Inclusive design is not a new design approach

In recent years we have witnessed a resurgence in the inclusive design approach.  This partly due to the importance of web accessibility and the wider role it plays in delivering a great user experience to everyone.  However, inclusive design is far from a new approach! Inclusive design is also known as Universal design and both should be considered as interchangeable approaches. However, the latter emerged first from the field of architecture back in the late 1960’s and was coined by the architect Ronald L Mace. Universal design started as an approach to ensuring the design of the built environment was planned to be as ‘barrier-free’ as possible, enabling the widest possible spectrum of people to access it.  This idea parallels with the approach of web accessibility even though it is limited to the digital world. Whilst inclusive design is often synonymous with web accessibility this also presents a misconception. Web accessibility is a much newer concept only dating back to 1997 which coincides with the start of the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative. The best way to think of web accessibility is as a fundamental component of the inclusive design process.

A light blue circle with a smaller circle inside it

Figure 1: The relationship between web accessibility and inclusive design. Inclusive design represents the whole whereas web accessibility is a component.

So what’s the difference?

There are many great examples of inclusive design and the benefits it provides to the majority of people rather than the small minority which is often the common misconception. OXO International design and manufacture stylish, accessible and usable kitchen utensils that we can all use. The original conception for their utensils was supporting people with arthritis and as a consequence their products offer superior grip and better performance for all that use them.  What started out as a project to design kitchen utensils that were easier to grip and twist has resulted in better products for everyone and they look contemporary which rebuffs the notion that accessibility means unstylish. Car designers have also recently started to consider older users in the development process and this has resulted in larger controls and easier access supporting a wider spectrum of car drivers and users with better design (e.g. parents with small children). The Core Building at the Eden Project is a great example of inclusive design because it has internal ramps, uses colour contrast and has an intuitive circulation system.  It is easy to move around, looks good and provides alternative forms of access: everyone is invited to appreciate the value of the Eden project and this reflects the organisation's ambition to make all of us more aware and informed. Inclusive design when considered at the beginning of any project removes many of the expensive mistakes that happen when people and their access needs are not fully considered.  Web accessibility like inclusive design provides better results when it is considered from the outset.  In reality it results in a better design for all of us.

Inclusive design increases social equality

The benefit of an inclusive design approach is that it increases social equality by providing a greater range of people with access to the same information or shared experience. This is not just a noble pursuit but one that is commercially smart! Every organisation wants to provide goods and services to the widest possible market so why reduce the share of that market through ignorance or lack of expertise. Providing the largest possible pool of people with a level of access that allows all of them to share and ultimately belong and this thinking underlines the importance of why inclusive design is so essential. It is more than just a design process, it’s a philosophy that demonstrates commitment and that recognises the commercial advantage of ‘making a difference’.

Bridging the accessibility gap

Inclusive design is not yet as widely adopted as it needs to be. This is a real design challenge which has left a gap in the accessibility requirements people need to have an equal and shared experience!  However, the opportunity to make a difference is what needs to be embraced. This accessibility gap must be bridged and the only way to do that is to give greater recognition to the needs of people with disabilities in the design process. This approach will ensure that more people can use the technology and this can only be regarded as a good thing. Everyone has the right to use technology and it should not be a privilege of the majority but the right of everyone.  We should all have access and share in an enjoyable and easy-to-use experience both in the physical and digital worlds.

Inclusive design is the new new media

Inclusive design is still an emerging design approach that needs to be formally established as a standard method for designing humanisation into technology. It is important because it helps us to focus on experience and specifically how we want customers to feel. Whilst we have come a long way since the universal design days of Mace we need to go further and set our ambitions even higher. Designing accessible technology has the potential to change the world and should be wholeheartedly embraced. Fundamentally, if you really care about your customers then you must care about accessibility and that means you need your designers to be practicing inclusive design or hire ones that do!


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