5 Ways Inclusion Fuels Innovation

[Image description: Assorted vintage typewriters arranged for display on a red velvet cloth. Image source: ozTypewriter.]
[Image description: Assorted vintage typewriters arranged for display on a red velvet cloth. Image source: ozTypewriter.]

By Kat Holmes

A brick is more than a brick.

In a classic creative thinking exercise, one is asked to imagine all the different ways of using a typical brick. An expected application is to layer bricks to build the walls of a structure. But what else? Perhaps the brick is a doorstop. Maybe it’s heated and used to cook a chicken, or ground into dust and used as sand.

One of the exclusion habits that we all have is assigning fixed meanings to objects. But if we change the shape, context, or purpose of an object, it can take on a new meaning. Stretching our assumptions about the purpose of an object or environment opens us up to exploring how a solution can adapt to a specific set of circumstances. Adaptability to the needs of a unique person is a signature trait of an inclusive solution.

“…if we change the shape, context, or purpose of an object, it can take on a new meaning.”

It may not be immediately obvious what the business case is for shifting toward inclusion, but the market opportunity is significant. Consider all the objects and tools around you: the adjustable chair at your desk, reading glasses, the touchscreen on your mobile device, your computer keyboard, email, flexible straws. All of these are ubiquitous and deeply integrated into our daily lives. But did you know that these tools are descendents of innovations that were created to remedy exclusion?

Stronger engagement

When inclusive design is at practice, solutions designed for one can extend to many. As technology improves and functionality gets better, businesses that invest in making products that are highly usable and beautiful will experience stronger customer engagement.

So how do you make a business case for inclusion? What is the return on investment? How do you prove to leadership that inclusion works? These are the most common questions that arise when teams are discussing whether to invest in the inclusive design process.

It’s helpful to start with some examples of inclusive design.

In the early 1800s, Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri partnered with Countess Carolina Fontoni da Fivizzano, his friend – and some say lover – who was losing her eyesight, on a better way to write letters without having to dictate her private thoughts to a scribe. The result was a typing machine that associated one letter with each key that could be tapped to imprint on carbon paper, making writing accessible to people who are blind. Centuries later, we have modern keyboards for computing and mobile devices.

The child-proof caps on pill bottles are hard for everyone, not just children, to open. PillPack worked closely with long-term cancer patients – some of whom took as many as sixteen different medications in one week – to understand the complexities and risks of managing multiple types, dosages, and schedules of medications. By doing so, PillPack was able to reimagine the entire delivery system for prescriptions and offer a pharmacy service that pre-sorts a customer’s medications in clearly labeled pouches.

Touchscreen smartphones evolved from the work of engineer Wayne Westerman, who had carpal tunnel injuries and wanted to create a way to interact with computers using touchpads instead of a keyboard. His company, FingerWorks, created a touchpad for each hand to replace the keyboard and gained a following among people with hand disabilities or repetitive-strain injuries. Eventually, the appeal of the touchpad extended to the masses, culminating in Apple buying the technology to use as the foundation for the first gesture-controlled multi-touch interface for the iPhone.

Fueling innovation

What these stories begin to illustrate are how designers and engineers can work with an excluded group to develop solutions. We can draw from these examples a few key ways that inclusion can fuel innovation:

  • Interrupt habits: The inclusive design process interrupts the status quo. Even if just for a moment, recognizing the exclusion around us and learning from people who have expertise in exclusion could be the key to unlocking design challenges.

  • Create constraints: It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on excluded communities outlines clear constraints, which helps teams build a more profound understanding of how to connect with a wider target audience. Stronger constraints push designers and engineers to innovate.

  • Leverage existing resources: Often, applying a new lens to existing resources or forming new combinations of existing solutions is all that’s needed. Companies may have decades’ worth of ideas and prototypes that they’ve developed but never released into the world. The right ingredients may already be in the pantry, so to speak. Many inclusive innovations don’t require dramatic reinvention.

  • Increase customer engagement: Products that are hard to use are obstacles to customer engagement. Inclusive design helps to remove obstacles, or mismatches, and reduces the friction in customer experience.

  • Minimizes risk: Retrofitting inclusion is expensive and time-consuming. If teams treat accessibility and inclusion as an afterthought, products may end up not meeting legal standards for accessibility, or (inadvertently) discriminatory solutions may face public outcry, ultimately requiring significant investments to address.

In an ideal world, every product or solution would employ inclusive design from the start. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to practicing inclusive design. Each company needs to incorporate inclusive design when and where it can in ways that complement its existing processes.

Inclusion is about creating flexible systems that fit people in unique ways as they move from one environment to the next. As long as design teams remember a brick is not a brick, innovation is always within reach.

About the Author: Kat Holmes

Kat Holmes, named one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business” in 2017, is founder of mismatch.design, a firm dedicated to inclusive design resources and education. At Microsoft from 2010 to 2017, she led that company’s executive program for inclusive product innovation. Her award-winning toolkit was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. In 2018, Holmes joined Google and continues to advance inclusive development for some of the most influential technologies in the world. She is the author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.

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