Creating Inclusive Design

Last week, I facilitated a 30-minute discussion on inclusive vs. exclusive design. Our conversation was largely influenced by this talk by Kat Holmes, Director of UX Design at Google. Holmes discusses how we should move beyond thinking of designing for the majority of people, and instead focus on creating design that reaches everyone. By focusing on those with particular needs, such as people with disabilities, we can create design that is more adaptable and useful for everyone.

Our conversation began with a brainstorm about the different ways that people can be excluded from design. Exclusion can stem from physical ability, such as how video game controllers require the use of fingers and hands, but it can also stem from other factors, such as race, education level, socioeconomic level, and gender. We should consider who our design is meant for and whether it can be easily used by all members of our audience.

John Porter states that “our job isn’t to tell [people] 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.” This is a great argument for creating design that fosters user control and adaptability, but it can lead to unexpected consequences. For example, we discussed how Airbnb’s platform allowed users to discriminate against others; by putting unlimited power in the hands of hosts, guests of color found themselves singled out and excluded by some hosts. How, we discussed,  do you reconcile user empowerment against the potential for users to shape the product or service in ways that negatively impact others?


Our whiteboarding exercise, brainstorming ways that users can be excluded from design and identifying the conflict of user control vs. potential for discrimination.

After this discussion, I led an exercise in which we designed a farmer’s market to be as exclusionary as possible. This was a fun exercise that allowed us to get silly, but some of the ideas we thought of—limited parking, no bathrooms—are commonplace.

We also thought about ways that places deliberately exclude others based on education and class. Many high-end products are, by their nature, exclusionary. It is acceptable in capitalist society to design for those with money and exclude the poor from purchase or use. However, we should be aware, when designing for the public, of how these biases may negatively affect those who otherwise should be able to benefit from a service.

Our discussion was enriching and thought provoking. At times, I found the conversation wandering away from where I thought it would go, and I had to think on my feet to connect it back to where I wanted it to. I hope to lean more into getting “off track” in the future and allowing organic conversations to take place. And although we covered the three main questions I wanted to discuss (see the whiteboard, above), I had hoped to more firmly establish takeaways from our conversation for each of these questions. This is something that I plan to build into future presentations and facilitations.