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The Future of Inclusive Design

by Rachel Gallaher Portraits by Nate Watters

LAST FEBRUARY, I TOOK A TUMBLE WHILE SKIING AND TORE A MUSCLE IN MY LEFT CALF. It wasn’t anything major, but it put me on crutches for a few days. In an instant, I’d gone from being a stereotypically able-bodied individual to someone who needed help not only to get around but also to perform essential tasks.

Suddenly everyday movements I’d taken for granted were significant challenges. A trip from the couch to get a glass of water: an ordeal. Getting in and out of my old-fashioned clawfoot tub: another ordeal. Both my office and my apartment are on the top floors of walk-up buildings. Luckily, my job is flexible and allows me to telework, so I didn’t need to negotiate a commute. Friends and family helped out with meals, as standing to cook was out of the question.

Overall, I was very fortunate: my minor injury healed quickly and didn’t permanently disrupt my life. What it did disrupt was my way of thinking—in a few short days, my eyes were opened to the accessibility and exclusion challenges faced by millions around the globe on a daily basis. With each frustration I encountered, new questions arose: What if I had a job that required me to be onsite? What if I didn’t live near friends and family who were able to bring me food? How would I navigate trips to the grocery store, especially without an elevator in my building? What if I had small children to care for?

During my days on crutches, I experienced what Seattle-based designer, author, and educator Kat Holmes calls a “mismatch” with my environment. In her new book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design (MIT Press, 2018), she explores inclusive design, explaining basic concepts that bring into sharp focus the need for accessibility both for people with disabilities and for society as a whole. In short, inclusive design is a methodology in which one designs with people, not for them, Holmes explains. It requires including a diverse set of individuals—of many races, genders, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds—in the design process from start to finish to ensure that the widest possible range of people can use, or easily adapt, the end product.

A mismatch happens when the features of an environment, product, or service don’t fit a person’s abilities or preferences. Think of it like this: The people, objects, places, and tech we encounter each day generally help us to access and participate in the world. Mismatches occur when these access points become barriers to our interaction with the world and even exclude us from it. We can all name obvious physical mismatches—e.g., absence of the curb cuts that enable wheelchair users to cross streets; TV shows that lack closed captioning—but we tend to overlook thousands of other, less tangible mismatches, such as public announcements delivered only in a single language, or cupboards and counters built to a standard based on “average” height. Yet according to Holmes, rather than allowing mismatches to overwhelm us, we in the design community can reframe them as opportunities.

“It isn’t about creating one perfect solution that works for every human at all times and in all circumstances,” she says. “It’s about who we include in the process of arriving at a solution, learning something we didn’t know, and letting that insight reshape how we design the solution.”

I’ll admit that before my ski-slope fall, I’d had no idea what inclusive design was. I’d heard the term, and I vaguely knew it had something to do with accessibility (the two are related but different; more on that later). It turns out that my myopia on the subject is common, even in the design field. “Small numbers of people have been working on wider recognition of inclusive design over the past few decades,” says Holmes, “but as far as its becoming a common practice or a part of a design education curriculum, we’re still in the beginning stages.”

Holmes is a whip-smart and empathetic mother of two with large, light-brown eyes, an easy laugh, and cropped platinum-blonde hair. She’s worked in design for nearly two decades—serving as principal director of inclusive design for Microsoft from 2014 to 2017 and taking up a new helm as director of user experience at Google this past July—but when she was growing up in Oakland, California, she didn’t know anyone, let alone minorities such as herself, in the design field.

Holmes enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, to study orthopedic biomechanics, planning to design prosthetic limbs. The first Bay Area tech boom imploded just as she graduated in 2000, so she pragmatically took a job at Tektronix, a stable, decades-old manufacturer of testing and measurement devices. After eight years with the firm, Holmes and her husband found out they were expecting their first child. She left Tektronix, thinking she would stay at home with the baby.

“I was at home maybe seven weeks,” she says with a laugh, “before I met Albert Shum” at an Industrial Design Society conference in San Francisco. Shum, now CVP of the design, experiences, and devices group at Microsoft, had just started at the company, and within two months of their meeting, he’d recruited Holmes to Microsoft’s Pioneer Studios, in downtown Seattle. An incubator for new business and design concepts, the studio was then led by J Allard, who was part of the company’s hugely successful push into video-game consoles.

Pioneer Studios was shuttered after three years, but Holmes had made an impression. After jumping to the main campus in Redmond, Washington, to work on Windows Phone, including the inaugural design and engineering of Cortana, Microsoft’s digital personal assistant, Holmes experienced what she calls a “crystallizing moment.”

