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Explore Inclusive Design

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Define inclusive design.
  • Discuss several fears of inclusive design.
  • Describe three inclusive design principles.

Mismatches Make Us Misfits

We all know what it feels like to be left out. 

When you think about the experiences you’ve had when you felt left out, what comes to mind? Perhaps you recall a time from childhood when you couldn’t use the playground equipment because you weren’t tall enough or coordinated enough. Maybe the other kids on the playground didn’t invite you to play. Maybe you think of the unexpected ways you’ve had to adapt a technology to make it work for your specific needs, or when technology failed to recognize your voice, language, or style of speech. Maybe a registration form didn’t offer enough options to accurately reflect your identity.

A person in a wheelchair next to a flight of stairs.

Mismatches are barriers to how we interact or fit with the physical or digital worlds around us.

These and countless other examples are moments of exclusion. They’re mismatches, which are barriers to how we interact–or how we fit–with the physical or digital worlds around us. Mismatches are the result of the way products or experiences are designed, and they’re the building blocks of exclusion. When we experience exclusion, we may feel a sense of rejection, which affects our sense of belonging. 

So, what do we do? How do we solve for mismatches? Where do we even start?

If we cite design as the source of mismatches and exclusion, then design can also be the remedy. Whether we realize it or not, the people who design our society’s points of interaction determine who gets to participate and who gets left out. Mismatches perpetuate exclusion and permeate our society in profound and complex ways. We have to recognize exclusion first and commit to understanding the types of habits or practices that can lead to exclusion. Then we can begin to shift toward inclusion in how we design products and experiences.  

Three Fears of Inclusion

Before we move forward, let’s have a perspective check: It would be hard for any one person to know all there is to know about every aspect of inclusion. Human diversity is, indeed, diverse. Likewise, it would be an unreasonable expectation for a single design to address every facet of human diversity. What we can do is take responsibility for inclusion as an intentional choice, so that we minimize the risk of unintentional harm.

When we talk about inclusion, designers often have several fears. 

  1. That they’ll say the wrong thing
  2. That they’ll have to create a lowest-common-denominator design
  3. That they won’t have enough people, time, and money to make meaningful change

But here’s some insight that may temper some of those fears.

  • Inclusion is about challenging the status quo. Words hold a lot of power, so it’s understandable that people fear they’ll say the wrong thing and cause offense. The language around inclusion is still evolving, which leaves room for interpretation and contentiousness. But inclusion is about challenging the status quo. At some point, we may end up saying something unintentionally harmful. What counts is what we do next to make a difference.
  • Inclusion is imperfect. As we learn more about inclusion, we inevitably discover just how much we don’t know about human diversity. We have to have humility and the willingness to be curious. Inclusion can teach us new ways to adapt our designs to suit needs we didn’t anticipate.
  • Inclusion is ongoing. Inclusion takes work that evolves over time and requires maintenance. When it comes to inclusion, there isn’t a finish line. There’s always an opportunity to learn as long as we stay open to it.

Differentiate Between Inclusive Design and Universal Design

If you’ve ever relied on captioning in, say, a noisy sports bar, or pushed a grocery cart down a curb cut–or sidewalk ramp–then you’ve benefited from inclusive design. Captioning originally was designed to make television shows accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Curb cuts became widespread during the disability rights movement in the 1960s and made navigating sidewalks easier for those who use wheelchairs. Both solutions started with a specific need and went on to benefit society in broad, immeasurable ways. 

Inclusive design is the practice of designing solutions that offer a diversity of ways for people to participate in and contribute to an experience. People who have experienced high degrees of exclusion have insights that make them the experts and they should be at the center of the inclusive design process. When exclusion experts contribute to the process, the result is a design with a diversity of ways to participate. When there’s a diversity of ways to participate, there’s a shared experience that helps create a sense of belonging. 


The practice of inclusive design is different from the process of meeting accessibility standards. While inclusive design can help with accessibility, it does not lead to meeting accessibility standards. Learn more about Accessibility Basics or Get Started with Web Accessibility

Ultimately, inclusive design describes how a designer arrives at a design. Why is inclusive design important? Think of it this way: To participate in an experience doesn’t require a specific design, but a particular design could potentially prohibit participation. In the digital age, technologies can reach millions of people around the world while also adapting to fit individuals and their personal needs.

Universal design, on the other hand, is rooted in architecture and environmental design and is focused on designing one solution that serves all people with minimal adaptation. Some people use the terms inclusive design and universal design interchangeably. We believe there’s a distinction. Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at Ontario College of Art and Design, describes it best: Universal design is one-size-fits-all. Inclusive design is one-size-fits-one.

Who Are Exclusion Experts?

In the previous section, we mentioned the importance of learning from people who have experienced barriers. To put it another way, people who have experienced the greatest degrees of exclusion in their lives are experts at recognizing exclusion. Exclusion experts have deep insights about how they adapt solutions to their specific needs. Often, their ingenuity can lead product teams to ask better questions and create more inclusive solutions. Exclusion experts may or may not be formally involved in the design field, and you will benefit from seeking them out. You never know who might have a great idea!

Three Inclusive Design Principles

Three groups of abstract figures that correspond to the three inclusive design principles.The three principles of inclusive design are action-oriented and can help you learn what works best for excluded communities.

As we proceed to subsequent units, keep these three inclusive design principles in mind.
  • Recognize exclusion. When we solve problems using our own biases, exclusion happens. We need to recognize exclusion before we can address it.
  • Learn from diversity. Human beings are the real experts in adapting to diversity.
  • Solve for one, extend to many. Focus on what’s universally important to all humans.

These principles are action-oriented and they can help ground you in the inclusive design process–or re-center you on learning what works best for excluded communities. There are no shortcuts in the practice of inclusive design. Resolving mismatches is hard work and, if you’re here, you’ve started on the journey.


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