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The Rise of Inclusive Design

July 6, 2019
8 min read
Featured Image

Updated: 12/6/2019

Make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.

– Buckminster Fuller

As a design leader, keeping one foot in the present and the other an optimistic future is all in a typical day. However, a little over a year ago, the universe decided to kick one of those feet out from under me and present me with an opportunity to experience life with a physical impairment and disability. For the next four months, that injury left me wheelchair bound and gave me an opportunity to pivot my design from adoption, conversion and retention of users to accessibility and the rapid shift to Inclusive Design. During that journey I discovered a thriving design community, the business case supporting more than accessibility and a deeper understanding of the intersectionality of the disability community.

The Opportunity Space

According to the CDC, 1 in 4 US adults live with a disability. That is just over a billion people globally. In the last two years, social media and tech has given many underrepresented voices previously ignored by mainstream organizations the tools to unite and be heard through grassroots activity, opening the door for brands wanting to connect with them. While we can now quantify the cacophony of voices who have chosen to rally in their companies, on city streets, red carpets and around the world, how do we begin to quantify those still hidden in the shadows of uncollected data? How do we listen and respond with new levels of inclusive empathy and without breaking customer trust? What if we could build a future that works for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone?

In order to build trust and design a fairer future, lets begin by understanding the language and lexicon of inclusivity. The terms Inclusive Design are used interchangeably with two other terms, “Universal Design” and “Design for All”. All three have a similar purpose but have different origins and are used in various parts of the world.

  • Inclusive Design was defined in 2000 by the UK Government as "products, services and environments that include the needs of the widest number of consumers". It has a history stretching back to the social ideals in Europe that materialized after World War II.  
  • Universal Design is a term originated in the United States of America and is now adopted by Japan and the Pacific Rim. It started with a strong focus on disability and the built environment. Driven by the large number of disabled Vietnam War veterans, it was modeled on the Civil Rights Movement that promised "full and equal enjoyment of goods and services". It has been a driving force in establishing American legislation regarding older and disabled people.
  • Design For All started by looking at barrier-free accessibility for people with disabilities but has become a strategy for mainstream, inclusive solutions. As highlighted by the European Commission, it is about ensuring that environments, products, services and interfaces work for people of all ages and abilities in different situations and under various circumstances.

As the President of Digital Design jury at D&AD and a juror at Cannes Lions, I had the opportunity to survey the world's top design talent and speak with the C-suites of both consumer electronics and packaged goods companies. For years, marketers and product organizations predicted and tracked consumption patterns with the blunt yet traditional demographic segments like age, gender, location, income or family status. This traditional approach had intended and unintended consequences. Some of the unintended consequences have been, when digitized segmentation gave way to exclusionary red lining using advertising tools. And when imperfectly taught and automated facial recognition stands to exclude all types of humans.

Now that GenZ has arrived, they along with the millennials demand and live in a post-demographic world where we place more importance on customer mindsets, individualized data and mental models. This trend is placing brands under tremendous pressure to reinvent themselves to maintain their appeal with people demanding a fairer more inclusive future. This has led to pioneering leaders pivoting from the desire to achieve AA ratings for accessibility on all digital properties to an all inclusive four dimensional approach to brand experiences for exponential growth.

While artificial intelligence (Ai) combined with the right intent promises to help overcome many hurdles of designing individualized inclusive experiences at scale, the technology has simply not matched the ingenuity or subject matter expertise of Inclusive or disabled designers. Until then, brands are evolving approaches beyond exclusionary segmentation and checking the box of accessibility to meaningful mindsets and mental models that meet evolving customer expectations.

One of the more exciting trends in IoT and Ai is the design and development of Inclusive Products like:

Amazon's Kindle
On the Kindle app and devices, customers like me with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, can select the font OpenDyslexic, boldness level, page margin, line spacing and orientation settings they prefer and save them as a new theme. Customers with low vision may find the Low Vision setting with Amazon Ember font, large font size, bolder text, and extra line-spacing easier to read. That combined with the new Echo buds with Alexa Audible skill has transformed my reading experience.

