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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI): Inclusive Design Plus Accessibility

For many women my age, there seemed to be an implicit promise that I could do anything or be anything if I went to college and worked hard enough. That promise translated into a belief that workplace diversity was something that would happen naturally as I and others like me launched careers outside the home. But as my career progressed, I became increasingly aware of and uncomfortable with being the only woman in the office, conference room, or Zoom call. Business consultant Rocío Lorenzo tells a similar story in her TED talk, “How Diversity Makes Teams More Innovative.” It turns out that workplace diversity doesn’t just happen organically. We’ve got to make it happen.

Lorenzo is a co-author of the groundbreaking study published in 2018 that conclusively demonstrated that businesses that achieved 20% or higher rates of women in leadership positions were more innovative than peer companies with lower rates of women in leadership. This research did not examine gender diversity alone. Her results revealed that as “more dimensions of diversity [including gender, race, and sexual identity] were represented, the stronger the relationship was” between diversity and innovation.

What Is DEI?

Although the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) movement had a foothold in corporate America prior to the publication of her research, Lorenzo’s numbers propelled DEI initiatives forward in the United States and across the globe. She notes that business leaders now recognize diversity isn’t just something that must be complied with out of political correctness or purely because it’s the right thing to do. We can talk about inclusion in the workplace as a driver of new ideas, new markets, and new earnings. Her research also created space for conversations with diversity leaders like Kenneth Johnson who also believed that if everybody had the opportunity to grow in their career, it would be better for society as a whole, not just for a company’s bottom line.

Now many large and small organizations are working towards measurable DEI goals, largely with a focus on hiring and retention practices. I hope that those of us with the power to influence these hiring decisions remember what we’ve learned from inclusive design practices, because one way to view DEI is through the lens of the work that many of us are doing already. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is inclusive design plus accessibility.

Not convinced? Look at it this way: the stated goal of many DEI teams is to bring underrepresented groups into the workplace and to give them a literal seat at the table, in the office, or in a boardroom. These traditionally excluded groups were ignored or dismissed because of their gender, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, language, education, or ableness (or perceived lack of ableness). For comparison, Microsoft’s definition of inclusive design states that inclusive design “enables and draws on the full range of human diversity.” The team at Microsoft based their understanding of inclusive design on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of disability which includes “situational impairments, activity limitations, and restrictions on participation.” Therefore, any situation in which a person or persons are barred from fully participating in our digital world is defined by the WHO as an accessibility issue.

What Is Normal?

How do we define “normal?” First, we challenge our own notions of what is normal, and then we set measurable goals for our inclusive research and design practices. Design-educator and researcher Mushon Zer-Aviv has developed an interactive installation called the Normalizing Machine. Participants choose which of two faces is more normal. After making a series of selections, the participant is asked if they want to add their own face to the lineup. This machine learning experiment gathers data from each interaction and learns what we, as a society, consider a normal face. Zer-Aviv created this participatory experiment to educate us on the dangers of our biases and to remind us that categorizing humans into in-groups and out-groups can fuel movements like Eugenics and Nazism. Today these machine-driven categorizations reflect hundreds of years of racial and gender bias. The biases keep people of color in poverty; they are denied mortgages, passed over for job interviews, denied healthcare, and jailed at higher rates due to biased algorithms.

What each of us considers normal is limited by our own personal experiences. Designing from our own experiences, preconceived ideas, or ideals of normalcy have huge and potentially dangerous consequences. Entire cities all over the world were architected to meet the needs of Le Corbusier’s notions of the ideal man: a “good-looking” Englishman from a detective novel who was “always six feet tall!” The imagined dimensions of this fictionalized person dictated the size of city blocks, the placement of doorhandles, and the rise and run of staircases, leaving women, the elderly, and the disabled with strollers, walkers, or wheelchairs to fend for themselves for decades. Thankfully due to government interventions like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar initiatives abroad, times are changing. But change is slow.

The ADA became law in 1990, but only required movie theaters to accommodate visual or hearing impaired movie-goers starting in 2017. These changes are useful for humans experiencing both chronic and situational disabilities. Just this summer the US military began issuing body armor that fits women in combat properly. Soldiers describe badly fitting armor that cuts off their circulation when they sit, slows them down when drawing their weapons, or leaves gaps that could prove lethal. The new armor is unisex and—this should come as a surprise to no one—fits the men better as well.

