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Inclusive Design: High Risk, High Rewards

Rob Lewis

Designers decide who can use products, attend events, and even participate in communities. A single detail has the power to change everything: whether they choose to select an event venue with a front door ramp, or a color palette that may determine if a person with color blindness sees their work correctly, let alone who can interact with or experience it. These decisions are sometimes thoughtful, like when Betsy Farber’s husband, Sam, designed kitchen tools she could easily use. Sam saw Betsy struggling to peel apples with a standard peeler and realized how poorly most kitchen tools worked for anyone with arthritis. That realization led to OXO, a worldwide brand selling more than 850 products.

Other kitchen tool companies could have produced a more accessible vegetable peeler — but they didn’t. That’s because design decisions about inclusivity are often subconscious. And even great designers are challenged to see from perspectives they haven’t experienced. If a tool, or a product, or an event works for the designer, they assume it’ll work for everyone. I’ve struggled with inclusivity in my own work when I’ve only focused on designing for myself; I’ve had to blow up type size for legibility, add extra signage and context for audiences outside my industry, and find kosher catering for an event. With every project, I learn more about how to find new opportunities to make my work more inclusive, even if it’s because I’ve accidentally excluded someone first. With each experience, inclusivity provides me with a new frontier to explore, a new audience to design for.

Declaring the High Stakes of Inclusivity

Vegetable peelers may seem like a low-stakes example of inclusivity — you can go your whole life without ever picking up one. But the stakes of inclusivity are never actually that low. The ability to cook for yourself (and use the tools necessary to that process) can be the difference between living independently and needing additional help. Whether we’re talking about arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or vertigo, anyone could need more inclusive tools at some point.

Just as designers decide who can use a bathroom through fixtures and signage, they also decide who can join communities, and go to events. This is where the stakes are incredibly high: landing a job is dependent on who you know, and not participating fully in a conference or community severely limits your access to work, capital, and other essential resources. Beyond that, though, there’s a question of humanity. Ignoring diverse audiences when designing a project is effectively treating them as less important than the rest of the population.

Codes of conduct are becoming key tools when designing communities and their interactions. Open Source Bridge — an open source conference based in Portland — pioneered the use of codes of conduct. Other community conferences followed suit. These guidelines typically list behavior expectations, such as prohibiting harassment, hate speech, or sexually-explicit material. Conference organizers use these documents to limit high stakes situations, ranging from a nasty comment to assault. Codes of conduct are oddly contentious, with some opponents arguing they’ll prevent people from being able to speak freely (though codes of conduct only limit language meant to harm or harass another person). Despite such objections, many conferences, from tech, to design, to comics have started creating and implementing their own codes of conduct. These guidelines are one of the most effective ways to reduce risk.

Open Source Bridge adopted this technique early on. As organizer Christie Koehler notes, many community problems start out as minor:

“Aside from natural disasters and other externalities, most high-stakes situations begin as low-stakes ones that are not addressed until they escalate to the point they can’t be ignored. Having a well-thought out code of conduct ... in place can help you avoid high-stakes situations in the first place by giving you a framework to address and resolve issues before they escalate.”

Ultimately, codes of conduct and other inclusivity techniques set expectations. Just like you can’t expect that the rules for Monopoly will also apply to Settlers of Catan, you can’t assume that every community needs the same rules across the board.

Explicitly setting your expectations for your community gives you a chance to discuss those interactions, as Audrey Eschright, one of the founders of Open Source Bridge, notes. Eschright, who is also the founder of Safety First PDX, which helps Portland organizations implement codes of conduct and incident response plans, continues, “It broadcasts to people who have been excluded or marginalized due to gender, race, disability, etc. that you care about their involvement. It also gives you a framework for other conversations about accessibility, like whether to offer a live-captioning service or prohibit flash photography: once you’ve agreed to make your space more welcoming, you can look at how to deepen that practice.”

Koehler adds, “Designing inclusive spaces isn't just about belonging, though, as important as I believe that to be. Diverse communities are more resilient. They come up with better ideas, better solutions.” Just as she says, our communities need different perspectives to be able to flourish.

Inclusion Helps Everyone, No Matter Your Privilege

Despite pushback from some community organizers and designers, inclusive design creates universal benefits. Consider event photography, especially at conferences. As a photographer, you may have a list of shots to get (like speakers on stage), but the conference organizers always want candid shots of attendees. Not all attendees want to be photographed, though. They may have privacy concerns or might not want their photo to appear in marketing materials for events they don’t support. A good photographer will have to figure out who is willing to be photographed and who isn’t.

Every event photographer gets asked to delete photos or edit an image to remove a particular person. But isn’t it faster and easier if the photographer can look at a crowd and automatically tell who’s comfortable with photography and who (for whatever reason) isn’t? That’s the design thinking behind color-coded lanyards at conferences. Open Source Bridge was one of the first events to explore a visual approach: attendees wear red, yellow, and blue lanyards to signal their preferences. Photographers avoid taking pictures of anyone wearing a red lanyard, ask before photographing anyone with a yellow lanyard, and take pictures of folks with blue lanyards without needing specific permission.

These changes simplify event photography. They also mitigate risks for community members who couldn’t otherwise participate fully, without requiring painful conversations. No one should have to prove a need for privacy to a photographer. The more streamlined the process a designer can create, the more likely the widest group of audience members will use the process.

Fair warning: the conversations will be awkward. In more than ten years of writing, designing, and organizing communities, I’ve never found a way to ask someone if they really have everything they need both politely and elegantly. Sometimes you have to write a two paragraph preface about why you want particular information from your community before you can come out and ask them about something personal, like bathroom requirements.