Amazon Alexa's Show & Tell
Blind and low-vision users who own an Echo Show can ask Alexa to identify the items they’re holding in their hands. Amazon's Alexa Devices worked with blind employees and with Vista Center for the Blind in Santa Cruz to develop this feature.

Ford's Accessibility Mat
Ford redesigned the trunk liner of the Ecosport compact SUV into a much needed portable ramp for people in wheelchairs. The use case is simple and widely needed in North American cities. Made of lightweight material, the mat fits easily onto the back of a wheelchair when it's not in use.

Dot Mini.
The DOT Mini is the world’s first smart media device for blind and visually impaired people. Service plan Korea and Service plan Innovation are incubating DOT brand and Dot Mini’s concept and overall marketing consulting in partnership with the DOT Inc and cloudandco.

StorySign was designed to help change take words from books and turns them into sign language, StorySign helps deaf children and their parents read and sign together. Using the most advanced signing avatar StorySign is now available in 12 sign languages and has reached 1.5 billion people. Most importantly, 50,000 books have been opened through the app so far.

Xbox Adaptive Controller
At D&AD we awarded The Xbox Adaptive Controller a Black Pencil for it's Inclusive Product Design that demonstrates a dedication and vision to all customers. Learn more at http://xbox.com/adaptive-controller.

The precise form and function of how IoT and or Ai can break the accessibility barriers are not known yet. What is known is that inclusive design needs to be a fundamental element in the creation of IoT-enabled smart environments. Adopting a philosophy of creating an enabling environment through IoT, which embodies inclusiveness rather than just a smart environment, will go a long way towards ensuring inclusion in our connected futures.

The benefit of Inclusive Design with IoT & Ai to brands, companies and organizations has exponential potential if tapped to create products and services that serve as many people as possible. Think about it this way: Markets of many are more valuable than segments of some. While accessibility is a core objective, inclusion means tapping in to an 8.87 Trillion dollar market according to Gartner. That's a sizable market and it's only going to get bigger as the population ages. By 2050, Gartner estimates that 30% of the population of 64 countries will be older than 60, many of whom will need assistive technologies.

If market sizing and the power of altruism still isn't enough to convince you to deploy accessible and inclusive design inventions, Gartner raises another good reason: technologies developed for the disabled can also often benefit the non-disabled. This can greatly expand the potential market for a technology. For example, text-to-speech technology not only helps the blind and people with low vision, it also creates a magical experience for those who can't look at a screen because they're driving or multitasking. 

One of the major challenges ahead will be how to design inclusivity at scale not just for the underrepresented groups speaking out, but for people who haven’t yet raised their voices. It’s one thing to have diversity at the table, it is another to design products and services that include everyone's point of view equally.

Those challenges can be overcome when design considers the full range of human diversity and other forms of human difference that ensure the durability of a brand’s survival.

The promise of Inclusive Design invites people and their many abilities, limitations, and differences guide and shape its possibilities, conception, and implementation of an end-to-end customer experiences.

The question I have for every design leader is:
When you look around the room at your team and design leadership, have you included some one who is disabled on your team and in your leadership? If the answer is no, it's time to rethink that decision as the disability community has fantastic human capital that can be leveraged in a manner that will benefit all employees in ways that companies have yet to begin to realize or imagine.  If you are interested in designing WITH this important constituency, you need to prioritize meeting and following the maestros below.

Maestros To Follow:

Inclusive Design Required Reading: 

Read, Watch or Listen to Design 2020

Have you seen Inclusive Design that inspires you?
Share it in the comments section below.

The Rise of Inclusive Design via @jpenabickley
How do we listen and respond with new levels of inclusive empathy and without breaking customer trust?
The terms Inclusive Design are used interchangeably with two other terms, “Universal Design” and “Design for All”.

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