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Whether planning buildings and green spaces or developing websites and software, today’s designers and engineers are increasingly embracing the principles of inclusive design.
This concept, which essentially means including the perspective of widely diverse users in product design, expands upon longstanding methodologies such as accessibility and universal design to accommodate a wider, more diverse spectrum of participants and provide them with a greater range of options, allowing more people to enjoy experiences previously unattainable or cumbersome to access.
Improving usability for various groups often results in products that work better for everyone. By designing products inclusively, companies can broaden their customer base and lower support costs while generating goodwill and increasing consumer satisfaction.
Inclusive design in the physical world: architecture and engineering
In indoor and outdoor physical spaces, inclusive design is multifaceted.
“We strive to achieve better outcomes in human performance, health and wellness, and social participation,” says Jordana Maisel, director of research at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which works with organizations to provide the knowledge and tools for creating buildings, sites, and programs to benefit a diverse community.
Using inclusive design means thinking beyond compliance requirements to incorporate changing technologies and user needs. For example, wheelchairs are more common these days, and their dimensions have changed since the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was written.
“The existing code excludes many people who have disabilities today,” Maisel says. “Power wheelchairs often have a different footprint — they’re higher and require more knee clearance. And people are now putting backpacks, oxygen tanks, or other gear on the back of the chair, which impacts the radius for maneuvering and turning.”
Fostering inclusiveness also means integrating people with disabilities whenever possible.
“Accessible entrances are often in the rear of a building. If you have to go around to the back while the rest of your party goes the other way, that’s not social integration,” Maisel says.
In other cases, inclusiveness may require adjusting policies, rather than redrawing blueprints. For example, some country fairs set aside hours with no loud noises or flashing lights, so that people on the autism spectrum can comfortably attend.
Inclusive design isn’t just about accessibility. It can also mean adding lactation rooms, prayer rooms, or gender-neutral bathrooms to an office. Or providing flexible lighting and temperature controls and expanding green space outside.
“Research shows providing more opportunities to go outside improves mental health,” Maisel says.
Inclusive design in the digital world: web applications and software
As people spend more time on the internet — and the metaverse looms ahead — it’s more important than ever to create a flexible, human-centered digital experience for all. For software engineers, that means designing technology to fit people, instead of making people conform to its constraints.
“People come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and physical abilities. We should allow everyone to have the benefits technology brings,” says Bennett Lauber, who has worked in the user experience field for over 20 years and currently serves as CXO at consulting firm The Usability People.
For example, enterprise IT systems often show a list of applications with green circles next to those that are working properly and red circles next to those that aren’t. But for the 8% of men who are colorblind, these indicators are meaningless. Instead, developers can substitute circles and squares, or depict a familiar “stoplight” showing red on top or green on the bottom, enabling those who can’t distinguish the color to quickly grasp the meaning by position.
Website images should reflect a diverse population to give everyone a sense of belonging. Developers can use “alt tags” such as “boat on river at sunset” to describe images to blind people using screen readers. These tags also provide a good example of how inclusive design can broaden a product’s reach.
“Alt tags optimize content for software robots during searches. Search engine optimization is huge for companies. It means more people will find their website,” Lauber says.
Developers can also offer users more settings controls, or even change the defaults through automation, Lauber says. For example, a healthcare patient portal could be coded to automatically enlarge font size for people who recently had cataract surgery.
When visitors navigate to a website, developers can improve their experience by offering them more choices — for example, creating dropdown boxes that allow multiple selections. However, engineers should exercise caution when inserting sensitive questions about gender, age, or race, asking themselves whether the company really needs this information. If so, they can expand the form fields to include more choices.
Building better products
A building, product, or application that responds to the human needs of a diverse population will gain attention and respect. And making processes easier will ease frustrations and reduce complaints and service calls.
“Inclusive design takes a bit more work, but when you do it, you make things better for everyone,” Lauber says.
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