Blog – What if you cast aside all the principles of inclusive design?

Recently, senior UX designer Maaike de Laat wrote about inclusive web design: designing in such a way that you exclude no-one – not even people with disabilities. It is a beautiful aspiration. But making a design for everyone is also difficult, Maaike argues.

If it has to be suitable for all, how do you make clear choices or create designs with personality? The more outspoken your design, the greater chance that part of your audience will not like it or not find it useful.

This way, the premise of inclusive design can be crippling. And before you know it, you will be designing ‘one of the two possible websites’ all over again.

Of course, inclusive design is not to blame for the fact that websites look so similar nowadays (because then those sites would be more accessible!) The underlying reasons are up for debate, but in any case, our field could use some fresh ideas. So when Vasilis van Gemert invited me to a workshop on the subject I gladly accepted.

The plan

Vasilis teaches design and is also enrolled in a Design Master at WdKA. For his studies, he investigates the state of accessibility on the web. He realized that for many people with disabilities internet use can be frustrating, to say the least. Most websites – whether they look alike or not – are far from accessible.

To investigate this, Vasilis came up with the following idea. There is a set of principles for inclusive design. But what if you inverted those principles and used that as a basis for design? What if you are not making something for everyone, but just for one specific person?

With this idea, Vasilis organized an exclusive design workshop. Small groups were asked to create ‘something’ for Simon, a product designer who became blind six years ago. We started on the basis of these principles for exclusive design:

  • Be unique
  • Ignore conventions
  • Prioritise identity
  • Add nonsense

Start designing!

Our team (my teammates were Jenny Shen and Sanne ‘t Hooft) came up with the concept ‘Be my audience’, a product Simon can use to share his knowledge with anyone who wants to listen. We noticed that Simon likes to talk, and also has a lot to tell. He has the habit of calling people to share his ideas. How could we help him to increase his audience?

Our design concept was a combination of hardware for Simon himself (a portable microphone) and an app for the rest of the world. If Simon has an idea, he can start broadcasting. App users get an instant notification and can listen and respond via the app.

Exclusive design schetsen

A very specific product, which probably will never be built (although Simon did want to have it). But as a design thinking exercise, it was fun and valuable.

Exclusive design: designing for real

What I found especially interesting was starting without a general idea that has to work for everyone, but instead making something very specific for one individual. Not just because this way you really create a valuable product for at least one person. But especially because we actually designing. Looking at the current state of web design, it seems there’s a lot of styling going on, but not enough actual designing.

Although “design for everyone” is a beautiful principle, there’s a risk of uniformity. Design tools and techniques also seem to force us into finding the same design solutions over and over. Even design blogs show many sites that offer very similar user experiences. New ways of working that help us to prevent that, are very welcome.

After all, the challenge of our profession is not to make even more iterations of ‘the two possible websites’.

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