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Inclusive or Universal?

Submitted by genesisl on Oct 23, 2017

By: Megan Conway and Thomas Conway

At the recent Pacific Rim Conference on Disability and Diversity, we had the pleasure of talking with Kat Holmes, former Director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft. She spoke on the topic of inclusion as a way for organizations to address consumer diversity when designing products and services. Can a small homogeneous group of designers really create a generic universally-acceptable template for all users? Is universal design, or one-size fits all, the best approach for an inclusive environment? What’s the difference and why should we care?

Ms. Holmes shared an interesting anecdote about receiving a call from a male project director who told her, “We have a women’s problem with Windows.” He then went on to explain that women did not like Windows as much as men did. As it turns out, the reason for this was based on differences in the way that men and women learn new things. The product was designed by a team of mostly men, who made universal assumptions about consumers based on their own experiences. What struck us was the fact that the “problem” was seen by the development team as being with women, not with men. The same assumption is often applied to people with disabilities - whose needs as consumers are seen as being the location of the “problem.”

Inclusive design requires investigating the excluded. This approach is the opposite of designing a product to be universally useable by the most. But is designing for the 90% even possible, and are you truly reaching a wide audience? When you start to break down who comprises the 90%, you realize that there are many minorities within the majority. Ms. Holmes said that inclusive design principles put people, and more importantly empathy, first. Inclusive design requires designers to think beyond their own worldview and presumptions to examine who their users really are and could be. Designing technologies, virtual and physical environments so that they are accessible for people with disabilities is not designing for a “special” minority, it is designing for one of many diverse user groups who utilize products, services and spaces.