What is inclusive design and why does it matter?

What is inclusive design and why does it matter?

Updated 2 May 2023

What does someone with an ear infection, someone who’s hard of hearing and someone who’s on a busy train and forgot their headphones have in common?

They would all struggle to interact with audio content on a digital interface. Inclusive Designers know this, as they cater not only for “typical” users or those with disabilities but all possible experiences that may exclude someone from using a digital interface effectively.

What is inclusive design?

Looking at the above examples, accessible design guidelines are in place to assist the person who’s hard of hearing but not those who are on a busy train which is a situational impairment or those with an ear infection which is a temporary impairment. 

Inclusive design is all about considering the full range of human diversity in relation to ability, language, culture, gender, age, environment and many other forms of human difference. Inclusive design is all about creating good experiences for as many people as possible.

Accessibility vs. inclusive design – what’s the difference?

Accessible design refers to catering to the needs of disabled people to ensure using a product is just as efficient for them, as it is for the rest of the population. Inclusive design is a larger spectrum, which focuses on building for everyone. This in turn makes accessible design an outcome of effective inclusive design.

Unlike inclusive design, accessible design (AA compliance) is a legal requirement in Australia. Accessibility has a narrower scope than inclusive design and is assessed through Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Accessible design when put into practice makes the lives of those with disabilities easier, while inclusive design makes the lives of a lot of people easier.

With this in mind, accessible design is an outcome of meeting accessibility guidelines that help people with disabilities engage with content in the same way a “typical” user would. Inclusive design is a process-based methodology for how to approach design to understand that there are no “typical” users, just people in diverse circumstances. 

Key differences between accessible design and inclusive design are: 

  • Inclusive design is for everyone including those with permanent, temporary and situational disabilities. 

  • Accessible design focuses on the end product whereas inclusive design is a methodology.

  • Accessible design has standards by law, inclusive design does not.

  • Accessible design is a part of inclusive design.

Why is inclusive design important?

If we don’t intentionally design for inclusion the likelihood of creating unintentional exclusion is high. Inclusive design is important because it works for everyone and everyone benefits including businesses. Let’s take a look at a few key benefits:

Enhances the user experience for as many people as possible.

1 in 5 Australians experience some form of disability. Empathy for a diverse group of people is a key component of inclusive design. Can you afford to exclude (aka shut the door) on 20% of your potential audience? 

Helps boost brand position in market.

Nearly two-thirds of consumers prefer to support companies that stand for a purpose. Practicing inclusive design will not go unrecognised by your audience. 

Helps boost your organic traffic.

Google values inclusive user experiences. Following inclusive design practices on your website is great for SEO and will help you rank higher in search results. 

Increased sales.

It’s a numbers game. Let’s say you adopted inclusive design principles for Australian customers. Simply by including and opening your door to as many people as possible, your audience is larger by 4 million people! 

What are the principles of inclusive design?

Unlike accessible design, there are no guidelines to follow, just principles which guide the inclusive design process. 

Let’s take a look at the key principles of inclusive design:

  • Identify ability-based exclusion.
    Proactively seek out points of exclusion and use them to generate new ideas and unseen opportunities to create inclusive solutions. 

  • Find situational challenges.
    Differing from ability-based exclusion, situational exclusion stems from the scenarios when a user is unable to use a product effectively. 

  • Avoid personal biases.

    Involve people from different communities throughout the process to avoid unintentional, business or personal biases. 

  • Create different engagement ways.
    Provide users with different options they can choose from based on their unique circumstances. 

  • Build equivalent experiences for all users.
    The different ways people can interact with your product or service are comparable to those without any impairments.

Here's a quick case study. In 2011, This American Life started transcribing its entire audio archive and making them freely available to website visitors. As a result, This American Life reached a broader audience by making its content accessible to people with hearing impairments, in sound-sensitive environments or who have a primary language other than English. In turn this improved their SEO performance, increasing its search results by 6.86%.

In addition,Microsoft is a great example of a company that strives for inclusive design. Their inclusive design toolkit includes extensive resources and instructions on how to design inclusively. Airbnb also has a helpful research tool for creatives called Another Lens, which is worth a read. 

Designing for inclusivity – Top tips

Inclusive Designers lean on a range of practices including:

  • Integrating accessibility right from the get-go.

  • Collaboration, working openly, co-designing and communicating multimodally.

  • Designing for adaptability and flexibility, privacy and uncertainty.

  • Facilitating inclusively and hiring for design diversity.

  • Focusing on functional needs and preferences and testing frequency.

When you come to an agency like Honest Fox these are built into our ways of working. Whilst there are many ways to execute inclusive design, below is a list of common scenarios and tips to consider when designing.

Visual: Create larger font sizes across devices and use colour contrast best practices.

Auditory: Ensure videos have captions or transcripts. Check that someone can achieve what they need to achieve without calling you for example. 

Cognitive: Show just enough information at any single moment in time. Create icons next to concepts for a clear understanding of themes. Keep it simple. Do not ask for respondents to do anything when an option can be automated. 

Physical: Avoid crossing personal boundaries. Use large buttons with ample click space in between. Ensure someone can achieve what they want to achieve even if they can’t complete a form or ‘buy now’. 

Race, Ethnicity and Gender identity: Use imagery that includes a wide range of demographics. Include your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Sexuality: Do not posit any questions that take a stance on sexuality. Include same-sex marriages and relationships in questions that pertain to domestic and romantic relationships. Do not exclude same-sex parents in applicable questions.

Political standing: Keep your questions politically neutral. Assure the privacy of your respondents, as politics can be a personal and sensitive matter. Do not suggest any political siding. 

Reading proficiency: Use reading levels and word-choice appropriate for your target demographics. Add icons whenever possible for more clarity.

Economic factors: Assure respondents of their privacy and anonymity. Rather than using specific quantities for salary/income info, use ranges. 

Culture and religion: Avoid stereotyping. Bear in mind that some matters are considered taboo in some cultures and religions. Do not take a stance on any issue that pertains to a culture.

Country or residence: Use the appropriate language when surveying residents of different countries. Use the appropriate privacy requirements as they apply to different countries. (Ex: GDPR in the EU, for example).

Inclusive design matters

When businesses make their websites or digital products, they’re often under the assumption that every customer is able-bodied. They may forget about the visually impaired or someone who’s just walking in the sun, unable to see the text on their phone screen.

Inclusive design ensures your user experience takes into consideration all users in all situations. Isn’t that just the right thing to do? Luckily for our clients, it also allows us to reach a broader audience and therefore delivers more effective and impactful designs. 

If your business is not designing for inclusivity the time to start is now. There’s so much potential, importance and value by investing in design that’s about working for everyone. Get in touch to find out how you can benefit from our Inclusive Design experience, principles and practices on your next project. 

Written by

Linda Bailey

UX Director

Diverting from a career in Architecture, Linda uses the left and right side of her brain equally. She's been with Honest Fox from the beginning and is involved in all facets of the business. She's empathetic and kind and loves punk music.