Breaking Down the Wall of Exclusion
By Kat Holmes
In my book Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, I visit John Porter for a chat about inclusive design. I've always appreciated his depth of experience and clarity on the topic. At the time, he was a design intern at Microsoft and was studying for his PhD at the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering Program. Porter uses multiple kinds of assistive technologies to extend his own abilities. He depends primarily on speech recognition to interact with computers.
I caught up with Porter recently on the Microsoft campus to continue our conversation.
Q: In the book, you describe the metagame of your gaming experience like this: “I don’t just play. I work to figure out how to play. It’s figuring out how to participate in societal moments.” Would you describe your thought process for how you figure out how to play?
John Porter: The way I tend to approach it, which parallels the way I construct my research questions in my PhD work, is thinking about the mismatch between what expectations are baked into a design versus what I am physically able to do. I see it in a visual sense like an old-fashioned switchboard where it’s like I have a limited number of connective wires at my disposal and I have to hook up this input way over here to an output over there that aren’t meant to work together. The wires I’m using are a smorgasbord of assistive technology and workarounds that have been developed by the community or that I developed myself. Maybe I’m naturally drawn to that problem-solving orientation and enjoy it enough to see it as a metagame, but I also wonder how much of that is a coping mechanism. How much of it is really fun versus how much is that I’ve conditioned myself to find enjoyment in the labor – in the task of overcoming these gross mismatches. Because if I couldn’t, it would be super depressing.
Q: Speaking of expectations, how do you shape your thinking about expectations?
JP: As a designer, for me, it comes down to baking in that fluidity and multi-modality that I and so many other people wish were there more often. Your expectations aren’t bad. They’re among our most valuable tools. As designers, you have to make assumptions about what your users can do. The problem is when designers get notions stuck in their head that there is only one box of assumptions: This is my set of assumptions for this interaction or system and everyone has to do them. The world doesn’t work that way.
As long as you’re able to say, this is one set of assumptions I’m going to make, but also will assume that those assumptions won’t work for everyone, and here are also four or five complementary sets of assumptions. Then you can design around that diversity and embrace the fluidity of interaction to allow different people to have agency over how they interact with your tools. In a lot of ways, that’s the holy grail of inclusive design. It’s tough for designers to admit we don’t know the right answer.
One of the greatest things we can do as designers is to recognize that our users are their own experts about their interactional desires and capabilities. Our job isn’t to tell them how to interact with what we create; our job is to create something that they can interact with in whatever way they choose to interact.
Q: Most schools orient students toward how to reduce to the right answer. As you’re working with students, how do you anchor that different way of thinking?
JP: It’s very controversial. When I get students on the first day, I ask them who knows how to create and use a persona. And everyone’s hands go up. Then I say, if any of you use a persona in this class, I will fail you. It’s said tongue-in-cheek, and intentionally very provocative, but I say it because I really feel like personas are the archnemeses of great inclusive design. When you have design students who come in and they’re in their last year of their master’s degrees, I sometimes feel like I’m 50 percent design instructor and 50 percent cult deprogrammer. Because I have to break down these tools that are really embedded in their thought processes from working in industry and that prevent them from seeing the jagged edges around the user space.
We talk about recognizing our own biases and being able to overcome and circumvent them. More and more, I realize that, for designers, the tools they use are as problematic as the orientation biases. Not only do you have these biases that are preventing you from seeing certain problematic aspects about your design process, but even the very tools and methodologies are reinforcing those bad habits. Even if you become self-reflecting and become aware of those biases, if you’re still using those same tools, you’re going to miss some important things.
Q: Using personas as an example of a tool – what makes a persona the antithesis of inclusive design?
JP: The way we use personas is often oriented toward the notion of smoothing off all the edges. We have this giant space of users that we have to think about and it’s this bizarre polygon that has thousands of little points sticking up. But we can’t be bothered to worry about that because it’s too hard, it’s too much detail. And because (in class) you are 20- and 21-year-old students, we are going to teach you how to sand it down until it’s a circle or a rectangle, and design for that. And give them a thumbs-up for statistically hitting most of the users. If it’s your goal, then everyone you’ve sanded off will be left in the cold.
I enforce in my students this notion that if you do use personas, it should only be in service to how can you cast into even sharper relief what is outside of it. Because personas, by definition, are really boring and not worth spending that much time thinking about. Think, instead, about the edges and the rough spots.
Q: Have you found any good tools or techniques for helping your students think about those rough edges?
JP: I tend to rely on tools and activities that I built myself. They are inspired by or built on the Microsoft Inclusive Design toolkit as a jumping off point. Many of the classes I teach are directly or indirectly related to game design. So I use a lot of activities around things like having students play a game with an input device that is not designed for that game. For example, I’ll have them play a game that’s meant to be played with a controller or a mouse, but I’ll have them sit in front of the computer with an eye tracker.
