What is Inclusive Design?

Accessibility brings out the best in your digital products and services. Find out what is Inclusive Design and how it's different from Universal Design.

UI/UX Design

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference — also known as the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) — was held in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021.

This was the largest COP to date. Yet, not all registered leaders were in attendance for the 1st November summit; Israel’s Energy Minister Karine Elharrar was unable to participate as her designated entrance wasn’t wheelchair accessible. Where the minister arrived, her only options were to either “walk on foot for almost a kilometer, or to board a shuttle which was not wheelchair accessible,” she told Israel’s Channel 12 news.

Karine Elharrar facing wheelchair inaccessibility COP26

Karine Elharrar unable to enter the premises from her entrance | Credit: BBC

Besides failing to consider logistical infrastructures to cater to people with disabilities, the summit also saw long lines of attendees struggling to gain access to the complex, with some civil society groups being “locked out” of crucial talks, CNBC reported.

Though British officials — Prime Minister Boris Johnson included — and COP26 organisers had issued apologies, the damage of overlooking accessibility was already done.  For such a pivotal global conference to have failed to ensure sufficient access for diverse groups and voices, the legitimacy of COP26 was called into question.

This incident shows us the significance of accessibility in design. Accessible design refers to a product or service that’s designed to be easy to use for as many people as possible. It’s a crucial guideline to follow in UI/UX design because fundamentally, UIUX is grounded in empathy for its users. Ensuring that design is inclusive and accessible reinforces that core foundation of ensuring that experience is made delightful across different users with different needs.

Oftentimes, however, accessibility remains an afterthought. Design teams might incorporate it only into prototypes or finished products just so they can brand it as an inclusive product.

Aaron Steinfield, Associate Research Professor at Carnegie-Mellon University noticed this phenomenon was attributed to manufacturers who are eager to get ahead of their competition. Their primary concerns were to make products unique and attractive, but they may not fully consider accessibility in these phases of the workflow. As a result, the needs of people with disabilities are treated as secondary concerns relegated to later stages of product development.

Steinfield added that with technology’s rapid rate of evolution, “developers and designers don’t follow best practices and guidelines to incorporate accessibility from the beginning”.

But that’s not enough. If you don’t account for accessibility from the start, it’s tough to fit it in at later stages. Worse, it might not be feasible if you’ve produced your products.

Leaving accessibility to the end should never be the case. Doing so treats it as a mere criterion to check off a list. On paper, adding superficial features or embellishments can make a product or service accessible. But it doesn’t guarantee whether the product would be well-optimised for users overall. It can’t ensure users would feel compelled to use it or enjoy doing so either. That’s why in User Interface, User Experience (UI/UX) design, it’s important to understand and practice inclusive design throughout the design process.

What is Inclusive Design?

The Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) of Toronto’s OCAD University defines inclusive design as “a methodology that considers the full range of human diversity in relation to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference”.

Inclusive design as a methodology that considers the full range of human diversity

Inclusive design seeks to include groups that may be traditionally excluded from navigating an interface

In other words, the main goal is to design products and services anyone can use as well as one another. This includes people who tend to get excluded or marginalised, such as minority communities and people with physical or mental disabilities. For example, the incorporation of real-time sign language translation during our National Day Rallies since 2012 has allowed the hearing-impaired community to catch the most crucial components of the speech live.

Inclusive design recognises that none of us is identical to each other. Our needs are diverse and unique, and so a design that’s accessible allows all walks of life to use it well and with ease.

What is Universal Design?

UD is about designing products and environments that can be used by as many people as possible, regardless of circumstance.

The difference is UD emerged to address people’s needs in the physical space. In fact, we’re actually already familiar with environments involving UD; for elderlies, it’s staircases with handrails and lower stair riser height, which means each step is shorter. For the visually impaired, tactile floor indicators — floor tiles with bumps — help guide them to important locations, or away from dangerous places.

Singapore’s Enabling Village is a community space that integrates UD deep in its core identity. It has won both the President’s Design Award and the Building and Construction Authority’s (BCA) Universal Design Award in 2016. Its goal is for individuals of differing abilities to move and act with independence and ease and feel valued for their contributions. And with several social businesses staffed with individuals with different abilities, the Enabling Village drives home the message that empowering the disabled community helps both them and the businesses they’re working with.

It’s great that UD maximises the number of people who can use a feature with ease. But UD leads to one single solution. This is because these features are physical in nature, and how we interact with them remains fixed regardless of context or ability. This benefits the user groups that designers took into consideration. But it also means individuals who can’t access the solution are still left out. Other groups that the designers weren’t aware of do exist, and they wouldn’t be able to enjoy access to these UD features. Even if this is possibly a smaller group of users, it’s better to factor them in instead of neglecting them.

What's the difference? Inclusive Design is Digital

Inclusive design was conceived for digital solutions and strives to provide everyone with a great experience. This means delivering solutions in multiple forms,  to cater to many groups of people.

Designing for inclusivity lets your products and services reach more people than you’d expect. This makes it accessible for users who are of different needs, which is an ideal guideline to aim for in UI/UX design.

You can do this by involving a broad, diverse group of people in the entire design process, from brainstorming and user research to product testing.

Including diverse groups in the design thinking process

Design with excluded and diverse communities

It’s important to challenge how we approach design, so we can identify whether we’ve worked with personal biases in mind, or if we’ve excluded the voices of minorities by accident.

A Genuine Mix-up

These two terms are often deemed interchangeable, as they both focus on improving accessibility and usability.

In that case, what’s the difference?

​Universal Design

Inclusive Design

​Caters to users’ needs in the physical space

​Addresses users’ needs in the digital space

​Outcome-focused, produces one concrete solution

Process-focused, conceives multiple ways for interaction as a result

Users who can engage with this solution benefit, but others who can’t are still relegated to the sidelines

Users of different walks of life can engage with this product/service in different ways because of multiple solutions; they’re able to hence find a way that suits them best

​Benefits the groups that designers had in mind, but does not improve the experience for groups that weren’t considered

Benefits the groups that designers had in mind as well as other users, who might find these solutions convenient or preferable

Understanding Inclusive Design through a Local Example

Singpass, Singapore’s digital identity, was updated in 2021 to be more accessible for users with varying needs. With extensive user research and testing, the team behind Singpass was able to design with “edge cases” in mind — people with disabilities, the elderly, and so on. By involving visually impaired users during testing, they realised services often provided solutions to caregivers, instead of the visually impaired themselves. This was a significant point of exclusion as these users would be denied their independence, and had to rely even more on their caregivers.

They also found out people with disabilities do use Singpass too through user testing sessions. This made the design team aware of their personal biases, and taught them just how important it was to provide accessibility.

GovTech user testing for inclusive design

Engaging visually impaired users for development | Credit: gov.s Publication

The Singpass app now has features that make repetitive actions like filling in forms redundant, and facial recognition so users no longer have to wait for One-Time Passwords (OTPs) to access services. This helps users who aren’t tech-savvy and those who couldn’t access Singpass through OTPs previously. Core information on Singpass will now be offered in all four official languages as well, and the Government Technology (GovTech) team will continue to make it easier for all to use. Not only do these new changes offer users other ways to engage with Singpass, it also extends the solution to everyone. This is because everyone can choose between the various ways to access the app, and are all free to utilise the new features.

Designing for users on the edges includes and empowers them, but it benefits everyone in between as well. This is because people can face temporary and circumstantial constraints.

With inclusion at the forefront of the design process, you’d be aware of more situations where you face certain constraints, and you’ll then be able to devise a solution that addresses them. Inclusive design makes a product that’s greater for everyone.