Want to build a product that lasts? Start with Inclusive Design

Inclusive Design is a method that has gained more and more attention in business and tech communities as a way to help ensure digital products can be used by the widest possible audience. In the past, these methods were reserved for academics or specialists in the world of design. However, with companies like Google and Microsoft adopting its methodologies, the process has become more mainstream.

So what is Inclusive Design?

Microsoft's team defines Inclusive Design as a “design process that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.” There’s a lot going on there and can seem difficult to wrap your head around. You may have also heard terms like ‘Universal Design’ or ‘Design for all’ or ‘Accessibility’ which can add to the confusion. So let’s clarify.

First, ‘Universal Design’ and ‘Design for all’ are methods with roots in industrial design and architecture. They’re primarily involved with the design of fixed objects with the goal that they can be used by everyone without the need for adaptation. For example, an entrance ramp is most commonly used by people in wheelchairs but they can also be used by bikes, strollers, delivery people pushing a heavy dolly or those with walking aids. They are easily used by everyone. 

Inclusive Design on the other hand was born from digital products in the 70’s and 80’s and recognizes the need for flexibility, especially in the ever-changing world of technology. It looks at how a solution can work for one user and then be extended to others allowing for as many people as possible to participate or use the product. As part of this approach, important considerations like accessibility standards (eg. WCAG 2.0) provide measurable guidelines to help ensure products are accessible to the widest possible audience.

Looking at it all together, Universal Design is the ultimate goal and Inclusive Design is the journey to get there using Accessibility Standards to help keep us on track. Inclusive Designs may not always be Universal Designs but the method enables us to recognize exclusion and biases in our work, helping us to continue to enable participation from a larger and larger audience.

Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging. - Susan Goltsman

Why is it important?

Inclusive design and accessibility are often seen as cost centres and deprioritized. However, there is real risk for a business in doing so. According to, the global market of people with disabilities and constraints is over 1 billion people with a spending power of more than $6 trillion. These numbers help put into perspective the opportunity and obligation we have to better address the range of abilities of current and potential users. Investing time in inclusive design and accessibility practices early in our processes helps anticipate frustrations for users and sets our teams up to deliver more robust solutions.

Additional risk from short term decision making also includes legal costs and then the cost of retrofitting solutions to meet the requirements in the later stages of development. Canada, the United States, and the European Union all have enforceable legislation in place to help ensure there are measurable standards. Other costs may include increased customer support, increased returns and customer frustration that can eventually damage the brand image.

Limiting bias in design

As an industry, it's easy to make assumptions and fall victim to personal bias. Designers often focus on the myth of ‘normal’ or average abilities as a way to accommodate the largest number of people. In reality, this can lead to creating a product for everyone and no one at the same time. What we should be considering is a range and diversity of abilities in our solutions. Inclusive design practices help us reflect how people actually are. All of us are growing, changing and adapting to the world around us. When our design process reflects this diversity, it naturally and responsibly lends itself to growing a customer base and reaching new markets. 

By making this shift in thinking and investing in inclusion early, it can also provide opportunities for innovation and more intuitive experiences in general. Innovations like the typewriter, closed captions, email, and voice controls were initially meant to include those with a disability, and all have found a much broader function. The diversity of perspectives encouraged by inclusive design methods augments innovation by reframing problems and bringing to light solutions overlooked by our own personal biases. 

Where do you start?

Understanding how to adopt inclusive design into our work can seem challenging at first. As Kat Holmes says in her book ‘Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design’, “designing for inclusion starts with exclusion”. The definition of inclusion may be difficult to articulate but the definition and feelings that come with exclusion are easily recognized. It’s something we’ve all experienced. We all know what it feels like to be left out of something like a game or a party. Exclusion can happen in product design and development at each stage of our process when we solve problems using our own biases. Recognizing this creates opportunities for new ideas. As Kat Holmes explains, “we often attach fixed meaning to objects. By stretching our assumptions about an object's purpose, we can explore how a solution can flex to be whatever a person needs it to be”. An example of this is subtitles or closed captioning in films and TV. Originally, they were designed for those who are hard of hearing or for translating dialog. Yet, this technology has benefits for those wanting to learn a new language or someone following along in a noisy environment. 

We can also learn from diversity. Research and user testing are a great place to start. Testing our products with participants from a wider audience helps us gain better insights into how users of different abilities will use your product. Building diverse teams with a range of backgrounds and perspectives to work on your product can also help us learn about the real world of human diversity. 

One of the most important and core principles of Inclusive design is “Solve for one, extend to many”. When we identify and focus on the needs of those with permanent disabilities, our solutions can be extended to benefit a spectrum of people. The team at Microsoft uses a method called the ‘Persona Spectrum’. This helps us understand the abilities and motivations of our users in a range of contexts. First starting with those who have permanent disabilities then followed by temporary and situational disabilities. Solutions for someone using a mobile app with one arm may also apply for someone with a broken arm or an individual carrying their groceries. By using this technique, we very quickly understand how the benefits of an inclusive solution can multiply very quickly to reach broader audiences and applications.

Further Exploration

The impact of short term thinking and bad design decisions can very easily affect the goal of delivering a commercially successful product and have real implications for those who need to use that product. Taking steps towards inclusive design practices helps us acknowledge our own biases and opens up our approaches to new potential opportunities.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what Inclusive Design is about and encourage you to learn more through the resources below.

Resources and further reading