Even the video game industry—historically not known for its progressive values—has recognized the importance of accessibility for cognitive issues with games that offer assistance such as hints, reminders, and you-are-here indicators for players with cognitive, memory, or attention issues who lose their way or simply forget what they were meant to be doing. This too should enable players who step away from a game and want to return to it without having to relearn the game or remember where they were. Good design benefits everyone, not only cognitively or physically diverse players.

Make Inclusive Design Part of Your Everyday Practice

As Rocío Lorenzo noted, businesses have different reasons for setting diversity goals. Some are working on DEI because heterogeneous organizations outperform homogeneous organizations. Some attempt to reach new audiences or new users within existing market segments. Others strive to do the right thing purely because it is the right thing to do—or because they want to be perceived as organizations that do the right thing. From the perspective of brand management, there’s little difference. Companies that get sued for accessibility violations often pay legal fees and fines and then must manage eroded trust in their brands which affects profits. Any organization ignoring these issues is a target, even big companies like Netflix®, Nike™, Amazon®, and Parkwood Entertainment™ (aka Beyoncé Knowles).

When working with your colleagues and clients, here’s what I suggest.

  1. Don’t try to reach consensus on why DEI through inclusive design and accessibility is right for your organization. Just know that you are doing the right thing for yourself as a human, researcher, and designer for your users and for your organization.
  2. Diversify your UX research and design team to the extent that you are able.
  3. Diversify your user research, usability, and participatory-design participants as much as possible. Do this by creating a matrix of all possible users based on gender, race, ethnicity, language, sexual-identity, age, cognitive and physical ableness, education level, socio-economic status, and geography.
    1. Map your own and your team’s experiences and perspectives against this matrix.
    2. Note the gaps.
    3. Recruit participants to fill those gaps.
  4. Pick a set of inclusive design principles and follow them. Know that none is perfect; the Microsoft toolkit is inspirational while the Inclusive Design Principles website is tactical and easy to follow.
  5. Set a baseline against which to measure future iterations of your website or software. These can be usability measures like time on task or revenue metrics. A combination of both is best to show the value of your inclusive research and design practice.
  6. Conduct user research, usability testing, and participatory design sessions. Implement any necessary changes and measure the effectiveness of the changes.
  7. Repeat your process.

Being inclusive also means including our own colleagues and clients in user research, usability testing, and design process. According to an informal post in October 2021 to a User Experience community group, the most cited reason for ignoring user research was the cost of implementing the recommendations. Colleague Meghan Cann responded with this suggestion:

“I have experienced this more times than I can count in my career. Which got me thinking… what could I do differently to improve the situation? I ultimately discovered the best way to push through this sort of inaction was to make research a team sport. By creating an environment of inclusivity from the planning stage, through execution, analysis, and reporting, I found teams rallying behind our users and collaborating to include the user’s perspective in decision making and prioritization. It became less about me and what I was saying and all about what our users were saying.”

Again, it’s about openness and inclusivity. If everyone is included in the research and design process, everyone will feel invested in the outcome. Hopefully that means more research, more inclusion, and more diversity within your design practice, among your users, and across your organization.

Further Reading

If your colleagues are still not convinced, share the shock and awe campaign that is Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini’s two-part series on inclusive design. In part one, he bluntly states that most of us have or will experience mental or physical disabilities at some point in our lives. In part two, he discusses how and how not to approach inclusive design, including industry case studies that read like cautionary tales. For further reading, I recommend Evie Cheng’s “Designing a Better Future with Inclusive User Research: Five Ways to Practice Inclusive Design as a UX Researcher,” which discusses how to avoid getting caught up in “design thanking,” which happens when traditionally excluded groups are expected to be grateful for being included. There are useful tips in “How Inclusive User Research Makes Your Products Better” from the team at Rangle along with a good reminder that “what’s vital for some, is valuable for everyone.”

And finally, it’s important to remember that “There Is No Such Thing as Neutral Graphic [or UX] Design,” and it’s never too late to be a team like the one at Isometric Studio. We can engage in commercial enterprises and advocate for social good. We just need to take a broad view of diversity and accessibility—of what it means to be excluded and included—as we engage in inclusive user experience research and design.

Sarah Paglliaccio

Sarah Pagliaccio is an educator and UX consultant working at the intersection of tech, the arts, and humanness. Sarah believes computer-human interactions should be characterized by transparency and dignity. That is the message she strives for in her design work, writing, and teaching at Bentley University.