25 September 2018 marked the first World Interaction Design Day, running under the global theme of “Diversity and Inclusion in Design”. The Berlin IxDA chapter arranged an inspiring event, inviting two speakers who examine these issues both personally and professionally.
My preferred conference talks are commonly those with a personal story behind. The latest IxDA Berlin meeting, taking place on the first World Interaction Design Day, featured not just one, but two highly relatable presenters whose message is closely connected to their own identity and experience - and partially draws its impact from that personal component.
Quinn Keast on inclusion at the workplace
First up, Quinn Keast captured the audience with a talk that highlights how organisations may fail to apply their own design expertise on internal work processes: “Breaking Down Unintended Barriers in the Workplace” (slides; video).
This is illustrated by an invitation to a job interview via Skype, putting him in the uncomfortable position of having to request special treatment as, due to hearing loss, that is not a suitable communication channel for him. The company - and let’s be frank, “we would like to interview you via Skype” is one of the most common e-mails sent out by a majority of HR departments - immediately limited the inclusiveness of their process by prescribing what best fits their own process.
Hence, this story leads to one of the key statements of the talk:
Focusing on channels & tools often creates barriers, while focusing on outcomes opens up alternative paths.
And Quinn subsequently provides an example how a shift of focus from channel (Skype) to outcome (interview) can dramatically improve that e-mail message with just minor rewording - communicating openness to what channel a candidate may prefer. This approach does not limit the amount of possible paths to reach the desired goal.
But, and this is another key point, most barriers are unintentional. Finding and breaking them down is what Quinn requests more attention for. And, he adds, designers have all the tools needed, as that same attention is at the core of their professional work:
Incorrect mental models and unchallenged cognitive biases change how people think about, and interact with each other
Furthermore, making processes more inclusive will almost always benefit everybody else as well - for example sending out written meeting memos rather than relying on everybody having registered all the key details of the conversation.
On a side note: one solution I particularly like is Quinn’s readme page. Following his policy of always self-disclosing his limited hearing, this web document clearly outlines preferred communication and work practices. This reminds me of “communication protocol” pages I’ve seen on the IndieWeb before (Aaron Parecki’s page comes to mind) and is something I find hugely beneficial, well beyond communicating potential limitations (I should really create one myself).
Eriol Fox on diverse representations in design
In their talk “Diverse representations in design and awkward conversations with colleagues”, Eriol Fox of Ushahidi took us on a time-travel through some of their experiences of gradually learning to identify, speak up about, and develop strategies against lack of diversity in design practice (video)
From their first careful attempts to bring up an organisation’s apparent lack of willingness to accept that “families” can have other constellations than husband-and-wife, to noticing in a project how pictures of women with water buckets do not represent how young women in Africa dress and live - these stories illustrate one thing: it is so easy to, even subconsciously, fall for the comfort of reinforcing one’s own world views (as an organisation, as a designer, as a person) that exclusion often takes place unnoticed.
This is why Eriol’s advice is so valuable. It comes from somebody who often feels the consequences of such lack of diverse mindsets themselves, yet - as a design professional - is in the position to develop ideas for alternative approaches. Some of the take-aways from the talk:
“Edge case” is an exclusive term
Looking at “stress cases” is much more suitable as a concept and inclusive language. To frame less common or likely use cases not as something negligible (the irrelevant edge case), but as the exceptional case that is a true stress test for a design (i.e.: will the design hold up, even for less common cases?).
Reality checks help
When for example looking for stock photography or illustrations concerning people’s life realities, using image searches on Instagram etc. helps to sensitize for how things really look. And talking to those affected, running ideas by people who may be affected by a lack of inclusion in design, helps understand in what ways marginalised groups may feel offended or discriminated by what others consider standard design practice. This may also include asking a person of colour whether the skin tone and lighting of models in selected photos are representative from their point of view, or asking a non-binary person to evaluate an online form.
Accommodating diversity can be an easy step
No matter what is to be designed: reflecting carefully on implicit assumptions made helps to see where individuals outside the “mainstream” may feel forgotten. It can be as easy as to offer multiple-choice in a form that asks about identity (race, gender, etc.) instead of the default either-or choices commonly demanded. The challenge herein, however, is not so much in the implementation, but in identifying exclusive thinking in the first place - and, as the presentation illustrated, in achieving buy-in for doing things better within a team.
Getting it 100% right is not the goal
What unites both presentations, apart from their obvious thematic overlap, is that these were calls for more consciousness, but not for absolute perfection.
Eriol themselves admitted that they probably, in this talk alone, did exclude somebody (though I have to say, I absolutely admire the way they delivered this talk while - to my ears - completely avoiding any ableist, exclusive or stereotypical language; something I, despite best efforts, still keep failing on far too often). And Quinn, too, made clear that perfection is not the goal. Simply being more conscious in reflecting on how the sensitivity of the designer could be applied not only to products, but work environments, can eliminate a lot of obstacles. And, as he highlights early in his talk, it’s also “a lot of small things going poorly” that deserve attention.
Given my long-standing critique of the oversimplification of “users” in design (in my non-use research, and more recently my work on privacy) the overarching concepts presented were not entirely new to me; many well-known from debates and literature on accessibility, as well. Yet, both talks were so informative because they breathe life into the principles of inclusive design - the presenters opened their world to highlight how even minuscule biased design-decisions may have an impact on somebody’s experience. And that, I believe, is something we can’t possibly talk about enough. It is probably not easy to lay out one’s most personal experiences on a stage like that, but it is precisely these small anecdotes, examples and strategies that help inspire to be a better designer, every day.
- I believe the ‘stress test’ term was popularised through Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book ‘Design for Real Life’ - one of the books Eriol recommended in her talk and a great resource.↩