Designing inclusive interactions

By Mario Van der Meulen

The key difference between inclusivity and accessibility, in relation to interaction design, is often overlooked. However, by collaborating with - and for - people with disabilities, to understand how things work for them in their context, we can address this issue.

Typically, experience designers regard: form, function, quality, and innovation as setting the gold standard for good design. That said, good design only earns its label if every consideration has been made with regards to it being accessible and inclusive.

In my view, good design needs to be synonymous with inclusivity. While in most cases inclusive design will be accessible, not all accessible design is, in fact, inclusive.

What is accessible design

Accessible design, in its digital context, is about an appropriate interaction between a user with a disability and an interface. The effort is split between what is delivered on the front-end and the back-end: the legibility in font size, shapes, hues and colour contrast on the front-facing elements and the correct ARIA compliance code in the back-end - this is so assistive technology, like screen readers, can offer a practical and functional experience. 

Accessibility is important, from the perspective of human-centred design, to an aspirational aim for a business to strive towards, and even from a legal perspective - as compliance with accessibility standards is made imperative. In short, adhering to compliance measures in full could ensure the accessibility of digital interactions. 

Then what's the issue

We should understand that disability is context dependent. Disability is not merely a health problem. It is a complex reality, where the tensions between the people with physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges and the society in which they live are played out. 

Accessible design will fix the journey someone makes on a screen but people do not live on screens - they live in the real world. Often various support networks are in place, ranging from healthcare specialists to family members who take on nursing roles. Each of these are particular relationships that have been shaped by the specificity of the disability. And what are relationships other than a string of micro-interactions?

Then consider that disability is both permanent and temporary as different environments and phases change our abilities. For each of us, being or becoming excluded from doing something effortlessly is temporary, gradual, or situational. For example, the glare of the sun, ordering dinner in a foreign country, or driving while distracted. Or, simply growing older and losing perfect eyesight or degrees of dexterity and mobility.

What does inclusive design do differently

When we design beyond accessibility and begin to think differently about disability, we make conscious an effort to introduce empathy-driven solutions. With the aim that any interface or software can be comfortably used by diverse groups of people. In other words - we invite our users into the experience we are designing for them.

Every design decision has the potential to include or exclude users. However, designing interfaces that provide inclusive interactions could help to avoid this. User diversity means understanding the variations and outliers in capabilities, needs and aspirations. Here, UX is crucial: accessible interaction design focuses on the functionality required to accomplish a task, whereas inclusive interaction design is broader and more encompassing.

It takes into account the characteristics and specificity of people across age, gender, physical and cognitive capabilities, as well as their immediate network, culture, and environments. If we begin to implement and encourage the use of inclusive interaction design, we will create solutions and practices that are usable and meaningful for a greater number of people.

Why inclusive design is so important

Exploring the approaches used to improve a situation for a small subset of people will cascade towards an improved experience for a much wider range of people. 

If all we do is adhere to accessibility compliance we may fail to enrich the overall experience because we misinterpret the context and real worldliness of our user. If all we do is use ‘rule-of-thumb’ interface and interaction design, we run the risk of excluding whole groups of people from the emotional experience we aimed to design. 

Inclusive design is rooted in creating interactions for extraordinary  people so they can have a comfortable, easy, and productive experience with these interactions, in their context of use.

There is no such thing as ‘the average user’. By understanding the real people who will use the product, and the actual circumstances in which they do, we can design interactions of ease, transparency, and simplicity, and offer direction so that an otherwise broken journey is unfolding and clarifying itself to its user.

So what?

In our field, it is of critical importance to design with inclusivity at the forefront of our approach, because technology is already exclusive by default. Disabilities are often served with assistive technologies, yet these too are exclusive by design.

Designers should recognise that when accessibility issues are an add-on, it is actually too late. Designers need to consider the impacts of technology and business decisions on people from the get-go, so that we design in fair and ethical ways, for both the brand and the end human user. It’s a tall order. The impact of inclusive design is more than just making products that people use - it’s creating products that people love to use. 

As designers, having inclusivity anchor our decisions helps to address and direct our ever-evolving practice. It is practicing true design thinking: by re-framing the opportunity we come to understand who is being excluded and then we can build insights, that can invite more people into our experience. As a result, we can better understand people’s problems and craft design which helps them to make informed decisions for themselves, and  -  by extension  - live better lives. 

Mario Van der Meulen

I’m a graphic designosaurus; I graduated before computers ruled the world. A maker before that was a thing; my very first job consisted of spray-glue & letra-setting lay outs for a mail order catalogue brand. Yes, that once did happen.

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