The Case for Inclusive Design

For Inclusive Design to Succeed, It Must Be Seen as a Competitive Differentiator

Jason Brush, Global EVP, Experiences & Innovation at POSSIBLE

“Inclusive design” is a simple idea: design things to be accessible and relevant to as many people as possible. It is a broad-reaching, foundational design principle applicable to everything from architecture (e.g., ensure people using wheelchairs have access) to websites (e.g., ensure that people with color blindness can see text and graphics) to content (e.g., ensure casting reflects society as it really is).

If you’re making a commercial product or service, it would seem that inclusive design should be common sense: in the US alone, 1 in 5 people has some type of disability; the US is an increasingly diverse society, and by 2055 will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. To be non-inclusive is to limit your potential market—as John Maeda noted in his 2018 Design in Tech report: “Inclusion = INCLU$ION.”

Inclusive designPhoto by Evan Krause on Unsplash

Even so, inclusive design faces significant challenges—and not just the tiresome, toxic tirades and tantrums by the racist, misogynist trolls guilty for (among other things) Gamergate and attacks on media properties like the new Star Wars films, Wonder Woman, and the Ghostbusters reboot. Inclusive design faces other forms of resistance, which might not be as outwardly vile, but is, nevertheless, pernicious. This resistance is motivated by three primary notions:

1) Inclusive design undermines profit.

For instance, some building developers, who would benefit financially from being freed from ADA compliance, recently fought (unsuccessfully—for now) to gut the ADA. While making buildings that are ADA-compliant might reduce the profit margin for developers, this offloads the inevitable and unavoidable cost of accessibility onto tenants and users of the buildings.

2) Inclusive design undermines creativity and artistic expression.

It’s not uncommon for people with a particular creative vision to be frustrated by what they might see as the unnecessary compromise of that creative vision in order to accommodate the needs or sensitivities of a wider audience. This is an especially thorny issue when it comes to the arts—where do reasonable requests for modifications to artistic or intellectual output to make it more inclusive stop and censorship begins? The subjective nature of this question can lead to a priori rejection of calls for inclusivity.

3) Inclusive design is philosophically objectionable.

Outside of any debate of whether inclusive design does or does not inhibit profit or creativity, anti-inclusionists will still invoke Ayn Rand’s libertarian fantasy of “objectivism,” beloved by freshman high-schoolers and freshman Republican representatives alike, as an ur-argument against inclusive design. For some, the idea that it is right and moral to make decisions based on empathy for others instead of self-interest is anathema.


Inclusive designPhoto by Brianna Santellan on Unsplash

Even people who might identify themselves as advocates of inclusive design, or who are, at least, sympathetic to the needs of others, can easily find themselves tacitly, perhaps unknowingly, advancing any one of these arguments against inclusive design. This is why fostering self-awareness of one’s own unconscious bias is the most important first step in advancing inclusive design. As the adage says, “check your privilege.

It’s precisely because of deep-rooted bias and ignorance that inclusive design advocates might look to legislation—both new regulations as well as the enforcement of existing laws, such as the ADA—as a means to advance the cause of inclusive design. However, there is (and will continue to be) a serious ongoing political debate about the degree to which inclusive design can and should be legislated, with the First Amendment being a significant area of contention. For instance, First Amendment objections have been made against proposed regulations that would mandate more accessible web design, and religious institutions are exempt from ADA compliance in many cases.

Legislation, while a vital strategy to pursue, is neither quick nor easy—and in some cases (artistic output, for instance) might be a deeply undesirable (indeed, unconstitutional) solution. Those interested in inclusive design would do well to look to other approaches in addition to legislation to evangelize the cause. Perhaps the best way to do so is to make the business case for inclusive design.

As Kumail Nanjiani wryly observed at the Oscars, “There are so many movies from different points of view that are making a ton of money. Don’t do it because it’s better for society and representation (even though it is). Do it because you’ll get rich. You’ll get that promotion, right?”

It is heartening to see some of our biggest companies make huge strides in forwarding the cause of inclusive design. Notably, Microsoft has made inclusivity an important tenet of their design philosophy. They’re not doing this just because it’s the right thing to do (even though it is). They’re doing it because it makes their product more usable by more people. Which means more Windows devices and software licenses sold.

Any business case for inclusive design is straightforward:

*NPS = Inclusive designNet Promoter Score

The inclusivity benefit holds that so long as the factor by which you expand your revenue is greater than the factor of increase in cost of accommodating inclusive experiences, the net benefit to the business is positive. Given that the increased cost for inclusive design is often incremental (it usually costs nothing more to take inclusivity into concern in design, and most technical solutions to facilitate inclusivity, if necessary, are extant) the business case is often fairly straightforward. Moreover, Net Promoter Score (NPS) lift is included as a multiplier to demonstrate the medium to long-term positive impact of treating a significant percentage of your audience with intention and empathy. Even in cases where research and development investment is necessary to facilitate inclusivity, outside of the long term benefit to the business in an expanded customer base, inclusivity has potential brand-building and marketing benefits, wherein a brand, product, or content can become more desirable to all customers by virtue of inclusivity.

Inclusive designPhoto by Paul Green on Unsplash

In my own family, we face the issues of inclusive design every day: our daughter has celiac, an autoimmune disease that is triggered by gluten, an amino acid found in wheat. While “gluten-free” is a fad diet (with no real scientific merit), for people with celiac, avoiding gluten in even the smallest amounts—for instance, people with celiac can’t have french fries fried in the same oil as breaded items—is a profound health necessity.

For people and families of those living with celiac or food allergies, inclusive design is essential to everyday life: we are more likely to buy products with clearly-labeled allergy warnings; restaurants with menus that feature allergen warnings are more likely to get our business. For us, Disneyland is a happy experience not just because of the rides, but because of the thorough and thoughtful protocols around food allergies in their restaurants, facilitated through amazing, personalized customer service.

About 1 in 100 people in the U.S. have celiac and 4 in 100 have a food allergy. Designing products, services, and content that meet the needs of all people isn’t just the right thing to do for individuals and broader society alike—it’s also an opportunity to expand your customer base or audience, engender loyalty, and to create experiences that are indispensable to people and, thereby, be more competitive in the marketplace.