Inclusive Design Lessons from Google, Civic Tech & Digital Powerhouses

Ariba Jahan

Inclusive design has become a buzzword  these days. What is inclusive design? Are we doing it? How do you do it? To be honest, it seems like most companies are still figuring out what inclusive design means for their business, products, and process. But one thing is clear – it is indeed a good thing.

Inclusive design is creating the environment, products and services humans interact with in a way that is accessible and understandable to all people, not just for select individuals.

The language around “inclusion” can sometimes feel vague but having clear guidelines can help us all do better. Check out the four things I learned while attending NYC Blend (an event series hosted by FirstMark Capital), where six speakers shared how they’re prioritizing inclusive design and what they’ve learned in the process.

Inclusion can’t be an afterthought. Start by including the excluded.

In your design or production process, start by working directly with the people you’re designing for to uncover and understand the real challenges they are facing.

Heather Cassano, Head of Product Design at Google, encourages her team to constantly ask:

  1. Are we creating tools that can be accessed and used by everyone?
  2. Who is being served well by this product/ service?
  3. Who is not being served well? She noted that in order to even address this question, you need a diverse team working to uncover the answers.

Annie Nguyen, Lead designer and Researcher at the United States Digital Service, has been working hard with her team to transform and digitize the veteran benefits approval process. After talking to veterans and witnessing the piles of paperwork involved, she realized she couldn’t simply move the whole process to the internet. Some of the 400,000 veterans still waiting for decisions do not have access to computers or the internet, and a mailed letter is still the fastest way to get a hold of them. It became apparent that the paper system worked (at least for now) for the veterans, but the 5-7 year wait time for a government decision needed to be addressed. So Nguyen’s team pivoted and created tools and efficiencies to help lawyers and judges move through the decision process quicker. They are also working to redesign the paper forms themselves.

Inclusive design is also inclusive testing.

Google creates scenarios, personas and environments as part of their inclusive testing. They prioritize testing for gender, age, geographic inclusion, ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural disability and experience/seniority. They also created an accessibility lab where products can be tested under various simulated impaired experiences to make sure they’re prioritizing accessibility. “Inclusive testing is critical to creating more inclusive products — both to reach the broadest possible audience and to avoid flops,” Cassano said.

Check yourself. Bias isn’t that easy to catch.

Jimmy Chen, Founder of Propel, and Alexis Lloyd, Head of Design Innovation at Automattic, emphasized the importance of listening to real people that we may be excluding –  to make sure that we are exposed to challenges that may not be part of our lives. By empathizing and immersing ourselves in the world of those typically excluded, we can design solutions that we wouldn’t have ever made for ourselves.

Lloyd mentioned that it’s easy for Automattic to get feedback from the open WordPress community, but that feedback has bias. They constantly hear from developers, creators and business owners. They don’t hear from their first-time users. To workaround this bias, all Automattic employees do annual rotations in the customer service department to interact with the larger user base. This allows them to make sure they’re mindful of the needs and pain points of their entire audience base, because “even if there are tools that solve a problem, it may not solve the problem for all your audiences.”

Go the extra mile to find the hard-to-find audience. Repeat.

While exploring the Google travel feature, Cassano’s team learned that the tool does not serve families larger than three people and the LGBTQ community. They learned these critical points because they kept questioning and testing with different people. Cassano reminded us, “You are not your user. Even if you use the product, you are still in the cave and know too much about the product. You need to get out there and test your products with your audiences and empathize with them.”

Chen shared how he shadowed families to understand the context of when and why food stamp users needed updates on their EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) balance. He immediately prototyped quick versions to test with the families. This continuous dedication to listening and iterating allowed the team to build a solution that delivered a value for EBT users. To market their Fresh EBT product (an app that helps EBT users check their balance, clip coupons, get deals and apply for jobs), he stood outside of food stamp offices with flyers. He didn’t go to digital advertising first, he met users in their own environment.

These are just a few of the guidelines our industry is using to push for inclusive design. There are reasons why certain groups have been excluded in the past – bias in the historical process or bias in past research. But we must do our due diligence to identify who is excluded and the points of exclusion, identify our personal and organizational biases, and uncover contextual challenges to make sure we are creating solutions that are accessible and impactful to all.

If you want to learn more about inclusive design, here are some other resources you can check out:

Auttomatic’s Inclusive Design checklist

ADA Standards for Accessible Design

Microsoft’s Principles of Inclusive Design

John Maeda and Kat Holmes on Creative Morning talks about Inclusive Design

John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report 2018

Book: Mismatch- How inclusion shapes design by Kat Holmes