It’s About All of Us: Building a Better Future With Inclusive Design

On March 27th, 2018, we partnered with Microsoft on “One for All: Designing a Better Future with Inclusive Design.” Hosted by WeWork in downtown San Jose, the evening featured an in-depth discussion on the principles and best-practices of inclusive design.

Event speakers: Michelle Peralta, Director of Early Stage Banking at SVB as moderator; Tobiah Zarlez, Senior Tech Evangelist at Microsoft; Jennison Asuncion, Accessibility Engineering Manager at LinkedIn; KR Liu, Board Member of Consumer Technology Association Foundation and Deaf Kids Code; Julia Benini, Senior Design Research Lead at IDEO.

Tobiah Zarlez, Senior Tech Evangelist at Microsoft, kicked things off with a brief, impactful keynote about inclusivity, and the pervasiveness of bias in design. They underlined the latter with a real-world example: a nigh-impossible computer game featuring a fast, intricate action scene, where a single mistake sends a player back to the beginning (turning a 30-second scene into a minutes-long challenge). “If you are not mindful of being inclusive,” they informed the audience, “you will actively put effort into being exclusive.” Technology that requires users to arrive as experts—or is set up for extremely specific skills or abilities—is poorly designed.

The panel that followed featured perspectives from engineers, designers, and active users of inclusive-facing technology; the discussion covered everything from best-practices to key advice to examples from their own personal and professional lives. Some of the key points we covered are below:

Build inclusiveness into your product as early as possible.

“A good design rule across the board: find two different ways to communicate the same thing,” Tobiah said. Every possible part of your product or design that can be communicated should have a backup built into the design. Jennison Asuncion, Accessibility Engineering Manager at LinkedIn, offered his expert take: “Take a close look at your product and target your top transaction paths first. And remember—you won’t get everything right the first time. Here in the Valley, we run fast, and everything happens quickly.” If designers don’t include accessibility as part of that never-ending sprint (if not in the very beginning, at least as soon as possible) it can be much harder to implement later on.

Inclusivity is about everyone (yes, you too).

Jennison addressed a common misconception about inclusive design: the point, he said, is not to recreate a differently-abled person’s experience—it’s to make the UX/UI usable for everyone. KR Liu, Board Member at Deaf Kids Code, agreed, saying, “Empathy is really about making people feel like they belong.” Instead of designing technology differently for able- and disabled users, inclusive design, good design, is a universe unto itself: all experiences and needs present and accounted for, seamlessly, within the same system. The same technology can and should serve both a hearing-impaired person and a person struggling to hear in a crowded room—KR mentioned that she can turn her hearing aid up or down via her Apple watch.

When it comes to good design, experience is the best teacher.

Julia Benini, Senior Design Research Lead at IDEO, took on inclusive design from a different angle: designing for low-income, impaired-access, or nonreading individuals. “The most effective way to build empathy,” she said, “is to put your team directly in the shoes of the people they’re designing for.” She shared a story about a recent research project: given five dollars and no technology for the day, her team had to try to find benefits, food, and a place to sleep in San Francisco—all without any extra help.

Julia also urged the audience to eschew shortcuts: it isn’t enough to have people simply tell you their experience—you may not get the whole story, which is why field research is important. She shared another example: at IDEO, the team was tasked with designing an easy-open pill bottle for people with arthritis. One research subject reported she had no difficulty opening her bottles—however, when the team took a closer look, they learned she’d taken the Gordian knot approach, and was cutting her pill bottles open with a meat slicer.

Moderator Michelle Peralta, Director of Early-Stage Banking at SVB, summed it up: “The more immersive the experience, the easier the design comes. It practically builds itself.”

Inclusivity isn’t just a moral and ethical necessity—it makes good business sense…

KR tackled inclusivity from a business perspective: “Look at the data. Look at what your customers are asking for.” She talked about her own experience at Doppler Labs: out of 100,000 people on the waiting list, 22% were interested in using the wireless smart earbuds to supplement hearing loss or impairment—a sizable market that the research team had completely overlooked.

Essentially, if a company is building a product intended for universal use, product tests and iterations should involve different perspectives, abilities, and experiences. “Be willing to listen,” KR emphasized, “and build from there.”

…as long as you’re mindful about the recruiting process.

Michelle asked the panel to tackle a difficult topic: how do we build a diverse team without falling into box-checking or “tokenizing”? Michelle shared her own experiences as a Latinx person seeking a STEM job: “There were times when I didn’t know if I was being hired to check a box, instead of for my skills. How do we recruit folks without making it seem like we’re just meeting staffing diversity requirements?” KR pointed out that many companies don’t know how to hire for disability, or how to ensure success after a person with a disability is hired. She shared an appalling statistic: 60% of the disabled community is unemployed, a fact that runs across all industries.

Jennison suggested looking for technology skills first, and passion for accessibility second. “It’s not just about aiming for the right thing,” he said, “you have to have the ability to make the right thing happen.” Besides, he added, people with disabilities want to be hired because of their job skills, and not to simply fulfill diversity needs. “No one wants to be a check mark,” he said. “Most people truly do want to be a useful part of a great team.”

To help combat impostor syndrome—especially among those who might come from disadvantaged backgrounds—Julia suggested, “Try to be mindful about who’s conducting your interviews.” If you’re trying to reach out to new communities, strive to have familiar faces or experiences on the other side of the table. Hiring team members from marginalized backgrounds can have manifold benefits for your team—not only as a way to increase perspectives and experiences, but to help highlight your company as a valuable resource.


Finally, Michelle also asked the panel to “de-villainize” the lack of knowledge or access—how do we encourage companies to fix problematic biases, and point out mistakes or exclusionary practices without making people feel attacked? Most of the time, company leaders have no idea they’ve been excluding anyone at all (as Tobiah put it, “It’s called unconscious bias for a reason. You don’t think about it until you’re forced to.”)

For companies unsure where to begin, start by building an inclusive design team, Tobiah suggested. “Put a name and a value on different types of experience,” they added, depending on what’s important to highlight or fix in your product. “And just begin with bite-sized changes. It’s never too late to get started.”

Jennison urged, “Don’t judge, just teach. Ask your design team questions and encourage them to come up with answers.”

KR drove the point home: “Start with leadership—make inclusivity part of the company culture. It trickles down.”

The true definition of inclusivity tells a story about each and every one of us. The reason behind a particular need doesn’t matter—it’s the need itself, independent of origin, that designers have to think about. When it comes to great design, there’s no real difference between a permanent need or a situational need—true inclusivity treats both of those scenarios as equal.


Resources and further reading: Microsoft Inclusive Design initiative (download the free workbook)


Blog Author:
Micaela Youmans
Head of Operations and Communications

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