It’s About All of Us: Building a Better Future With Inclusive Design

On March 27th, 2018, we partnered with Microsoft on “One for All: Designing a Better Future with Inclusive Design.” Hosted by WeWork in downtown San Jose, the evening featured an in-depth discussion on the principles and best-practices of inclusive design.

Tobiah Zarlez, Senior Tech Evangelist at Microsoft, kicked things off with a brief, impactful keynote about inclusivity, and the pervasiveness of bias in design. They underlined the latter with a real-world example: a nigh-impossible computer game featuring a fast, intricate action scene, where a single mistake sends a player back to the beginning (turning a 30-second scene into a minutes-long challenge). “If you are not mindful of being inclusive,” they informed the audience, “you will actively put effort into being exclusive.” Technology that requires users to arrive as experts—or is set up for extremely specific skills or abilities—is poorly designed.

The panel that followed featured perspectives from engineers, designers, and active users of inclusive-facing technology; the discussion covered everything from best-practices to key advice to examples from their own personal and professional lives. Some of the key points we covered are below:

Build inclusiveness into your product as early as possible.

“A good design rule across the board: find two different ways to communicate the same thing,” Tobiah said. Every possible part of your product or design that can be communicated should have a backup built into the design. Jennison Asuncion, Accessibility Engineering Manager at LinkedIn, offered his expert take: “Take a close look at your product and target your top transaction paths first. And remember—you won’t get everything right the first time. Here in the Valley, we run fast, and everything happens quickly.” If designers don’t include accessibility as part of that never-ending sprint (if not in the very beginning, at least as soon as possible) it can be much harder to implement later on.

Inclusivity is about everyone (yes, you too).

Jennison addressed a common misconception about inclusive design: the point, he said, is notto recreate a differently-abled person’s experience—it’s to make the UX/UI usable for everyone. KR Liu, Board Member at Deaf Kids Code, agreed, saying, “Empathy is really about making people feel like they belong.” Instead of designing technology differently for able- and disabled users, inclusive design, good design, is a universe unto itself: all experiences and needs present and accounted for, seamlessly, within the same system. The same technology can and should serve both a hearing-impaired person and a person struggling to hear in a crowded room—KR even mentioned that she can turn her hearing aid up or down via her Apple watch.

When it comes to good design, experience is the best teacher.

Julia Benini, Senior Design Research Lead at IDEO, took on inclusive design from a different angle: designing for low-income, low-access, or illiterate individuals. “The most effective way to build empathy,” she said, “is to put your team directly in the shoes of the people they’re designing for.” She shared a story about a recent research project: given five dollars and no technology for the day, her team had to try to find benefits, food, and a place to sleep in San Francisco—all without any extra help.

Julia also urged the audience to eschew shortcuts: it isn’t enough to have people simply tellyou their experience—you may not get the whole story, which is why field research is important. She shared another example: at IDEO, the team was tasked with designing an easy-open pill bottle for people with arthritis. One research subject reported she had no difficulty opening her bottles—however, when the team took a closer look, they learned she’d taken the Gordian knot approach, and was cutting her pill bottles open with a meat slicer.

Moderator Michelle Peralta, Director of Early-Stage Banking at SVB, summed it up: “The more immersive the experience, the easier the design comes. It practically builds itself.” In this case, the blind MUST lead the blind.

Inclusivity isn’t just a moral and ethical necessity—it makes good business sense…

KR tackled inclusivity from a business perspective: “Look at the data. Look at what your customers are asking for.” She talked about her own experience at Doppler Labs: out of 100,000 people on the waiting list, 22% were interested in using the wireless smart earbuds to supplement hearing loss or impairment—a sizeable market that the research team had completely overlooked.

Essentially, if your company is building a product intended for universal use, product tests and iterations should involve different perspectives, abilities, and experiences. “Be willing to listen,” KR added. “and build from there.”

…as long as you’re mindful about the recruiting process.

Michelle asked the panel to tackle a difficult topic: how do we build a diverse team without falling into box-checking or tokenizing? Michelle shared her own experiences as a Latinx person seeking a STEM job: “There were times when I didn’t know if I was being hired to check a box, instead of for my skills. How do we recruit folks without making it seem like we’re just meeting staffing diversity requirements?” KR also pointed out that many companies don’t know how to hire for disability, or how to ensure success after a person with a disability is hired. She shared an appalling statistic: 60% of the disabled community is unemployed, a fact that runs across all industries.

