Inclusive design is integral to building better digital experiences

22 October 2021 5 min. read
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Rachel Powers, senior vice president in the digital consulting division of HCL Technologies, reflects on the importance of taking an inclusive design approach to developing and building better digital experiences.

Can you imagine navigating to a site and not knowing where to go or what to do next – or worse, not being able to read what is on the page? Companies are realizing they need to build inclusion by changing the way they design products, services and technologies. Inclusive design is where design meets diversity.

It’s where accessibility and usability come together, using a human-centered lens to build inclusiveness. The lack of inclusive design today is a systemic problem asking for innovation, especially as digital platforms driven by AI, virtual reality, and machine learning are exploding.

Inclusive Design

Inherent biases are invisible and profoundly impact the way we think, act, and design. They affect our understanding and shape our decisions and behaviors. Bias impacts the approach we take with technology and the systems we create. We see this as the foundation for good design best practices and creation of a set of standards.

Typically, what gets released in the market reflects the sum of design and engineering decisions, which can deliver unintended consequences and raise the barriers to adoption.

Champion inclusive design

Design for equity, accessibility, and usability. Designing for diverse audiences and diverse abilities is integral to building better technology. By making technology more accessible for people with different cognitive and physical abilities, we can challenge one another to create more products and services that are much more inclusive.

Accessibility brings technology to people of diverse abilities without special modifications. Practices like reducing repetitive actions, lowering user frustration, and providing good affordances and constraints, all help enable a technology to be much more operable by all. Our goal is to keep it simple, removing unnecessary complexity so that everyone can use and understand it regardless of technical literacy levels or experience.

By deploying simple remedies like clearly labeling controls, preventing errors, prompting users before they get stuck, and providing feedback along the way, we reduce barriers to usage. Accessibility and usability standards should always be foundational to good design, since everyone benefits when technology and products are more accessible and usable.

To accommodate this, co-design with both partners and with real end-users – whether they’re employees, consumers, healthcare clinicians, or warehouse managers. Use their insights, goals, and needs to inspire product strategy and agile development. This enables the ability to build this inspiration into the product development lifecycle, listening and running iterative feedback loops to keep product improvement going long after product launch.

The brand language

Brands are shifting. What was once the aesthetic standard of digital design – lots of white space and clean lines – is now shifting to be more representative of its audience. Companies have shifted their brand language to be more reflective of a global audience, with warmer colors and tones that are found in the world to an all-ages aesthetic in order to grow and nurture a long-term customer base.

By changing their products’ visual cues, a company can be more representative in its identity, aesthetics, and culture, while not forcing them into default categories. It’s not just about changing the color of buttons but asking a team to take into account how the product or service will be used and extend its current design system so that they deliver inclusion.

Practice what you preach

Just as what is represented externally with a brand, there is a need to incorporate those same values into a company's inward-facing identity – its mission, vision, and corporate beliefs. To build inclusive environments and create products that serve a more diverse population, leaders need to become change agents. Diverse teams leverage tools that deliver inclusion and it starts with the mindset, asking questions, examining the onboarding of new employees.

If we start out with a strong inclusive mindset at the beginning, it will carry an employee throughout their career. In our consulting practice, we find that continuous training and an open dialogue in a supportive environment can help change perspectives, find bias, offer alternative language to use, and eliminate instances of exclusion. By doing this, it creates a much more collaborative and innovative culture across the organization which has a direct impact on work and customer engagement. 

As just one example, we see the rise of voice technology in our everyday lives, from Amazon Alexa to Google Voice to Siri. This is an empowering moment for all, especially for those who need it most. According to the CDC, 26% of American adults have a disability. These span motor or mobility impairments, visual or physical impairments or dementia. Voice interfaces and technology are opening doors for those that need it most, yet most technology is designed by a small subset of society.

By finding practical ways to advance accessibility and usability into designing technology from the get-go, we will not only craft experiences for the 1-in-4 but for everybody, even those with temporary disabilities – for the dad who can’t use his hands because he’s carrying groceries, for the mom who misplaced her glasses, for the daughter who just had a molar removed and can’t talk, for the employee who has a thick accent or for the civil servant who recently had surgery.

Inclusive design benefits many customers and can truly help us all.

What’s next? Leaders need to clearly articulate accessibility, usability, and inclusivity themes most appropriately and define what those mean for technology. Leaders and practitioners need to create communities of practice where teams can share best practices and align their work with inclusive outcomes. Everyone in product development needs to lead the charge for instilling change and delivering inclusive technology.

If we all take responsibility, ultimately, inclusive design can help forge a unifying digital world.