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17 November 2021

Designing for inclusion: Kat Holmes’ Mismatch

Kate Every

I recently read Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design by Kat Holmes. It was a fascinating read that brings together a lot of threads around inclusive design. Here are a couple of my top takeaways from the book.

Defining Inclusive Design

There is no single definition for “inclusive design” and it can be hard to capture all of the nuances in a fixed definition. Holmes focuses on the way in which design can exclude, and believes that the mission of inclusive design is to counteract those exclusions — or “mismatches” — between service and user.

One definition that Holmes cites comes from inclusive design leader Susan Goltsman:

“Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging.”

A key factor of inclusive design is process — how did you get to your outcome? Were your processes inclusive? Another definition she puts forward, emphasises this process element:

“A methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.”

Crucially, this means including contributions from people from communities that are typically excluded.

The danger of designing for the average user

There is no such thing as a “normal” human being. The prevailing narrative has been that we should design for the majority of (read: normal) users. We can then come back to look at the edge cases later if there’s time. Spoiler alert: there’s never time later. But to suggest that there is even such a thing as a “normal” human is a huge oversimplification.

Holmes discusses how society’s understanding of “normal” has been heavily influenced by a 19th-century mathematician, Adolphe Quetelet.* Attempting to better understand human society, Quetelet gathered data on humans (physical characteristics, behaviours, ‘moral categories’) and plotted them all on a graph. What emerged was a bell curve, showing the average in the centre, with those data points plotted off to the side being treated as deviations from the norm.

A diagram of a bell curve showing the majority of people in the middle, with fewer people plotted to the left and right.
A bell curve

“When he published his Treatise on Man it was a revolutionary work. In its pages, he held that individual people should be measured against that perfect average. From this comparison, one could calculate the innate degree of “abnormality” of an individual person. Diversity and variations in human beings were treated as degrees of error from perfection.”

This idea became pervasive and has influenced other fields of study. It formed the body mass index (BMI) measure and fed into dangerous ideologies such as eugenics.

The problem with designing for average — ethics aside — is it doesn’t actually work. Holmes cites an example where the US Air Force attempted to create a fighter jet that would fit the average body, taking thousands of measurements from pilots to determine the exact best fit. Every feature of the flight deck was fixed in place based on the ideal positioning calculated from the average measurements. The result: of 4000 pilots, it didn’t actually fit a single person properly. And this led to a high rate of crashes. This rigid approach to design, based on seemingly sound and pragmatic logic, led to exclusion and ultimately deadly consequences.

The solution was not to create a one-size-fits-all (actually one-size-fits-none) solution. But to create a design that was adjustable so that every pilot could adapt it to their individual needs. “This led to … Innovations like adjustable seat belts, seat heights and positioning of controls. Once the instruments of a flight deck could be modified by an individual pilot, their safety and performance improved. The adjustments also drastically increased the number, and diversity, of people who qualified to be fighter pilots.”

The importance of slowing down

Recently, I’ve had some enlightening conversations with colleagues about the importance of slowing down. To do inclusive and equitable work, we need the time to really think through decisions. Time to challenge assumptions, to build meaningful relationships with people with lived experiences, and to unpack our own biases. These sorts of practices don’t fit neatly into a sprint cycle where there is pressure to deliver. But delivery at pace comes at a cost. Not having these nuanced conversations early means creating products with barriers built-in, that we must go back and rectify later. The accrual of this accessibility and inclusion debt builds, perpetuating problems for users. And as with any debt, the longer it is left, the more costly it is to pay down.

“There can be little time to think. We might want to pursue our best intentions for inclusion, but there’s a constant pressure to keep growing and moving quickly… In these moments, assumptions become a necessary shorthand.”

Whilst our inability to slow down causes issues on a case-by-case basis, the real danger is in the way this compounds over time: we form habits of exclusion. In the initial rush to get an MVP out of the door, we might think this is an exceptional case. While we need to work quickly right now, things will slow down and we’ll go back to make our product more inclusive. But this is so often not the case. We have now built a blueprint for how to do things quickly, and the habit starts to bed in and gets repeated iteration after iteration.

This pressure to deliver quickly can be part of team cultures, and sometimes the habits have been there for years. This can make it feel impossible to challenge at an individual level. Holmes has a call to action for us here: “We forget that those rules were initially written by human beings and can be rewritten. Those of us who are now playing the game have a responsibility to adapt it as needed. If we don’t, we are accountable when someone’s left out — not some leader from the distant past. We can respect the intent of the game, but also adapt the rules to make it more inclusive.”

The importance of slowing down is also central to the equityXdesign framework. They emphasise adding the steps Notice and Reflect to the traditional design thinking model. They also advocate for Equity Pauses as part of what they call Transformational Empathy. These are powerful concepts to grapple with, I recommend checking out their work.

Creating meaningful relationships > Empathy

In recent years, the Design Thinking model has come under scrutiny. People have challenged the Empathise step, questioning whether conducting a few hours of research with a select group of users can really constitute deeply empathising with a community. This issue is an outworking of the previous point. The pressure to deliver means that often researchers are only able to have surface-level engagements with users. There is not enough time to build meaningful relationships and ensure ongoing interaction with our most vulnerable users.

The book discusses participatory design methods which, with time and relationship building, can enable us to go beyond the surface to have more sustained conversations with users. Holmes’ suggestion here:

“One way to start is by building an extended community of ‘exclusion experts’ who contribute to your design process. These are people who experience the greatest mismatch when using your solution, or who might be the most negatively affected… Designing with, not for, excluded communities is how we put the inclusive in inclusive design.”

This comes back to our definitions: inclusive design is about process, and not just outcome. Yes, we want the design to be usable for the widest range of people. But involving people along the way is an integral part of achieving that outcome.

A warning: designing for the future

The issues discussed above are something that design teams are grappling with day to day as they seek to make services more inclusive. This is already a huge challenge. Towards the end of the book, Holmes speaks about the future. She discusses the impact of AI and machine learning technology which are becoming ever more ubiquitous. Without significant human intervention, products powered by these technologies run the risk of “amplifying the cycle of exclusion on a massive scale.”

These tools have the potential for positive impact on excluded communities, as Holmes says “A machine that can flex itself to the unique needs of one person could be deeply personal to millions of people in infinite ways.” However, if we encode our existing biases into them, they run the risk of replicating these biases at a great speed. The impact can be tragic and even life-threatening. (For more on this check out Joy Buolamwini’s work on Algorithmic Justice and Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.) To avoid that future, we need to be focusing on inclusion now more than ever.

*Holmes draws from the book The End of Average by Todd Rose on this point.

Have you read Mismatch — what are your thoughts?

If you’re interested in Inclusive and Ethical design please reach out for a chat! You can find me on LinkedIn here.