Becky and Zeinab on inclusive design.

Why it’s time to close the gap.

For technology to be a force for good it must be thoughtful, considered, and all-embracing.

By designing for the widest range of people, you benefit everyone. That’s the ethos shared by Zeinab Chaudhary, Consulting Disability Inclusion Lead, and Becky Ferraro, Inclusive Design Lead at Deloitte Digital.

Becky’s mum has MS and is a wheelchair user, while Zeinab has her own lived experience of a physical disability. Their personal experiences sparked their initial interest in the need to design inclusively.

Zeinab and Becky have seen first-hand how design has the potential to exclude people. But they’ve also seen how true inclusive design can push boundaries and drive innovation – for businesses and society alike.

Becky and Zeinab share five things to know about inclusive design.

People interact with the world differently

People use technology in different ways, for a variety of reasons. For Becky, using her mum’s wheelchair gave her a whole new perspective on design. “You don’t know what someone else is experiencing without asking them”, she says. “My mum has MS and when she transitioned to a wheelchair I built her a ramp, but she refused to use it. I couldn’t understand why until I tried it out for myself.

“I realised that there was a slope and drop you couldn’t appreciate when designing and building it. That difference in perspective really hit home.”

For Zeinab, her own experience of a physical disability made her realise that people’s needs and circumstances vary – and mean they often face barriers with technology.

“During the pandemic, I was shielding, so online journeys became very important to me”, she explains. “But with many websites, I couldn’t get past a certain point without being sent offline, particularly when I wanted to return an item.”

Zeinab points out that 14 million people in the UK have a disability and 80 percent are acquired during their working life. “If they can’t engage with your business, products or services, you’re missing out,” says Zeinab. “There’s also your workforce to consider, whose needs may change over time.”

From a business perspective, considering inclusive design from the outset is always going to be beneficial.

A social-first approach is key.

“The one thing to commit to memory,” says Becky, “is the medical model versus social model of disability. This creates a real shift in your mindset. The medical model says, ‘this person can’t do this task because they have a medical condition’. The social model flips this and says, ‘this person can’t do this task because of the way society has built their surrounding environment’.

“Doors are a good example. If the handle is too high, wheelchair users can’t go through but it’s not because they can’t use doors. If the doors were automatic, they could use them. We have constructed a world that simply does not work for them.”

Both Zeinab and Becky agree that COVID-19 intensified the digital divide. And with a lot of the pandemic’s digital trends staying with us, as we return to a new normal, achieving true digital inclusion is even more important.

So start with talking to the people who matter.

“Inclusive design starts with challenging your assumptions,” says Becky. “We worked on a project to support people with low digital literacy and assumed this would involve a step-by-step guide. But when we spoke to them, the reality was very different. No-one had ever explained to them what ‘digital’ is. Phrases and boxes on the screen meant nothing to them. You don’t gain these insights unless you speak directly to people.”

Zeinab adds, “This is one of the most important steps– engaging and speaking to all users right from the start. This approach saves so much time and costly reworking. Inclusive design should be seamless and appear totally intentional.”

Let it drive your innovation.

“Inclusive design is about looking at things differently,” says Becky. “And taking a new perspective helps drive innovation.”

Becky gives the origins of the typewriter as an example. “The typewriter was invented by Pellegrino Turri for a lover who was blind. At a time when the only means of long-distance communication was through letters, personal thoughts would have to be dictated to someone else because blind and partially sighted people could not write with pen and ink. So, to maintain their privacy and enable freer communication, Turri invented the typewriter.”

“It went on to inspire computer keyboards, laptops and smartphones”, says Becky. “By designing for someone who was blind, Turri impacted communications forever.”

When businesses only think about inclusivity from a legal perspective and tick things off a list, they’re in danger of producing experiences that don’t truly unite – as well as missing out on countless opportunities to innovate.

“People are complicated,” says Zeinab. “While checklists can provide a foundation, it’s important to try and truly understand how typically excluded or underrepresented people may interact with your particular product or service.”

And ultimately, by designing for everyone’s needs, you’ll positively reach a wider range of people.

Think big, start small, test often.

To explore new ways of thinking and applying inclusive design:

1. Always ask: who have you spoken to and who has been involved in developing your project?

2. Consider how all your customers and users interact with your business, services and products on a day-to-day basis.

3. Follow more diverse people on social platforms to learn more about new ways of living.

4. To keep up to date on new ideas, connect with charities and organisations such as Scope and the Business Disability Forum.

5. The W3C Accessibility Fundamentals course could be a good starting point to develop new skills.

Keep reading

Enjoyed learning more about inclusive design? Follow Becky and Zeinab for more updates and stay tuned for new releases in this series exploring big tech themes and how to make the most of them — responsibly.