“There were hundreds of engineers and designers working on Cortana,” she recalls, “but not a single one had ever had or been a personal assistant. I thought, ‘Why don’t we talk to people who do this for a living?’” It was a realization that launched a broad conversation about designing based on input from actual humans rather than an isolated group’s assumptions about human ability and behavior. “Suddenly we were asking ourselves, ‘What would be possible if our design process started to include the expertise of people who have been listening and talking to their computers for a very long time, like people who are blind or people who can’t use a keyboard?’”

Holmes went on to spearhead development of the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit, a free, downloadable 60-page guide that explains how firms can use human diversity as a resource in their design practices. In 2014, Satya Nadella became Microsoft’s first CEO ever to visit the design studio. “We had a conversation about inclusive design,” Holmes says, “and I was blown away by the quickness with which he understood that we were talking about an approach to innovation that could transform any of Microsoft’s products, and not just developing a checklist that could bolster accessibility.” Over the next six months, one of the largest, wealthiest, and most innovative companies on the planet started championing inclusive design as a crucial imperative across all its departments, an initiative that’s still in process today. The tide was turning, and Kat Holmes was on the crest of the wave.

Holmes left Microsoft in early 2017 to found—a digital magazine and community that advances inclusive design—aiming to use her experience and knowledge to introduce inclusive practices to other tech companies and, eventually, other industries. But only a week after leaving Microsoft, MIT Press asked her to write a book on inclusive design.

Mismatch is a powerful read that not only has the potential to change the way we approach design but also serves as a strong check to our ingrained assumptions about how and why people move, act, speak, and interact (or don’t). According to Holmes, you can’t talk about inclusion without first talking about exclusion. In the design world, exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases (examples include the assumption that everyone has the use of two arms, or is strong enough to lift a smartphone, or can perceive a wide range of colors). Usually such assumptions aren’t intentionally harmful; they’re made because of the all-too-human tendency to use our own experience of the world as our baseline. Often designers don’t even think about those who fall outside the range of the “average” person—that mythical consumer whom companies use as a benchmark in product design. Of course, there is no average person, and as a result companies end up crafting products that wide swathes of people can’t use.

Thirty-two-year-old John Porter knows this sort of exclusion on a personal level. His spinal muscular atrophy leaves him unable to walk or lift objects, so he uses a wheelchair to get around and an assistive technology called Dragon (a voice-command software program) to interact with his computer. Holmes met Porter in 2016, and his experience looms large in Mismatch. Like Holmes, he advocates for inclusive design, and he’s adamant that listening to diverse human voices is key to advancing ideas. This August, he joined Microsoft’s Inclusive Design team as a UX designer (meanwhile, he’s also completing his PhD dissertation on video game accessibility and teaching at the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering program).

“What we have achieved over the past 100 years of design is now bumping up against a wall,” Porter says. “We’ve plateaued in innovation and fallen into a sort of apathy where innovation is driven by technological progress rather than by a creative design process. The only way to overcome that is to bring in new ideas and perspectives.”

Porter notes that one of people’s biggest misconceptions about inclusive design is that it is synonymous with accessibility. It’s not. As noted above, inclusive design is a methodology in which you design a place or product that a diverse group of people can interact with or use. Accessibility, in contrast, is an attribute that makes an experience open to more people.

Think about a playground; an accessible one might include ramps so that kids who use wheelchairs can reach all the levels of a play structure, and swing seats with back and arm supports for those who need it. An inclusively designed playground, on the other hand, has a distinct goal: to create a shared sense of belonging and an experience in which everyone can take part, in a variety of ways. The process of designing such a playground includes asking for ideas from children of all ages and abilities as well as experts in children’s health and development. The completed playground might offer a mix of physical, sensory, and social activities, as well as multiple challenge levels in each type of physical activity. It also might provide comparable types of equipment in the same area, allowing users of all ages and abilities to play in their own unique ways.

Accessibility features actually can cause issues if people see them as sufficient in themselves and they aren’t part of a holistic inclusive design plan. An elevator might be seen as the sole answer to the needs of those who can’t use stairs; while it certainly helps those with wheelchairs, strollers, or bags of groceries, what about a user who doesn’t have use of his or her arms? An inclusive design process would consider this issue from the beginning, consulting with individuals who can personally speak about such experiences and provide input on potential adaptations. When we design for and not with people, or when we view inclusive design as the “right thing to do” rather than as a necessity, we create an unequal power dynamic.

“When people come from a place of sympathy and say, ‘We need to help these poor excluded communities,’ they automatically assume their knowledge is superior to people’s actual lived experiences,” says Holmes. “That benefactor mentality doesn’t serve the people it purports to serve.”

Architectural designer Tiffany Brown understands the effects of this mentality firsthand. Born and raised in Detroit, Brown grew up in the Herman Gardens housing projects, in what she describes as one of the “rougher inner-city neighborhoods.” Just a few miles east was Brewster-Douglass, the first federally funded housing project in the United States. Built in the 1930s for working-class African Americans, the Brewster Homes (as they were originally called) were family-oriented townhouse residences. In 1951, the Frederick Douglass towers were added to the development. Cramped and starkly designed in Brutalist style, the towers fell into disrepair and become a hotbed of crime over the next three decades as the US Congress steadily reduced funding for public-housing upkeep. Raised in comparable conditions, Brown attended public schools that were similarly run-down and cheaply designed and built.

