here on Make WordPress testing.

AFK Oblique Strategies

If you’re not familiar with Oblique Strategies, they are a collection of short phrases, dilemmas intended to make you think. Originally published as a set of notecards in 1975, these contradictions are one of my favorite discoveries while working for Automattic.

In my case I like to say they cause brainwaves.

Luckily, you don’t need the original index cards to use Oblique Strategies any time you want to change your thinking, because there are electronic versions such as a Mac dashboard widget and an iOS mobile app (one of several apps).

Example of the OS X dashboard widget.

The original strategies include phrases such as:

– Listen to the quiet voice
– Make what’s perfect more human
– Do the last thing first

Example of the iOS mobile app “Oblique Productivity.”

I took two-and-a-half months off work this summer—a lot of AFK time (away from keyboard)—and I’d like to share with you several of my own AFK-related Oblique Strategies that came to mind as I planned meaningful activities during the break.

Which isn’t to give you advice or say I have any answers. Rather, these are food for thought that I hope jar your brainwaves like they did mine. Save them for your next thinking time, or for the next time you take a bit of vacation from your work.

– Stay at home on your travels
– Make today a dull repeat of yesterday
– Read an old book with new eyes
– Most frivolous as most meaningful
– Be still for as long as possible
– Start with the least urgent
– Turn the computer —on —off
– Are you more joyful?