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

do-defaults-leave-you-empty

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.

(Listen) Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella hits refresh

I highly enjoyed Kai Ryssdal’s conversation with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on NPR’s “Corner Office from Marketplace” podcast.

https://www.marketplace.org/2017/09/27/world/microsoft-ceo-satya-nadella-hits-refresh/popout

On Microsoft’s mission in the world (hint: it’s not “a computer in every home and on every desk,” which is a goal, not a purpose) [22:33]:

We want to democratize the use of technology to create more technology.

[Interviewer, Kai Ryssdal: Tech right now is cool, you guys, you’re not necessarily the “coolest kids on the tech block.” Do you have to be cool to do what is you want to do at this company?]

Our mission is to make others cool. All we want to be is the tech they use.

The wide-ranging interview jumps between many topics from the purpose of technology, his wife and family, to attracting women to tech jobs by promoting diversity and being an inclusive company, to the immediate feedback he gets from employees via Skype emoji reactions during Town Halls.

The main point, hitting refresh — also the name of his new book (Goodreads) — highlights Microsoft’s shifting branding perception. A reframing away from “big, bad company” and how they’ll know if they get that right.

Ultimately there is no escaping the one true measure of what any company does: what do people who deal with us think? …The multiple constituencies, and what they think about Microsoft and our progress and innovation, is the only score that matters.

A highlight for me in the interview is how to recognize mistakes we make in order to push, think, and change. An example given for a recent Nadella mistake [25:55]:

In many cases customers have already chosen to work with you, and yet you, consciously or unconsciously, abandon them to go work off a new and shiny object… It’s tempting in tech to sometimes move on to the next thing. Except, we all need to work to help others move with us.

The last part of the interview hit home with me because of my leadership path at Automattic, where I’m striving to create a space where we can do our best work. “Describe your job for me in 5 words or less?” [33:05] Nadella says, “Curating culture.” 💯 🖥

Hat tip: Mike Levin.