“It wasn’t until high school that I began to take interest in the built environment and pay attention to the types of spaces around me and how they affected my learning experiences,” she recalls. Like Porter, Brown is featured in Holmes’s book, but her story focuses on the importance of social inclusion, especially in the field of architecture. Despite extreme social and financial barriers, Brown worked her way through college and is now project manager at Detroit’s SmithGroup. In 2017, she founded 400 Forward, an organization focused not only on introducing young girls (especially girls of color) to architecture but also encouraging them to pursue it as a career.

“Last year, the 400th African American woman was licensed to be an architect in the United States,” Brown says on the phone from Detroit. “We’re talking 400th of all time. 400 Forward is a way for me to seek out the next 400 women to become architects. I want these girls to understand that they have the power to change their cities and impact future generations.”

Educating the next 400 is only the first step, however. A huge amount of responsibility rests with architecture firms themselves, historically dominated by affluent white males, to seek out, interview, and employ a diverse workforce. Purposeful moves such as these will give firms a leg up, opening design conversations to unheard voices and a broader range of problem-solving abilities, which in turn gives firms a real chance to make lasting changes to neighborhoods, cities, and the larger social fabric of our country.

“A shift toward an inclusive workforce in the future of design can be a catalyst to end the cycle of socially unjust cities,” Brown says. “Inclusive design leads to good social design, which in turn is a strong predictor of lower crime rates, better-performing schools, and gains in other measures of quality of life.” Inclusive design is not a new idea. People have practiced it for centuries. Some of the objects we use every day, from keyboards to reading glasses to curb cuts, are the results of people creating adaptations to products that allow the product to better serve their individual needs. What’s exciting today is seeing inclusive design formalized and adopted by designers as an integral part of their practices. Microsoft is a leader in championing inclusive design, but one company—no matter how big and influential—is not enough. We need architects, product designers, city planners, developers, and, most importantly, educators to embrace inclusivity as a core part of their businesses and curricula. Teaching the next generation about inclusive design will create a vanguard of thoughtful, open-minded individuals who can drive a paradigm shift in design and architecture that will benefit society as a whole.

In Mismatch, Holmes writes about the Persona Spectrum, an inclusive design method that solves issues for one specific person or need and then extends that solution to many others. I experienced it first-hand when I was on crutches and used elevators instead of stairs. I experienced it again after I was off crutches when I followed a closed-caption TV program in a noisy airport. The point is that we will all benefit from inclusive design at some period in our lives. As we age, changes in our abilities—which might include loss of hearing, diminished eyesight, and limited mobility—are inevitable. We all will need adaptive measures to continue living comfortable, independent lives. As Holmes points out, when we use inclusive design to create new products and technologies, “we’re designing not only for others but also for our future selves.”

During her tenure as Principal Director of Inclusive Design, Kat Holmes helped Microsoft develop the inclusive design methodology that’s now become a core corporate tenet. After leaving the tech behemoth in the spring of 2017, Holmes started drafting Mismatch, the book that’s quickly becoming the primer on inclusive design. “Writing the book forced me to contend with the fact that inclusion happens in many different ways,” she says. “So many people were talking about inclusion through the lens of gender and race, and I had spent most of my time focused on disability.”

A UX designer at Microsoft, Porter focuses on seeking ways to better account for the diversity of human ability in the company’s designs. While pursuing a degree in materials science and engineering at the University of Washington, Porter discovered UW’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering, which explores the roles that tech plays in human activity and works with interdisciplinary researchers to build the technologies of the future. He was immediately hooked. Now he’s finishing up his PhD while teaching at HCDE, centering his work on video game accessibility. “I’ve been playing video games since I was three,” Porter says. “Around the time that the N64 came out, I was no longer able to use the controller. My gaming switched over to the computer, which is more inclusive because it allows me to use a wider and more flexible variety of input methods.”

Architectural designer Tiffany Brown was born and raised in Detroit and currently works with SmithGroup, an international design and architecture firm with an office in her hometown. Brown wasn’t exposed to design or architecture as a child, but she loved to draw and dreamed of being an animator at Disney. When Brown was 17, she heard a speaker from Lawrence Technological University deliver a talk on architecture, a pivotal moment that sent her on a trajectory toward gaining her own degree in the field. In 2017, Brown won a Knight Arts Challenge grant for her project, 400 Forward, which strives to welcome more black girls and women into the fields of architecture and urban planning. “I want to be the face I was looking for when I was growing up,” Brown says.


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