In the media

Inclusive design: Why we need to prioritise inclusive delivery and research

By Alex Wright

AT Today

21 December 2023

Exclusion is almost always created inadvertently. Beyond specific access entitlements – such as restrictions for over 18-year-olds or premium subscribers – few organisations would deliberately make choices about their products or services that shut anyone out.

Rather, exclusion is sadly often the result of a failure to consider the needs of all possible users, which means the design may not work for people with particular needs like sight loss, hand tremors, wheelchair users, or other users of assistive technology.

Recent government figures reveal that around a quarter of the UK’s total population have a disability. Yet a survey by the charity Scope found 49 percent of people with disabilities feel excluded from society. This is unacceptable and clearly calls for significant changes in how organisations approach inclusive design.

Ramifications of exclusion

When people try to self-serve digitally – in other words, buy a product online, book an appointment or manage an account – and find that exclusion prevents them, they’ll often end up switching to a more expensive channel, such as calling or visiting a branch. This tends to be more costly and time-consuming for the customer and organisation, and it establishes a pattern where customers learn or feel forced to resort to deviating from more established channels.

Yet these cost-to-serve spikes are displaced away from the originating business unit, as the expensive channel to which excluded customers resort is often a different cost-centre to the one that first excluded them. And so, the cost-impact of that exclusion isn’t attributed back to the original channel, service or moment in time.

Exclusion creates friction, for all customers. If you design inclusively then, for example, your design will include writing that’s suitable for the average UK reading age of nine years. This will make everyone’s experience easier, faster, and more successful – not just those with additional needs or protected characteristics.

Businesses should remember that exclusion has a blast-radius, inclusion has a halo. People talk. If they experience inclusion or exclusion, they’ll share it, and as “the ants have megaphones”, sharing can have enormous reach – positive or negative – and subsequently influence the choices of others. As well as a moral incentive, companies have a reputational motivation to ensure their offerings prevent anyone being excluded.

Prioritise inclusive delivery

Inclusive delivery is almost more important than inclusive design, as an inadvertent creator of exclusion. Product managers make prioritisation choices about which features of a product or service to deliver, often oriented around “the most important features, for the most people first.” Similarly, technologists make architecture choices to support the “must-have” features.

Assistive technology users, for example, are not commonly prevalent in delivery teams making these choices for mainstream products and services. This can exacerbate poor awareness among decisionmakers, as those with different or additional needs can remain hidden. Inadvertently, this means that inclusive features can be de-prioritised, or prevented entirely.

A common response is to treat inclusion like a backlog or to-do-list item – in the same way you might treat a feature – so it gets prioritised (or not) in competition with other possible features. However, inclusion shouldn’t be a feature; it’s an approach that’s woven through every design choice and every feature. Accordingly, “adding inclusion later”, such as redeveloping front-end code to support screen readers, drives significant remediation and refactoring costs, as features thought to be finished have to be redesigned and remade to work for all customers.

Effective research and feedback

The place to start in addressing this is inclusive research. Simply put, without inclusive research, you won’t know the spectrum of needs of all the people you serve, which means you can’t design for those needs or test whether your design works.

Many people responsible for design, delivery or product-feature choices buy into accepted best practice that you should make something in close proximity to target users. Therefore, they will “do research”, but there’s inhibition and fear around inclusive research, and causing offence or misusing terminology when working with those with protected or special characteristics or assistive technology users. There’s the potential to say the wrong thing, inadvertently “other” the research subject, or create a moment of exclusion while trying to support inclusion and risk revealing unrecognised, clumsy privilege.

Accordingly, establishing a consistent practice of inclusive research, and helping those who do it find the right language with which to engage all types of people confidently, is at the root of making real change. Likewise, making the entire project process inclusive involves using feedback to refine product and service designs, particularly for assistive technology, where the focus must be on the outcomes for users, rather than the technology itself.

For example, PA Consulting’s Argenti Care Technology Partnerships take an innovative approach to technology-enabled care while reducing costs. This has involved soliciting feedback from not only users, as with Kent County Council’s “Technology Enabled Lives” programme, but other stakeholders, such as care professionals, carers, and care workers in Hampshire. Gathering a breadth of views on the technology means it can be fed back to manufacturers to influence product development.

Inclusive design benefits all users and enables fuller participation in society for people living with disabilities or additional needs. Incorporating inclusive practices in research, design and delivery practices is essential to reducing costs and friction, whilst increasing usability and overall customer experience. Only by understanding, inclusively, everyone’s needs can you inclusively design for them.

This article was first published in AT Today

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