Peeling back the layers of Inclusive Design

As we trend towards a more global world, the way we design software trends global anew. As the global village grows in population while shrinking in metaphorical distance, the methods we employ to conduct research and design solutions to customer problems allows us to grow in number and complexity while at the same time connecting us to diverse humans around the planet all with the magic of remote research.

Gone are the days when we could perform a usability study prior to product launch and think that we’re going to catch every cultural nuance that matters. As Research and Design have grown from tactical to strategic disciplines, so too the entire user-centred design process has grown from a City to a Market to finally encompass the Global Village.

Inclusive Design is the next step on the path towards building a global product that resonates with customers in many markets. Understanding markets outside the USA is not just helpful, it’s imperative to compete.

As tech industries grow more mature around the world, so too do the products they develop. Most importantly, products developed abroad are designed and developed by those markets for those markets. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned doing international research for over ten years, it’s that a local product will always win out over a foreign competitor that hasn’t done the work to understand the local market and cultural nuances.

Where do you begin?

I developed this framework to approach Inclusive Design while working with our clients at Amplinate to inspire conversations with their team and support inclusive product development, team building, and personal work. Each layer works separately and builds on the others; I’ll discuss each in turn.

Outer Layer: Building an Inclusive Product

The easiest place to start your Inclusive Design journey is to set the intention to create an inclusive product. Whether it’s a marginalized community or accessibility population within your own market or an international market, Inclusive Research and Design intends to understand the problems diverse populations have and the role they see your product having in helping them solve those problems.

The next step is to do the work. Conduct research with diverse populations and involve them in the Design process through participatory Design and iterative testing. The key is that Inclusive Research and Design is an ongoing process of learning and iterating. Just as you can’t know everything about your market from a single study, so too you can’t learn everything you need to know about a diverse population from a single study either. You must build it into everything you do and learn and grow over time.

Develop a cadence with your current and growth opportunity customers to learn from them and design solutions to their problems, and you’re well on your way to building an inclusive product. Start with one audience that makes sense and go from there-you don’t have to do everything at once.

Focusing on building an inclusive product is just the beginning. It’s a great first step, but to go deeper, start looking at your team culture and build an inclusive team. This is the middle layer.

Middle Layer: Inclusive Teams Build Inclusive Products

The more diversity you have on your product team, the more you can learn from each other’s differences to create a better product.

For example, pretend you have a product in the USA and want to release it in Brazil… what if you had a Brazilian on your product team? You would be able to learn so much more from them than if you had never spoken to a Brazilian. They can offer a lot of cultural context about how things work in Brazil, and you get that research for free because they’re on your team.

What if you want to make sure that your product isn’t offensive or excludes Queer people? Then absolutely include Queer people in your Research & Design process to make sure. But if you have a Queer person on your team, you get a head start.

This does not mean that person is responsible for being a representative token of their community. I get exhausted during Pride Month in June if I feel like I’m being asked to speak on behalf of the Gay community. And my Black friends have said similar things about how they feel during Black History Month too. I can’t speak for everyone, I’m just a single person. But because we see the world differently, we might pick up on something that others on the team don’t. And that is such a gift.

Fostering a team culture of celebrating differences in background and opinion and language and sexual orientation and skin colour, and religion can bring people together in dialogue about your product and how to approach conducting Inclusive Research & Design to make your product more inclusive. Respect for differences goes hand in hand with openness and curiosity about new ideas.

Having a growth mindset is key to addressing the thought patterns and mental models that keep us stuck in exclusionary Design. “Growth mindset” is the idea that we can improve our capacity to learn and solve problems over time by getting out of our comfort zone. It also posits that challenge is necessary for success. It’s only through the willingness to take on challenging problems and topics, to be open-minded, and to experience discomfort that we can achieve inclusivity.

The work of Inclusive Design is never done. We can always do more and keep improving, so we must commit to constant iteration and perseverance. This can seem daunting, but it matters more to be intentional and to start somewhere.

Inner Core: Individual / Be an Inclusive Person

At the deepest layer of your Inclusive Design journey is the individual layer. Every team is made up of individuals. You and me. And each of us is different, with our own intersectional identities that make us unique. That means the work that each of us must do will also be different.

What matters is that you do the work you need to do. There are three steps.

Step 1: Self-Assess

Introspection starts with self-assessing your own mindset. Your mental model of how you see the world around you given the unique intersectional identities that make up you being you. Some of these may be elements of privilege, and others may be oppressed in your society. And these elements impact the way you see the world and unconscious bias. Online tools can help you evaluate your level of privilege and unconscious bias.

These tools are not without flaws, but that doesn’t mean you should disregard them altogether. Use them as data points for reflection. (Complete tools are referenced in the full report, see below).

Step 2: Reflection

Ask yourself the hard questions. Think deeply about what your self-assessment brought up. Is there anything that came up strongly for you? Have you had an extreme response to someone else, either positive or negative? What might that tell you about yourself?

As you question yourself, you start to become aware of your own lenses through which you see the world. This can help unlock your own potential biases.

Another tool that can help is to question your assumptions. Have you ever assumed something to be true about someone else? Why might that assumption have come up?

A final way to gather more data on your potential biases is to ask someone you trust for feedback. There may be things that they see about you that you aren’t aware of. And if you’re lucky, they may be able to help you see things from a different perspective.

Step 3: Education

Once you identify areas to work on, then it’s time to learn more. The specific area you need to learn about will be different than it is for someone else. But learning is a lifelong journey, and you don’t have to learn everything all at once.

Just start somewhere and learn something about a group you’re not a part of.

A Holistic Perspective on Inclusion

From the core Individual layer, we can then move back out to the Team and Product layers of the Inclusive Design framework.

To bring this discussion full circle, once you start your work on educating yourself, you become a better member of your product team.

As each of you on your product team does the work to become open and curious individuals, you’ll start to see your product and your customers differently.

And once you start seeing your product differently, you’ll begin to design and build a more inclusive product.

Each layer has its own work, but the work you do in one layer impacts what you learn in others. For example, you might learn more about your audience through an inclusive research study about a diverse population, and that might cause you to reflect on your own assumptions as an individual. And that questioning can make you more open to listening to others on your team.

Inclusive Design work is a virtuous cycle; no matter where you start, every step you take brings you and your team closer to building an inclusive product.


Our Reframing Diversity & Inclusive Design report dives deeper into this framework of Inclusive Research & Design by:

More from Josh Lamar