The responses you get will likely improve inclusivity for your entire audience. Koehler cites the marked traffic lanes throughout Open Source Bridge’s venue as an example. Conference organizers asked for feedback and heard not only that the hallways were crowded, but that accessibility lanes would be a great fix. In response, they laid down blue tape to show where people can stand and talk, out of the way of traffic. Everyone benefited; not only could attendees using wheelchairs and other mobility aids make their way through crowds easily, but everyone moved faster through the halls.

Building Workflows for Thoughtful Design

Just like there’s no one true path to learning to design, there’s no one true path to thoughtful design. But there are design strategies you can use to consciously consider the inclusivity implications of your work. Expect to do research, conduct participant interviews, and explore new opportunities and existing resources, rather than relying solely on your experience.

Accessibility checklists, such as the requirements set out for public spaces by the Americans with Disabilities Act, can serve as inspiration. There’s no universal checklist; the ADA doesn’t address all accessibility needs. But since we need to start somewhere, these sorts of broad guidelines act as a point to inspire further research, experimentation, and design. You may come across obvious fixes as well as new projects to address the issues you identify along the way.

“Many of the first tech conferences I attended earlier in my career were unpleasant experiences. They were too loud, busy, and the overwhelming gender imbalance made me feel out of place and unsafe,” describes Koehler. She joined the Open Source Bridge organizing team in part to find a better alternative. “I wasted a lot of energy trying to adapt myself to these situations and failed. Luckily, I eventually found people who were also looking for better alternatives, and together we experimented and built different kinds of conference spaces.”

Consider the problems you already see and whether they have long-term solutions. Research the issues around that problem, as well as other fixes or solutions, and then consider what your particular audience needs. Eschright’s process is worth imitating. “I could see that some of the communities I participate in were having more success than others when it comes to creating a friendly and diverse space, even though they all shared similar intentions. Over time, it became clear to me that the more successful events had a body of practice (which I feel very fortunate to have helped develop) that could be reused elsewhere...” The research process can also help prioritize the many options you might have for more thoughtful design. Eschright chose to work on codes of conduct because of the many people she saw abandoning communities due to unchecked abuse.

You may be surprised by what your research turns up. You’ll find opportunities for inclusive venues, event formats, attendee expectations, social activities, website design, and communication tools. Think broadly, especially as you consider your audience. “It’s a lot more than following an ADA checklist. You’ll probably need to do a lot of research, and get to know people who don’tparticipate in what you’re doing. Never assume that if someone really wanted to be included they would have told you what you’re doing wrong,” Eschright says.

Listen to diverse voices, especially if your team isn’t diverse. Take time to participate in the conversations already taking place around inclusive design, and bring them into the organizations you work with. There are designers, event organizers, and many other creatives already working on these problems. Eschright points out that, “Sometimes people who start from the defaults (white, male, straight, able-bodied, cis, employed, housed, etc.) can feel like it’s a lot of work to be more inclusive. We have to remember that everyone else is already doing the work of being in an environment that’s not fully hospitable to them. The least we can do is to offer to share the burden.”

Thoughtful Design is a First Step

We’re facing a world of opportunity when looking for new ways to design for inclusivity. Thoughtful design makes community participation easier, even for audiences who are not individually committed to inclusivity. We must know our audiences to provide solutions that improve the situation, rather than just slap a bandaid over what could easily turn into an emergency. A new grip on a vegetable peeler might seem like a lot of effort for an inexpensive product, just like adopting a photography policy at a conference can seem like a lot of work to accommodate a few attendees. But when that vegetable peeler decreases the chance that a user will slip and injure themselves, or that photography policy is the only thing ensuring the safety of someone dealing with a stalker, the value of better solutions is clear.

We must also look for opportunities for ongoing improvement. Inclusivity requires ongoing iteration. Balancing needs across more than one audience member means making choices, especially if you’re working with limited funds. However, the better you know your audience, the better equipped you are to find solutions that can help multiple audience members, or even do double duty. Live transcriptioning, for instance, helps both attendees with difficulty hearing a speaker and video production staff who need to add captions after the event.

Inclusive design is still a young field. As we make new community members welcome with our work, we’ll find new work we need to do. As your designs meet the real world, you’ll see places you’ll need to adjust and improve. Eschright has seen her work evolve over the past nine years. She started with a focus on harassment and now works with a broader view of emergency management, based on the questions and concerns she heard from her community. As she points out, “...Community members can become more aware and start to notice things they wouldn’t have before; this can be stressful, but it’s actually a good sign.”

Make time for feedback and debriefing. Your retrospective may not just be a matter of interviewing audience members. You may hear spontaneous responses — usually of a sort that will reinforce the importance of your work. “I've had people cry with joy upon realizing we have a conference t-shirt that actually fits them, saying, ‘this is the first time I've ever been able to get a shirt and feel a part of things,’” says Koehler. But prepare for negative feedback, as well. Actively asking for responses means that you’re more likely to hear about problems. Some of these problems may be minor, while others may lead you to question what could have possibly convinced an attendee to not mention such a problem.

During conferences where I’ve acted as code of conduct officer, I’ve been struck by how necessary finding my own work has been. If I sit somewhere and expect attendees to come to me, I don’t hear about problems. If I participate in the event and check that attendees feel comfortable, I hear about problems ranging from overt harassment to clogged sinks before anyone else — sometimes even before a situation escalates into a problem.

Ultimately, a refusal to design for inclusivity is an overt declaration of allegiance to privilege and adherence to the status quo. It’s an admission that you’re only interested in designing for yourself and people like you. Worse, it’s a commitment to bad design — to doing the same work over and over again without finding ways to work with new audiences or new media or new techniques.

The stakes are high and the rewards are equally so: products, events, and communities designed with inclusivity in mind may very well allow us to design that better world we each hope for.