Inclusive design 101

Let’s face it, the word “inclusion” can be quite fluffy and misunderstood by many but everyone knows what the word “exclusion” means – left out or left behind. One of the best ways to understand inclusion therefore is to pay attention to who’s being left out or left behind from using the product or service you’re building. Read on for a simple explanation of what Inclusive Design is and how it helps us to cater for the needs of over-looked and under-served minority groups whether this be disability, gender, ethnicity, age or sexuality.


  • Universal design is a term coined from building architecture, involving building a product or environment that can be accessed and used by the widest range of people possible without the need for any special adaptions. Think building ramps or lifts. This is about “One size fits all”.
  • Accessible design was born out of disability rights and focuses on the extra attributes that when incorporated make a digital or physical experience open to everyone, including disabled people. It’s a profession and practice that increases the likelihood that people with disabilities can participate too. Think “One checklist for most”.
  • Inclusive design was born out of person centred design. It’s a methodology that enables and draws on a full range of human diversity. In particular, the inclusion of and learning from people with a wide range of perspectives. It’s not just about the product made but rather the contributions and involvement of excluded groups.  Think “One size fits one”.

Inclusive design in action

Let’s imagine that we are building a new product – a building lift. We’re deciding where to place the lift button. Usually businesses and product designers do a thought experiment and think about what their typical customers need. We can make some educated guesses that people are so short, so tall, etc. and place the lift button at a height that in theory works for all. So thinking about the diversity of people in the population whether this be disability, age, culture, etc. we’ve built a product that works for most but not everyone. The “lasso of inclusion” here shows that our product as things stand work for most people but some are excluded. We can and should do better.

The population of people are spread out with most clumped together in the centre representing the average. Our inclusion superhero has thrown a lasso of inclusion over these people but there are a few other people excluded around the edges representing minority groups.

So we’ve considered customer needs but fallen into the trap of thinking about average customers. We can improve on this by now consulting with real-world people who have previously been excluded around the edges, asking them what more we’d need to do to tweak our product so that it could work for them too as well as everyone else. For instance, in our example, a super tall person needs a second lift button placed higher, a wheelchair user may need some hi-tech proximity sensor that automatically presses button for them, a blind person may need audio alerts to find button in the first place, etc. This is the essence of Inclusive Design – a One Size fits one approach of paying attention to excluded groups which often leads to making your product better for everyone. The lasso of inclusion here widens as we adjust our product or service to work for more and more people. We end up with more customers, and more customer satisfaction – hurray!

Our inclusion superhero has  thrown the lasso of inclusion over not just the average customers bunched together in the centre but starting to extend the lasso to include a handful of the previously excluded people around the edges.

Third and finally, if our staff building products and services in our organisations are diverse (-whether this be backgrounds, age, disability, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.), they won’t make assumptions or be bogged down by biases, meaning that they’re better at throwing the lasso of inclusion over more potential customers to start with. This leads to better products, bigger profits and making a real difference to the communities we serve. We need all of our workforce to be inclusion super-hero’s and to be consciously conscious of expanding their lasso of inclusion to include everyone through their actions and decisions.

The impact of inclusive design

So what’s changed by purposefully considering accessibility and Inclusion?

  • Previously excluded minority groups can also enjoy and use our products. Think disabled, older and vulnerable customers or staff.
  • It changes us. When you pay attention to excluded groups you see it everywhere in society and design choices. From the bathroom tap sensor that doesn’t turn on for you and your skin colour (-a poor design and real-world example!), the toilet flush sensor that’s difficult to find for the blind person or the spinning corporate office doors that are difficult if you’re left-handed. Don’t worry if you’ve never thought of these because most people probably haven’t either!
  • So by practicing inclusive design, we change things for the better for historically excluded groups, we change ourselves and we change society’s attitudes – who see excluded groups and the values and contributions they make for the first time. Lots of changes here but this is Diversity & Inclusion in a nutshell.

We change from what we have seen and when we are seen.

Diverse workforces and inclusive workplaces are good for business –helping to develop engaged, productive colleagues who reflect the rich diversity of the customers we serve and communities we operate within. Now go be an inclusion superhero!

To find out more about inclusive design, I’d highly recommend reading Mismatch: how inclusion shapes design by Kat Holmes

By Paul Smyth

Accessibility leader and disability champion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s