What We’re Leaving Out of the Discussion Around Inclusive Design

 Image description: An illustration of a woman, encased in a transparent cube, walking toward a round cutout in a wall. The image depicts the idiom "square peg in a round hole."

Editor's note: This piece originally was featured on Eye On Design.


By Kat Holmes

As you may have noticed, there’s a growing focus on inclusion in the tech industry. Specifically, there’s a rise in the use of the word “inclusion.” Companies are creating new executive roles to lead inclusion initiatives, promoting their inclusivity in marketing campaigns, and, crucially, making changes in their products to include overlooked communities.

But what does inclusion actually mean—especially when it’s so feverishly applied to broad areas of society? The word is as axiomatic as it is unspecific. I’ve wrestled with this ambiguity as director of inclusive design at Microsoft, in my own independent design practice, and while writing a book about inclusion. Inclusion is a vast promise—as immense, in fact, as human diversity—and that’s what makes it a great design challenge. But without a clear agreement on what inclusion is, can we ever hope to achieve it? How can we design for something that means so many different things to different people?

Perhaps we can’t, at least not effectively. What I have seen make a difference is a slight shift in the way we and talk about inclusive design. To do this, we need to address that less popular term, the one that tends to get left out of the discussion: exclusion.

Exclusion is not a PR-friendly word, but it is a universal human experience. We all know how it feels when we’re left out. We each experience it over the course of our lives. Exclusion is concrete and specific, and can often be traced back to an identifiable source. This makes it a meaningful starting point for inclusive design. Our ambitions for inclusion are best achieved by first recognizing and then remedying exclusion wherever we encounter it.

Design is much more likely to be the source of exclusion than inclusion. When we design for other people, our own biases and preferences often lead the way. When we create a solution that we, ourselves, can see, touch, understand, or hear, it tends to work well for people with similar circumstances or preferences to us. It also ends up excluding many more people.

This is especially true with respect to disability. The World Health Organization defines disability as a mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live. This is also known as the social definition, or model, of disability.

Design is much more likely to be the source of exclusion than inclusion.

Every choice we make as designers determines who can use an environment or product. The mismatches that we create in the process are the building blocks of exclusion. From the stairs at the entrance of a building to the two-handed design of a video game controller, our solutions clearly signal who does and doesn’t belong.

Exclusion is a deeply personal subject for many people, and often a painful one. Social cognitive neuroscience studies, like those led by Dr. Naomi Eisenberger and Dr. Matthew Lieberman, are helping to shed light on the effects of social exclusion, ostracization, and rejection. There’s evidence that feeling socially rejected activates some of the same areas of the brain that are activated when a person feels physical pain. In short, exclusion can hurt. Not just metaphorically, but physiologically.

What happens when a designed object excludes us? While we expect people to be unfair, we imagine buildings to be unbiased blocks of wood, metal, and concrete. We expect software to be impartial lines of code. This is why an unusable design feels like a rejection, especially if it gates our access to important social moments.

In these moments, many people are more likely to blame themselves than the object. They might feel left behind and wonder why technology changes so much faster than they do. Moreover, it’s often unclear who’s responsible for fixing that exclusion.

We imagine buildings to be unbiased blocks of wood, metal, and concrete. We expect software to be impartial lines of code.

As designers, if we knew that exclusionary designs could be unsafe or lead to physical harm, inclusion would be more than a good idea. It could become an accountability with consequences.

So, if design is a source of exclusion, can it also be the remedy? Yes, but it takes work. First, we can start by building better methods and tools for recognizing exclusion. In particular, the kinds of exclusion that someone other than ourselves might encounter.

Second, we can focus on mismatches as a way to identify better design constraints. Specific types of mismatches can help us go deep into how to create better solutions. Design thrives with good constraints and is exclusive by nature. The key is to regularly ask yourself who will want to use your design, but will be most unable to do so? And then seek out their input as a way to help you shape better design constraints.

And finally, through design, we can be intentional about why we choose to exclude people and take responsibility for making it better over time through planful investments. Exclusion can become a purposeful choice, rather than an accidental harm.

Inclusion means many different things to different people, and maybe that’s the point. It should adapt to fit a diverse range of situations. But to make meaningful progress towards inclusion, we need to learn to recognize its inverse. Exclusion just might be the ultimate shared experience and sharp focus that leads the way.



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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