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Recognizing Exclusion Is the Key to Inclusive Design: In conversation with Kat Holmes

By Rebecca Bedrossian, Global Content Director, POSSIBLE

When it comes to inclusive design, few people have as much hands-on experience as Kat Holmes, founder of Kata. Her book on the subject, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design (available from The MIT Press in September 2018), sets the foundation for why designing with excluded communities results in better results for everyone.

Holmes served as the Principal Director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft from 2014-2017 and led a multidisciplinary team in the development of the Microsoft Inclusive Design toolkit, described by Fast Company as a radical evolution of design thinking and practices.

We spoke to Holmes to find out more about her approach to the field – and her thoughts about its future.

Mismatch is the title of your book. What is the concept behind the term and how has it guided your book and work?

The word is pulled from the World Health Organization, which defines a disability as "a mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live". This is also known as the social definition of disability. The responsibility, then, is squarely placed on those of us who make decisions about products or experiences to understand that each choice either increases or decreases those mismatches.  

When you describe inclusive design, you start by talking about exclusion. What do you mean when you say that exclusion is designed?

After I left Microsoft and started working with a much broader group of companies, I realized that even though we were all talking about inclusion, we each had a different understanding of that word. Exclusion, on the other hand, is unanimously understood as being left out – and we’ve all experienced exclusion in our lives. With respect to design, I started to think that recognizing exclusion is a skill we can build. It’s an actionable starting point for thinking in new ways about how well a design does or doesn’t meet a person’s needs or preferences. Once we learn how to recognize exclusion, we can begin to see where a product or experience that works well for some might have barriers for someone else. Recognizing exclusion sparks a new kind of creativity on how a solution can be better.

How can inclusive design remedy this exclusion?

The key to inclusive design is working closely with excluded communities to create better solutions. Recognize who’s most excluded from using a solution and then bring them into the heart of the design process. People who navigate mismatched interactions every day of their lives will bring ingenuity and deep expertise in how to solve those design challenges.

For example, there are many teams in tech that are working on the design of voice-based interfaces. There are also communities of people who have have been using speech-commands to control computer interfaces for much of their lives, often because they are unable to use a keyboard. Bringing people with this expertise into the design process can lead to invaluable insights into how to build great voice-based experiences for everyone.

The field of inclusive design is still evolving in many ways. What are some of the surprising confluences you’ve discovered in your research?

There’s a long history of inclusive design that is based on physical products and environments. At Microsoft, we found fewer examples of how inclusive design works in digital environments. Our research involved spending a lot of time looking at analogous ideas, partnering with people who design playgrounds, for example, or artists and dancers from the disability community. The goal was to see what practices carried over into digital environments.

We also looked at inclusive design methods aimed at many facets of human diversity, such as gender, race, ethnicity, or age. This is where you can see why it’s so important to focus on exclusion as a whole. It’s a theme that transcends all kinds of human diversity and can be a vehicle to bring people together. It also underscores the importance of the words we use. It’s not about being politically correct, but about developing a richer vocabulary to describe what we mean when we talk about the many kinds of inclusion.

Can you share an example that demonstrates how inclusive design, when done well, can benefit all?

Closed captioning was first introduced in the 1970s as a way to make television content accessible to people who were deaf and hard of hearing. The first television show that had closed captioning was The French Chef with Julia Child. Although it started as a solution for a specific group of people, closed captioning has allowed anyone to watch TV in crowded or noisy environments, such as a bar or gym. In classroom settings, closed captioning has shown to increase the rate of learning a new language, as well as assist students with learning disabilities.

What are some best practices for approaching the inclusive design process?

Regardless of the stage of your design process, take a moment to recognize your own ability-biases and ask yourself who would be unable to use this solution. Seek out the missing perspectives and find a partner whose strengths can help you address those ability biases.

Also, question your assumptions. Learn how to frame problems through the lens of inclusive design and use the process to reframe the problems we think we’re solving.

How does inclusive design, as a way of thinking, shift the quality of discussions with people with disabilities?

Among the groups that have experienced great degrees of exclusion, people with disabilities have been overlooked by society more than most. The history of disability rights and the leaders of the movement are rarely taught in schools alongside other civil-rights movements. People with disabilities are rarely credited for the inventions they create or help create, even though many of these solutions went on to become mainstream products – from keyboards and kitchen utensils to audiobooks. Accessibility is rarely taught as a fundamental skill in engineering and design schools. And yet, accessibility, especially in technology, is the absolute foundation of integrity for any inclusive solution. To do that well requires the contribution and design expertise of people with disabilities or people who have experienced the greatest degree of exclusion in using a design.

What’s the key takeaway from your book?

That exclusion and inclusion are a series of choices designers make every day. Period.

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