Don't design for average, design for inclusion - Mike Miles' four pillars of inclusive design

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 4, 2017
One highlight from our local NERD Summit was a well-thought presentation on inclusive design. Here's the takeaways, including presenter Mike Miles' Four Pillars of Inclusive Design. I also bring up one big gotcha not mentioned.

live from NERD Summit, with matching fingernails

I'm a fan of experience design, but I find most design presentations generic. It's easy to get lost in the yawn-inducing weeds of "building personas." That goes double for "inclusive design" talks, which typically use inclusive as a cliché for common sense.

That was not the case in Mike Miles' NERD Summit 2017 talk, Inclusive Design: Thinking Beyond Accessibility. Miles' talk was grounded in the history of design envelope-pushers. His recommendations were practical, but he reframed my thinking about design in the process. Though there was one big omission enterprise audiences should take note of, Miller's talk is well worth a review.

NERD Summit - free, grassroots, design-friendly

The NERD Summit is not what you'd call an enterprisey audience. It's an annual convergence of developers, designs, and geeks of all stripes in Western Massachusetts, a semi-rural locale where the largest employer is the MassMutual insurance company. Still, I found plenty of enterprise relevance here, from a passion for agile and open source, to that tech/biz sweet spot. With digital in full swing, it's getting harder to tell the geeks from the suits. Often it's a matter of different hats, not different people.

The NERD Summit itself is a study in inclusion. A totally free conference, the sessions are a mix of practical career workshops, hands-on tech stuff, as well as headier topics like programming ethics. Local firms like Last Call Media and Common Media are heavily involved in the year-round planning, which is coordinated via cloudy tools like Trello and Slack. The University of Massachusetts serves as the conference host. How's this for a conference mission statement:

NERDs creates positive and supportive learning opportunities for people who work, or want to work in web and related technology. Too many smart, passionate people have been traditionally excluded from tech careers, and we're changing that.

Designing for accessibility - history matters

Miles, who is Associate Director of PHP with digital marketing agency Genuine, as well as the host of the Developing Up podcast series, began by chronicling the accessibility designers who paved the way, including architect Ronald L. Mace, who founded the Center for Universal Design, and Selwyn Goldsmith, who coined the term "barrier-free design," and authored Designing for the Disabled in 1963. Miles also noted the groundbreaking work of Patricia Moore, an industrial designer known for dressing up as an elderly person, intentionally restricting her movements, then reporting on her experiences.

As Miles put it:

All three of them played a big part in ADA compliance. Which led into the 1990's with digital ADA compliance. That we all try to build for.

The breakthrough - design for exceptions

Miles hit the essence of his talk with a real world example: the classic sloped sidewalk. A staple of ADA compliance, many American intersections have slopes where the sidewalk hits the road. This was designed, of course, so that those with mobility issues could cross the street. But as Miles noted, designing-for-the-few is really the best way to design-for-the-many:

Based on universal design, this actually improves the lives of many other people that it wasn't intended for. We're talking about parents with strollers, delivery people with hand trucks, people distracted by all the crazy news on their phones and not paying attention where they're walking. Thinking about how to improve a situation for a small subset of people improved the positive experience of a much wider range people.

Sure enough, the same principles hold true in digital design:

When we build our [digital] products, whether it's an app or a website, we should take into account what we consider accessibility: vision impairments, hearing impairments, cognitive ability, the ability to use a mouse or not - these are great things to plan for.

But Miles urged designers to think beyond core accessibility issues. Depending on our target audience, gender, language, education level and age could also influence design and include more audiences:


Screenshot from Miles' YouTube presentation, Inclusive Design: Thinking Beyond Accessibility.

Web designer Sandi Wassmer fused these concepts into her Ten Principles of Inclusive Web Design. Two of my faves are:

  • Preventative - Provide easy to follow instructions and gently guide users in interacting with your website. Help them to minimise errors when submitting data, through well considered form design.
  • Tolerant - Handle errors respectfully and indicate precisely what the error is, where it is and how to fix it. Remember to let people know the outcome.

"Tolerant" is still widely overlooked - how many sites still force us to redo all steps if we don't type the right password or forget to accept terms (e.g. online airline check in - grrr).

