Inclusive design: Better for people, profit and planet!

Inclusive design: Better for people, profit and planet!

NOTE: I wrote this blog article for InnovateUK’s Design Special Interest Group while working at the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre.

Every piece of modern technology is designed and each design decision relating to it has the potential to include, or exclude, different people. Inclusive design has the answers to doing this effectively: not just for Profit, but for People and the Planet as well.

Business success depends on the immediate and sustained profitability of a portfolio of technological products and services, which, in turn, depends upon the timely, cost-effective and optimally targeted introduction of new customer offerings. The success of a well-catered customer design, impacting both Profit and Planet, is highly dependent upon the choice of users at the outset of the technology creation. If the design is tailored too closely to the needs of a limited number of very particular users, the overall capacity of the final technological offering to meet the demands of diverse user groups may be compromised both morally and financially.

The amount of experience we have with a given technology clearly affects our perceptions of ease-of-use and has an impact on the speed and effectiveness of our interaction with it. Today’s designers expect a significant amount of such experience from users. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that not all users have wide technology experience, particularly among older age groups who grew up in the simpler electro-mechanical era and have that particular model of the world embedded in their minds. For example, how does a user with little or no experience of smartphones know that Ice Cream Sandwich is Google’s codename for the Android 4.0 Operating System for smartphones and tablets, know how to use it (whether to tap it with one finger or two, up or down, or left or right), or deduce that it requires constant updates so that it functions as expected?

Apart from the varied levels of technological knowledge in the general populace, there is also a huge amount of diversity in people’s vision, hearing and motor capabilities, especially among the older sections of the population where about 1 in 4 people over the age of 55 experiences serious levels of impairments. Sadly, few of those natural differences are planned for during technology design.

Ultimately, customers would be far better served by having their diverse needs, experience and underlying problems with access to and use of technology understood, rather than having crucial design time wasted on misplaced guesses about them.

The inclusive approach to design, embodied in the form of the Cambridge Inclusive Design Toolkit, advocates the importance of a balanced People-Profit dyad in technology design, and the need for designers to step out of their glass towers, drop the common ‘If I can use it, everyone can’ attitude and, as said by Baroness Sally Greengross, “look at who our population are”.* The toolkit provides a set of easy-to-use tools for designers to better understand and target user diversity across different human capabilities. Its latest version, enriched with the Planet perspective and now focussing on the People-Profit-Planet interplay in both business and educational settings, has been recently launched under the banner of Designing Our Tomorrow.

The key point is that the design decisions made today will affect all of us tomorrow and beyond. Usability guru Donald Norman warns that: “The state of modern technology is disgraceful…we memorise the basic operations we want to do and ignore the rest; when we get lost or confused, we have learned to give up”.* Thus, we urgently need to have technology adjusted to our needs, rather than having to constantly adapt ourselves to its ever-increasing demands.

In order to design successful and usable technologies, designers need to establish the level of prior experience in their respective target user group, because, as design and digital divide expert Alan Newell points out, “Everybody’ is a very poor design brief”.* It is also essential to identify and clearly articulate the benefits that a given technology has to offer to diverse users, for the reason stated by University of Dundee’s Graham Pullin that: “Step changes in adoption are not triggered by the latest operating system, but by activity that is meaningful in the context of everyday life”.* Moreover, a supportive network of people needs to be provided to encourage and sustain participation, especially among less technologically aware individuals.

Finally, as said by the godfather of inclusive design in the UK Roger Coleman: “[The world] can ultimately be made a better, more inclusive place by a more responsible approach to design in business, government and education, and collective efforts by all three”.* However, to achieve this, we need significant changes on a number of fronts to transform how we design for a naturally diverse population. Going forward, we need:

  • Policy makers with a focus on people – as a starting point.
  • Businesses with a will to innovate – and this means not just focussing on technology for technology’s sake, but also on development of well-targeted and sustainable uses for those technologies.
  • Designers with the skills to innovate – who really understand how to design complex interfaces that genuinely work for as wide a range of users as possible.
  • Customers with the desire to purchase – we need to become more vocal about what we like and dislike because this will change the market quicker than almost anything else.

*All excerpts cited are from the ‘Ageing, Adaption and Accessibility: Time for the Inclusive Revolution!’ book by Mieczakowski and Clarkson (2012).