What is inclusive design?

Inclusive design is design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.

The Three Dimensions of Inclusive Design

Recognize diversity and uniqueness

Inclusive design keeps the diversity and uniqueness of each individual in mind. As individuals spread out from the hypothetical average, the needs of individuals at the margins become ever more diverse. This means that mass and segregated solutions do not work well, as they are not sustainable economically or technically. The optimal inclusive design is best achieved through one-size-fit-one configurations or considerations within an integrated system. Inclusively designed individualization and flexible configurations must be integrated to maintain interoperability and currency. This also does not imply systems make choices for the user – inclusive design recognizes the importance of self-determination and self-knowledge.

Inclusive process and tools

The process of design and the tools used in design need to be inclusive. Inclusive design teams should be as diverse as possible and should include and be guided by the individuals that have difficulty or are excluded from the existing designs. This also respects the edict “nothing about us without us” without relegating people at the margins to the role of subjects of research or token participants in design exercises. Co-designers are not just invited to a “table” that wasn’t designed with them, but included from the beginning to design an inclusive process.

To support diverse participation, the design and development tools should become as accessible and usable as possible. This dimension does not denigrate the skills of professional designers but calls for those skills to become more accessible and for the design process to become more inclusive of diverse designers and participants.

Because of the changing context, this is an iterative process with no termination or fix. At each iteration the design team asks “who is still missing?”

Broader beneficial impact

Inclusive design recognizes that design occurs within a complex adaptive system of systems. No design decision is made in isolation. No intended change will survive without considering the nested context. The goal is to trigger a virtuous cycle of inclusion by leveraging the innovation benefits of designing for needs at the margins. Inclusive designers consider the deeper, broader and long term impacts of design decisions.

How is this different from Universal Design?

Inclusive Design, as we use it, can be seen as Universal Design with a number of distinctions:

The Context

Universal design has its origins in architectural and industrial design - our work includes the digital realm where the constraints, design options and design methods are expanded. The most important difference is that we do not need to design one-size-fits-all, the flexibility of the digital gives us the luxury and freedom to take a one-size-fits-one individualized design approach to inclusion. Networks also enable collective effort and sharing to address the range of needs.

The User

Universal design, counter to the intentions of the originators of the term, has become associated with a fairly constrained categorization of disabilities. We want to stress that the individual is multi-faceted and the constraints or design needs they have may arise from a number of factors or characteristics, and they all need to be taken into account (e.g., I may be blind, but I don’t read Braille and have some residual vision so the pictures help me navigate. Or, French is my second language and I’m currently juggling my kids and my job and haven’t slept all night so I’m stressed and a little bit distracted).

The Method

While the common goal is inclusion, because we are dealing with digital design our design considerations are very different from the non-digital, we can have a differently configured “entrance” for each person, in fact we can have multiple entrances for one person, each for a different context. Similarly we can have a different “handle” for each person and each context or each goal. The design constraints are very different from the domain in which Universal Design originated. While Universal Design is about creating a common design that works for everyone, we have the freedom to co-create a design system that can adapt, morph, or stretch to address each design need presented by each individual.