“If design is responsible for the user experience, and that’s what we’re accountable for, then we need to be thinking about that up front. It also means we have to do the hard work to understand what it means to DO accessible design. I think that as designers, accessible design should just be part of our DNA. It shouldn’t even have to be something we think about, it’s part of how you breathe”
– Denise Burton, Design Principle, IBM
There’s a video my team shares midway through our workshop Design Sprints with Moonshot. It follows the research and development of Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller – a video game controller that allows for countless configurations meeting a huge variety of physical needs. The initiative began as an exploration of gaming for blind players, but through their research, the Microsoft team found the opportunity to bridge the needs for a much larger spectrum of gamers with differing physical abilities – a project far beyond what they initially conceived.
I’ve written previously about the power of designing for people whom the status quo fails and whose needs are least met. In that post I explore the ways that approaching design with these individuals at the core can drive more holistic and nuanced solutions. This kind of design not only has the potential to increase access but provides the opportunity to improve design experience across the board.
While empathy at the root of our work is key, there are many other practices you can employ to assure that your solutions come out the other end of the design process solving the problems at hand and not creating more unanticipated blocks – especially for differently abled users. So, let’s talk about mindset, tools, and adaptable design!
Embracing the Mismatch Mindset
The mission of the Inclusive Design Research Centre is exactly what their name suggests, and among many jewels of wisdom and tools for practice on their website, I loved their take on mismatch:
If you look at the medical model for disability, it defines disability as a trait; a permanent and limiting impairment that brings activity limitations or interaction restrictions. But an inclusive design approach instead perceives disability as a mismatch between a person’s needs and the design of anything that person comes in contact with (products, environments, systems, services, and video game controllers.)
So, inclusive design really just requires a shift in mindset. It’s the difference between sticking to a set way of doing things to meet a limited audience forever OR uncovering opportunities to repair disconnect, solve that issue and, create a match between Need and Design (hint: that process is also called INNOVATION.)
To bring inclusive design to life, we need to bear in mind a number of considerations to avoid creating more mismatch:
– Involve diverse voices from the start
– Pay close attention to their work-arounds
– Incorporate edge cases (far outliers of the group)
– Focus on needs, not limitations
– Explore immersive research
– Prototype solutions
– Reference real people, not general personas
– What else can you add here? …
If we work in innovative design, this should just be HOW WE WORK. We have a responsibility for everything we bring into the world, and laziness isn’t an option.
I’m not perfect at this by ANY means. I am definitely an ever-learning work in progress and I’m writing this post right now as a crucial reminder to myself. When an experience is not your own experience, it’s easy to lose track or fall prey to unconscious bias. Inclusive and accessible design is a muscle that needs concerted attention and exercise to get stronger. And, like exercise, there is never “arrival” – it requires continuous work to maintain strength and results.
Learning to Breathe
There are countless tools out there to help designers and researches better “breathe” accessible design.
Cards for Humanity is a helpful design tool I like a lot. (Not to be confused with the game Cards Against Humanity which has revealed to me twisted sides of my friends I may never recover from.) Cards for Humanity gamifies the design process a bit with engaging illustrations and a shuffle feature that randomly selects different combinations of user personality traits and needs. Folding the exercise into the design conversation prompts you to enhance your design process with an ever-changing and enlightening variety of fresh voices at the table.
What I like most about Cards is the way it brings unique combinations together to create ever-changing varieties of unique and individual needs.
Mike Edmonds recently wrote about Tristan Harris’ Humane Design Guide and its aim to guide more sensitive product development. The framework encourages deeper consideration of various human experiences, human nature, and needs.
What I like about this framework is the attention paid to lesser-considered needs. Sensitivities are a bit of a nebulous space to explore and solve for, and the guide provides an opportunity to push on improvement spaces, create action steps, and make considerations that bring more humane design to life that takes the whole person into account.
There can be danger of the rabbit hole feeling – where there is no bottom to the endless tunnel of possibilities and questions and diverse needs. But this exact space is where adaptable design comes to save the day.
What’s that old adage? You can’t make something that’s everything to everyone or it winds up being nothing to anyone?
Taking wide ranges of varying human needs into consideration doesn’t mean generalizing and neutralizing your solutions until they’re mush. Or adding so many options the product becomes confusing and unusable. The point is to uncover overlapping needs, find ways to limit barriers, and make your design adaptable so that it can work in many ways. Think about a backpack with wheels and a pull handle. Walkers with built-in seats so that you can walk or scoot. Those fancy new ketchup packets that you can rip or peel to squeeze OR dip.
Adaptable design allows for personalization and results in integrated systems that work better for everyone, giving us the power to discover and choose what works best in any given context. It puts more control into the hands of the user to create their own experience, and to modify that experience as needed so that we create countless matches of need and design.
One of the researchers on the Xbox project Scott Wang expressed that the intention for the Adaptive Controller was really to “remove as many limitations to playing as possible” And this is truly the goal. To remove limitation and create access. To look beyond how it’s always been done and find new avenues for a larger product life.
Ultimately, Microsoft didn’t change the games. The requirements of Madden, FIFA, Call of Duty, are still the same. But the variety of ways they can be played can now shift and change. The controller design is more adaptable and more thoughtful, with greater reach. This allows more players to bring their skills to the platform and up the ante for others. This provides opportunity for the game itself to come into new spaces like therapy and education and community-building and to live new lives beyond its previously limited world.
Creating match is the core responsibility of design, not an additional task or a separate department. It should be HOW we do the work. And we should recognize that care taken to broaden our view, explore many diverse voices and need cases, and strengthen our research muscles, makes us better designers and makes our designs more useful.
And we need to do the work required to design like this until it’s how we breathe. Because it makes us better at our work and in our lives. And the benefits are far beyond what we may initially even conceive.