It’s easy for students to fall into the trap of thinking about rough edges in a way that’s destructively sterile and academic. Simple exercises make them have that eureka moment: Oh, this sucks, I don’t want to do this, and I don’t want to be responsible for doing this to other people. It’s a surprisingly effective shortcut for tuning their antennae to watch for those mismatches.
Q: You talked about how to recognize exclusion. How does this translate into workplace?
JP: I find myself approaching similar problems. Obviously, I have to take different tack, since the dynamic is different. No one likes to be told that they know design less than they think. Teaching these concepts and evangelizing them requires more diplomacy in the workplace than I’m used to in the academic world. You have to Trojan Horse your messages. You go in like a ninja, communicate what you want to communicate, get out, and they barely remember you were there but they come away like it was their idea in the first place. It’s very different from the teaching dynamic. It feels like diplomacy. It’s yet another metagame that we need to play.
Q: How does that tie back to switchboard?
JP: It’s similar. Rather than switching connections from myself to my system, I’m in someone’s head and I have to rewire them. It’s a mismatch between their expectations and the real world. Once that mismatch gets in their head and makes it out into the world and gets concretized into an artifact, you can fix the artifact, but it’s only a Band-Aid. If you can fix that mismatch at the source, you can get immediate confirmation that what you tried to communicate to them stuck.
Q: There is a shift. It got baked in at some point, but if that thinking can shift, it changes the language that person uses, changes the questions they ask, the issues they raise in the design process and who they include in the design process.
JP: The language is the easiest thing to track because it’s on the surface, especially when you talk about designers who come from a user-centered design background. They’re used to doing design research as well as design practice, and they naturally like to talk. The more someone talks, the easier it is to detect whether their language has changed. On the other hand, for the more introverted designers who work quietly in the corner, it’s harder to gauge that efficacy.
Q: How did you find out about Warfighter Engaged?
JP: I have been aware of Warfighter Engaged since they originally formed. I started to see chatter about them on social media and the old AbleGamers forum. People talked about where you get adaptive controllers not just for gaming but for other needs to overcome barriers. They have amazing expertise in an area that doesn’t get a lot of attention. I really admire them. They’re on the ground helping one person at a time overcome their mismatches.
It’s sad that it’s even needed and that it takes people to hyper-focus on one user at a time. But until we can address the systemic issues, that’s what it takes.
Q: Have you met people from the organization?
JP: Yes, particularly since I’ve been at Microsoft. They were an important partner in the Xbox Adaptive Controller. People here at Microsoft were seeing the work that Warfighter Engaged was doing, taking controllers apart and rewiring them. There was an a-ha moment for Microsoft, recognizing that there was an opportunity to help make it easier for folks like Warfighter Engaged to do their job.
Q: I’ve read that gaming as a social connection has been critical for veterans who are coming back.
JP: Social as well as personal and psychological. There are people who would come back and not be ready for any kind of interpersonal interaction. Their options were to be alone in their own head or they could be in another (virtual) world where they have agency. That little step of going from one world where they have limited agency to another world where you have more agency, you can’t overstate how important that is.
K: Can you describe what you mean by agency?
JP: Agency refers to your ability to enact your will in the world around you. It’s something that people most often take for granted until they don’t have it. For someone like me, who has extremely limited motor ability, I may have agency in a situation like this when I’m in a room, talking. I’m not disabled right now. But, rewind half an hour, and I didn’t have agency when I needed to unlock the door to let you in.
People think about agency as a personal issue. If you don’t have agency, it’s some limitation with you. Agency is not limited by the person who doesn’t have agency. It’s limited because the world strips that agency away.
Q: How does gaming connect to a person’s agency?
JP: There are two layers. The surface layer is when a person experiences profound injuries, such as traumatic brain injury and multiple amputations, that agency is so restricted by their circumstance. They are desperate for any ability to just get that angst out, that feeling of being trapped within themselves. Being able to go in a virtual world and have some of that agency back to be able to run around and explore is a really powerful emotion.
The deeper layer is that Warfighter Engaged recognizes that gaining agency in a virtual world is a stepping stone to reacclimating to agency in the real world. It’s a safe space for people to come to terms with or develop a self-understanding of their new set of abilities. Ken Jones, the founder, often describes his experiences going to see wounded veterans at hospitals. He has to remind them that even though they may no longer have hands, they still have stubs and knees and a mouth. The veterans have to adjust their expectations and reorient themselves. They have to recognize that their injuries don’t have to mean a loss of agency; it’s just a fundamental change of agency. It’s scary and daunting, but that’s part of why games are so important. It’s extremely valuable to building a new mental model of what your agency and ability are after this life-altering event.
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.