In this November 2020 #mtpcon Digital session, Julian Thompson the Founder of Rooted by Design, explores a critical question – is inclusive design enough?
Julian studied law, focusing on human rights and public policy, before training in design and has spent the last eight-plus years exploring how to put an inclusive design lens over his design practice. At Rooted by Design, an innovation design lab focused on solving problems disproportionately impacting black communities in the UK, he leads a team of 10 designers and researchers. Together they think about how we can solve the problems our communities face, and what design services (often digital) and products should be delivered in response to that.
In his session, Julian explores explains what inclusive design is and whether it’s enough to create equality, especially for marginalised communities.
Watch the 45-minute session in full, or read on for the highlights.
Why Inclusive Design Is Important
Julian begins by explaining that designers and problem solvers are in powerful positions to create futures where everyone can belong and thrive. However, our failure to design inclusively too often leaves behind those most in need, inadvertently embedding societal inequalities or even increasing them.
“If you look at the last six months to a year, we’ve seen massive and pivotal moments where discussions about equality, race, and marginalised communities and inclusion, have really just come to the forefront of discussions which have been happening for years and years and years,” he says. As a result, this is an extremely important time for designers, product owners, product managers, and those whose job it is to solve problems.
“To me, this is about designing inclusive futures, creating a future where all voices are heard, people have access to the services and products they need, people belong, we can contribute, and are equally valued and equally served.”
As a product manager or designer, in particular, he explains, you are a facilitator in the creative development process of a product. Your everyday job involves solving problems and producing the most effective products and services for a diverse community of users and their needs.
What Causes Exclusion in Design?
To be more inclusive we first have to understand why exclusion happens. Julian highlights a few of the main causes:
Our biases are shaped by experiences and familiarity with our own backgrounds. They shape our decisions and what we value and are also in any function that allows us to make decisions. “What I find really interesting about the design intent, and those in the world of design and product development,” he says, “is we’re often making decisions. And we’re often having to make decisions really quickly, and actually use our biases to determine what we decide to put our assets or our direction of travel towards, and what we don’t.”
Another cause of exclusion is relationship deficit. This, says Julian, is where we are so far removed from the life experiences of those being excluded, and who might not be able to access the service we’re designing for.
“That’s something that we’ve got to recognise,” says Julian, “that actually we do have those deficits.” We need to always be mindful of who we are missing in conversations, and who’s not using our product.
When we fail to do this and we are not inclusive, Julian explains that the result is:
- Inequality: When individuals are not able to access or make use of X while others are, they use the product or service less.
- Lack of trust: When people begin to think they’re forgotten and excluded, trust breaks down and scepticism creeps in.
- Lack of innovation: By failing to understand the different things people are experiencing and by putting in place new barriers, we fail to create better products.
Seeing the Value in Inclusive Design
It should go without saying that inclusive design is something we should all be working towards and, to further highlight the value of inclusive design, Julian explains how he breaks this value down into three different elements:
1. Designer Introspection
By surfacing our biases early, by reflecting on what we assumed about who the problem impacts, and by recognising the role of designers and when we get in the way, we are better placed to cover the blind spots.
2. Designer Mindset
Secondly, having some actual principles that centre around inclusion is important. Take, for example, humility. “No one person has all the answers,” says Julian, and he explains that we must ensure we enable, rather than dominate. Too often we have a “saviour mentality” whereby we feel we have the solution. “One of the beliefs I have about service design is that service design is to be in service of.” And so, he says, the key is in knowing how to enable and support our users in the particular situation that they’re in.
3. Design Method
To drive change, we must also understand the context in which we’re operating as this helps to shape an inclusive experience. “Everyone should always be leaning into the context of what it is that they’re creating, and what it is that we’re trying to build.” This, he says involves relationship mapping – mapping out the people and organisations that typically you wouldn’t engage with. “One of the first principles of design is to do no harm and actually, in not being intentional about the experience that our users and our communities and people have when we are creating something with them, that leaves many gaps for people to feel marginalised and excluded.”
What’s Beyond Inclusive Design
Finally, Julian discusses whether this practice is enough to create a future for those who are marginalised and to ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes in the future. “The inclusive bias falls short in historical data and context, where we find it hard to realise that people face different levels of barriers,” he says. “The starting point for communities isn’t the same. These problems don’t impact communities in the same way. We can’t assume that being inclusive means facilitating everyone to be able to have equal standing in society, equal standards, equal benefits and value from our products and our services. Problems around exclusion are complex, historical and subject to limited budget.“
To ensure we don’t repeat mistakes of the past, there has to be a shift in interpreting problems from equality more towards equity, explains Julian. This will ensure that we can understand that there have been historical barriers for which some groups and people and communities need to derive more value from this product than others.
Ultimately, says Julian, inclusive design boils down to always being mindful of the level of privilege that we have, to remaining humble in our ability to recognise that we are here to serve, and to know that inclusive design is good.
More on Inclusivity
- Inclusive Design: Dreams and Disasters by Nancy Douyon
- Digital Accessibility – a Guide for Product Managers
- Thinking Outside the Product Box by Jimena Almendares
Discover more content on Diversity and Inclusion.