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.


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.

Exclusion Example: Emoji in Twitter Titles

A thread this week about emoji in Twitter titles provided me an instant treasure trove of design exclusion lessons — broadening my perspective and building empathy for non-visual people using Twitter.

First, though, let me back up a step to explain why it’s a gem. Why it illustrates the need for first thinking about exclusion when approaching inclusion.

Inclusive design became a major learning trend for me in 2017 — starting with fresh perspectives arriving in my life via the designers and developers at Automattic, especially our Head of Design John Maeda.

In April I jumped straight in via the Design and Exclusion conference we launched in collaboration with Twitter, NextDoor, Airbnb. Listening to debiasing stories where people shared intimate details of feeling excluded rocked my boat a bit.

My mind really cracked open in August when I become aware of Kat Holmes and her work on this crucial topic. Previously with Microsoft and now via her own company, Kata, Kat presented the foundations of inclusive design internally at work over a video call. She then presented a longer, in-person version at our Grand Meetup in September; and later in 2017 Kat became an official advisor to Automattic, also. Hurray to that!

Photo showing the page on inclusive design.

For a great introduction to Kat and her work, see Kat Holmes: Who Gets To Play? on

OK, back to the Twitter emoji in titles thing.

What. The. Heck. Like most lessons I’m learning about building inclusion into designs, this one hit me straight in the temple. Painfully. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I mean, “duh.”

The author, a blind person named Sassy Outwater, not only points to something incredibly real and timely — but then proceeds to share a master class in accessibility in the reply threads that follow.

Here are a few highlights; check out the full thread for more as they come in.

Memes and GIFs are hard because the screen reader technology can’t figure out any optical character recognition (OCR) on the moving bits:

Tips and tricks for including blind people using screen readers:

Here are the current screen readers people love best:

Here’s the survey she mentioned: Survey of Preferences of Screen Readers Users on WebAIM.

Shedding the light on the fact that in today’s world, mobile devices are the most universally accessible devices because — they’re small and with you always — and they have default voice-over utilities:

And then a question I had, she answered perfectly, which in my mind was, “OK, so how does it sound when the screen reader comes across the non-text symbol?”

Hah! (smile) (laughing)

Learning, not shaming:

I don’t expect everyone to use the word please but I appreciate those who do. Common courtesy is society’s problem, not an issue to drop on developers. That’s ableist. Universal design says we are all sharing the same space. Courtesy goes a long way. — Sassy Outwater


Eye-Mind-opening, thank you Sassy — and Kat, John, Ashleigh, Lori, Anne, Cate, Maria, Davide, DK — and many others who’ve taught me so much about this topic.

I mentioned that this is timely — one reason is for learning and improving. The other is sharing what I’ve learned: if you’re in Arizona come to my talk about inclusive design at WordCamp Phoenix 2018 in February.