The Four Pillars of Inclusive Design

At the NERD Summit, Miles presented his Four Pillars of Inclusive Design:

  • No user is average
  • Every user deserves equal access
  • Provide understandable content for every user
  • Every user deserves our trust and respect

Sounds good - but how? To show how designing-for-average is a fail, Miles went back to the 1950s for an Air Force example. Pilots were having issues with a new fighter plane, sometimes with disastrous consequences:

Finally, [the Air Force] threw out the idea of the average pilot and said to their contractors: "You have to build a cockpit that works for our shortest pilot, our tallest pilot, our widest, our skinniest and what have you." They did that, and suddenly there's a lot of improvements.

The impact of that design shift went well beyond the Air Force:

The contractors had to build some of the first adjustable seats and adjustable steering columns... That went on to benefit the automotive industry, and all of us.

That becomes our design starting point:

What we need to do is plan for what I like to call the outliers, beyond the averages. Finding the realistic differences. Make sure our products work for those, and they'll work for everybody in between.

Which brings us to the use of personas. If done correctly, personas can be a fruitful design tool. Miles advocates "creating personas with limitations":

If your UX team is creating personas, why don't we add limitations for them? From the onset, we're planning for people with differences. What limitations am I talking about? Maybe it's something somebody can't change about themselves, like red/green color blindness. Maybe it's a temporary disability, like they have a broken wrist due to a skiing accident, which means they can't easily use a mouse. Or it's an environmental difference. Does most of their work while traveling, which affects their screen, their attention span, how well they can access and navigate. All these are quick little things you can add to your personas, which will have a big impact on how people are using your application.

Miles' next tip? Throttle your connection speed. Too many sites are designed with the assumption of broadband access. The average global Internet speed is just 6.3 Mbps. The U.S. hovers around 16.3, mediocre compared to the leader, South Korea, at 26,3. Plenty of U.S. Internet users are still on dial-up:

We have to stop thinking that every user lives in Silicon Valley, has a fiber connection and is using a retina display.

Most web browsers have a development mode where speed can be throttled for testing; Miles recently tested at 6.3 Mbps (brave soul!). You can also disable Javascript, which some users don't have or don't activate. An audience member suggested disabling CSS as well.

JavaScript is a blessing and a curse. It loads on the client side, and it takes a lot of data to send it there. Does JavaScript serve a core purpose in our application, and does it have to? [Without JavaScript], can they still get to our donations page? Or our product purchasing page?

"Provide understandable content to every user" seems like common sense, but Miles warned that many designer get too caught up in their aesthetics:

To us, the digital products that we build, they're works of art. From the code to the design to the UX, we wish there were digital museums where we could hang them up and say, "Look at this, look what I built, it's amazing." Our users don't care about that. Our users use our products for one thing, and that's to get information. That's all they care about, no matter what you're building.

Miles used an example close to home: the city of Boston's web site. The old city of Boston web site was a clunky effort, structured based on departments and sub-departments. It was hard to navigate and laden with insider language:

Not everyone knew what department handled trash and recycling or where to find that schedule. Where to find what sub page or sub-department it was buried in. It was very hard to navigate.

The city of Boston talked to citizens directly prior to the rebuild:

There's an interesting quote from the city's chief of information technology in an interview with the Boston Globe where they say the website should act like a helpful human. This is the big difference between the old site and the new site. "Oftentimes, when you looked at something on the old site, it would feel like you were interacting with some sort of lawyer-robot that was speaking to you in government-speak, using very formal language." That was the exact quote. We want to write for humans by humans. We can use simple phrasing and avoid jargon where possible. [Readers note: for more on design as communication, see my prior piece, Enterprise UX is communication.]

For the final point on "every user deserves our trust and respect," Miles mentioned a video presentation by Sara Lerén: All-inclusive Design - excluding no gender. Miles added: "the easiest way to do inclusive design is to stop asking about gender." Lerén takes issue with sites that ask your gender - what do they do with that info? Too often, we don't know. Miles:

The underlying message is about being smart with the information we ask to collect. Every field that we provide to a user is a barrier we're throwing up there.

Quick wrap - design-for-security matters also

My only issue with Miles' talk was one of omission. In today's environment, certainly at the enterprise level, we have to start designing for exclusion also: exclusion of black hats and bad actors. That means asking the flip of some of these questions, such as how forms could be exploited, if the mobile app password retrieval tool opens up a back door, what data an employee with bad intentions could download, etc. The balance between good user experience and good security design is not an easy one. But it's a conversation we must have, and designers must equip themselves to be a part of that convo.

Otherwise, an all around useful talk by Miles, with an approach designers can build on. End note: this article is part of my ongoing diginomica series on Enterprise UX.

Bonus content: my Collision 2016 podcast with Caroline Sinders on designing for content fits in well here.

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