Inclusive Design for Digital Experiences

By Emily Peck March 15, 2021

Designing Inclusive Digital Experiences – the latest in BrainStation’s Digital Leadership Event Series – took place on March 11, and featured four inclusive design and user experience experts from Headspace, Capital One, and Google.

You can watch the full panel discussion here:

Inclusivity is fundamental to making digital experiences and products accessible to the largest possible group of users. It plays out in all the ways users interact with digital products – which means technology is a key factor in making a user journey successful.

Today, as technology improves and the interface between user and product becomes ever more seamless, the definition of inclusivity is growing to encompass not just a product’s functionality for all users, but also its ability to satisfy all users at an emotional level – an ambition that comprises an even wider range of considerations.

Our panel lineup included four people working at the forefront of designing inclusive digital experiences – from Google and Google Assistant, meditation app Headspace, and banking company Capital One. Together, they shared their insights on how the umbrella of inclusivity is expanding, the centrality of the user and their journey to the design process, and how to successfully build more inclusivity into digital experiences.

Inclusivity Is More Than Accessibility

Ensuring that digital products are physically accessible to nearly all users is increasingly seen as the bare minimum. Features like closed captioning for the hearing impaired, descriptive text for the visually impaired, and multiple ways of navigating for people with impaired motor skills not only mean that more users can access the product – they also send a powerful message about the importance of inclusivity to all users. While not feasible in every circumstance, universal accessibility can now be considered a baseline, at least in terms of ambition.

As Eunjoo Kim, UX Design Lead at Google Assistant, explains, “If you don’t apply inclusive design in your products, or in emerging technologies which have physical interactions, your design is not just bad, but is unusable.”

Inclusivity, in other words, is not an add-on; it’s a core design principle.

But inclusivity doesn’t end with a user’s ability to physically use the technology; it also speaks to multiple social dimensions, including language and nationality, race and ethnicity, sexuality, age, and socioeconomic status, as well as more fine-grained distinctions like one’s level of educational, financial situation or geographical location – even the way ideas like “family” means different things to different people.

As J.R. Miller, UX Writer and Product Designer at Google, says, “They need not all be lumped together like that. And indeed, it’s impossible to lump them all together.” There’s no one-size-fits-all template for making a product inclusive to everyone; each of these considerations must be weighed individually.

For Klaus Heesch, Director of Experience Design at banking group Capital One, inclusivity takes on a financial dimension, and includes topics like “the democratization of trading, for example, and access to the trading markets, which used to be just for wealthy white Wall Streeters,” he notes.

Input Determines Output

Heesch, summarizing a lesson from Antionette Carroll of Creative Reaction Lab, advises “Design with your customers, not for your customers.” But while letting your users shape your inclusivity design process can yield crucial insights, this advice comes with a caveat. To combat bias, input must be as inclusive as possible at every stage, from hiring to research and user testing to, finally, the data generated by end users.

When it comes to hiring, explains Frank Bach, Lead Product Designer at Headspace, inclusivity leads to better products. “If you can make [your design teams] as inclusive as possible – hearing from as many different people as you can, from different backgrounds, different life journeys, different languages, making sure that there’s not a lot of sameness in the types of people that you’re inviting to these groups – then you should have better outcomes. Not just business outcomes, but [also along] the more human metrics of, are people enjoying this product? Do they feel like it understands them? Do they feel some type of connection and community to the service or product that you’re building?” Today’s work-from-home climate has made achieving diversity in hiring much easier, Bach says, especially when it comes to hiring people whose experience includes a different set of circumstances than are found in Silicon Valley.

Diversity is just as crucial to inclusivity at the research and testing stage, Kim says. “When we say ‘machine learning,’ sometimes you’d think it’s a magic box – it will magically happen. Well, it’s not true. The machine starts based on data that’s input from humans. Then the machine builds a solution – an output which inherits human bias….If you don’t have inclusive input, you won’t have inclusive output.”

“For user research and testing,” Kim says, “recruiting a diverse set of participants is important. We try to include people with different accents and different family types.

Miller agrees. “The most important tool we’ve been using, especially on my team, is listening: listening to users, listening to each other, and listening deeply before we even make a design decision that will impact inclusivity.”

“Users are the designers,” Kim explains. “They are content creators, they are content reviewers, and they are product sellers,” she says. “So users are a part of this ecosystem.”

Fight For The User

This emphasis on being responsive to all users is at the heart of designing inclusivity; the UX Designer’s mandate is, in a sense, to fight for the user. In any product design, there are always competing interests, but as Bach explains, championing the user is a priority from both a user case and a business case.

“We’re not singling out that this is a product experience for this type of person or that type of person,” Bach says. “And on the product side or the user experience side, we’re making sure that when we’re setting things up – for example, our design system components – we’re working on buttons, states, or typography to make sure that we’re covering our bases for things like proper color contrasts, or using haptic feedback in a way that is meaningful for people….And as a designer, I think I’m getting smarter at building the business case for getting these things done. You know what is the right thing to do, but in a company of a few hundred people, it can sometimes be a challenge to fight for the user and only the user.”

Miller agrees, emphasizing that keeping the user foremost in mind isn’t just about design – it’s also about content. “You have to think about the user, and speak like the user, and write in ways so that as many users as possible will understand you, as well as your product.” In fact, Miller emphasizes, voice is one of the most meaningful ways to build inclusivity; the wrong language can leave people feeling excluded.

Inclusivity Is About a Sense of Belonging

In fact, building that sense of belonging is the overarching goal of inclusivity measures. Usability and accessibility both signal to a user that a product was made for them, but inclusivity goes beyond user interface; language and content are also important. “When a user feels ‘It’s made for me, made for my family, made for my gender, made for my country,’ it just creates emotional satisfaction,” Kim says. “To me, design is not just a matter of usability or utility, but of feeling and happiness.”

For Miller, this begins with the word. “[It’s] important to think about language and voice and tone as a part of the design system of the product.” Miller warns against the use of idioms, which not only don’t translate well, but are also interpreted differently even between cultures that speak the same language: “Especially when you’re building a global product, you need to make sure that you’re writing language that can be understood by a global audience….And you want to make sure you’re writing at no more than an eighth grade reading level. I know it’s a hard thing to measure, but there are tools online that can help you figure that out….You don’t get any brownie points for sounding smart.”

Like all UX design, inclusive design ultimately comes down to empathy – taking care to speak like the user.

While personas have long been used to develop empathy, Heesch sees the way they define and limit understanding of the user as detrimental to building belonging, and predicts personas are on their way out. “[Our understanding of audience is] moving away from simplistic or generic personas,” Heesch says. “That idea that everyone’s going to fit into some sort of average is not appropriate, and it’s not inclusive, and it leaves a lot of people, in fact, excluded. Historically, a lot of designers have worked around the idea of a persona….The problem with that is, every individual isn’t locked into one mode, and doesn’t fit into one standard.”

In place of personas, Heesch looks to archetypes, which emphasize not the supposedly universal characteristics of a certain type of person, but rather where a given person is on their own personal path. “We have to understand that anyone, in any group, travels through their own journey, and our hurdles and the challenges that we face are many and different. Our experiences, socio-economic backgrounds, education, and many more factors shape our attitudes and our views,” he says. “We as designers have to take that into consideration….Our obligation as designers is to realize that we’re designing for the long haul, and these experiences that we’re making should evolve and adapt to our users’ place in life, meeting them where they are.”

Interested in learning more? Book a call with one of BrainStation’s Learning Advisors.