Jennison suggested looking for technology skills first, and passion for accessibility second. “It’s not just about doing the right thing,” he said, “you have to have the ability to make the right thing happen.” Besides, he added, people with disabilities don’t usually want to be hired just because of them. “No one wants to be a box, or a check mark,” he added. Most people truly do want to be a useful part of a great team.

To help combat imposter syndrome—especially among those who might come from disadvantaged backgrounds—Julia suggested, “Try to be mindful about who’s conducting your interviews.” If you’re trying to reach out to new communities, strive to have familiar faces or experiences on the other side of the table. Hiring team members from marginalized backgrounds can have manifold benefits for your team—not only as a way to increase perspectives and experiences, but to help highlight your company as a valuable resource.


Finally, Michelle also asked the panel to “de-villainize” the lack of knowledge or access—how do we encourage companies to fix problematic biases? How do we point out mistakes or exclusionary practices without making people feel attacked? Most of the time, company leaders have no idea they’ve been excluding anyone at all (as Tobiah put it, “It’s called unconscious bias for a reason. You don’t think about it until you’re forced to.”)

For companies unsure where to begin, start by building an inclusive design team, Tobiah suggested. “Put a name and a value on different types of experience,” they added, depending on what’s important to highlight or fix in your product. “And just begin with bite-sized changes. It’s never too late to get started.”

Jennison urged, “Don’t judge, just teach. Ask your design team questions and encourage them to come up with answers.”

KR drove the point home: “Start with leadership—make inclusivity part of the company culture. It trickles down.”

The true definition of inclusivity, as it turns out, is about all of us. The story behind a particular need doesn’t matter—it’s the need itself, independent of origin, that designers have to think about. When it comes to great design, there’s no real difference between a permanent need or a situational need—true inclusivity treats both of those scenarios as equal.




When you design for disability, you design for everyone

"I come as one, but stand as 10,000 to the 10th power!" - Maya Angelou.

I get letters from people around the world who have hearing challenges themselves, or are writing on behalf of someone else: a loved one, a child, a friend. I've included a few letters below to give an idea of what these folks are going through in their daily lives, and how today's technology engenders hope and radically changes their world for the better.

Hi KR,
Hope you are well. Just wanted to reach out and say hi and that I've been watching your posts a lot recently both on your hearing loss/disabilities.
 I have not suffered from hearing loss from childhood as you have but 3 years ago before you and I started working together I got tongue cancer which had to be fought with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
One of the side effects of Platinum based Chemo for many is auditory nerve damage which leads to continual Tinnitus and hearing damage. It's definitely been a new world to live in over these last few years and has given me a new appreciation for the things that we sometimes take for granted and for those who never had those things in the first place.
Anyway just wanted to say thanks for continuing to raise the awareness and hope you are doing well.
Dear Kristen,

This has been a great morning! I spend a lot of mornings searching and researching hearing solutions for my daughter who was diagnosed with moderate congenital hearing loss at the age of 3. She is now 16 and a senior in high-school. Over her life, she has tried many hearing aids and has rejected them all - mainly due to the stigma, but more recently due to the poor overall sound quality as she has become quite the musician. 

I am ecstatic beyond words. Your story and accomplishments are so inspiring.

I want her to see the great career opportunities that combine music/sound, computer science and engineering; but more selfishly, I want her to learn about how cool technology is, and gain the confidence to wear them so she can fully experience college without 'missing out' on the many sounds around her.

My premature birth caused my hearing loss: My journey to push for accessible technology

Thirty-eight years ago, I was born three months premature, weighing one and a half pounds. In the left image above, I’m inside an incubator in the ICU—what would become my home for the next few months—weighing in at two pounds. Though she’s not pictured, my twin sister was right next to me, also fighting for survival. Over the next several months, I remained in the ICU, struggling to learn to breathe, with alarms going off as often as 30 times an hour alerting nurses that I was in trouble. I flatlined and came back to life several times. Each minute was a fight to survive.

Reflecting on the tragic police shooting of Daniel Harris

“Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.” - Helen Keller

Ever since I was diagnosed with severe hearing loss at the age of three, I’ve had to adapt to a very noisy world by learning how to communicate differently with others. Listening, reading lips, keeping up with conversations—these are all skills I’ve worked hard at perfecting so that I wouldn’t be treated differently or discriminated against for my hearing loss. It took many years for me to become comfortable talking about my hearing loss, but now, I proudly advocate and champion for the hearing health community. However, the recent news of the tragic killing of Daniel Harris, an unarmed deaf man in Charlotte, North Carolina, renewed a sense of fear about why I hid my hearing loss in the first place.