Universally speaking

With inclusive design’s processes of workshops, user interviews and role play becoming more widely accepted, Angus Montgomery finds practitioners looking to extend the scope and impact of the field

For many designers, the term inclusive design rarely crops up in studio conversation. This isn’t because they don’t know what it is or aren’t interested, but rather because the principles of user-centred design are so ingrained in what they do that there is no need for them to even mention it.

Deborah Szebeko, founder of social design consultancy Think Public, which regularly uses inclusive design principles in its projects, says, ’It’s not like we’re sitting around reading books about inclusive design. It’s almost like common sense for us.’ While you might expect a consultancy such as Think Public, which focuses on service design, to embrace user-research principles, inclusive design is now being used across design disciplines. The Helen Hamlyn Centre’s Inclusive Design Challenge, which HHC senior research fellow Julia Cassim says is ’a way of generating exemplars of inclusive design’ has, over its ten years, featured product, graphics, digital and myriad other designs.

Advocates of inclusive design say the technique, which had previously predominantly been used in disability, healthcare and social access areas, is now developing to embrace new techniques, new applications and new users.

HHC director Jeremy Myerson says the term inclusive design was first used by his HHC co-founder Roger Coleman in 1994. Myerson says, ’Prior to this, the term that was commonly used in America and Japan was universal design, but that term had become heavily tied up with disability discrimination law in the US.’ Myerson adds, ’Obviously, design for people has always been around – industrial designers, for example, have always been very interested in this principle. The big thing with the development of inclusive design has been the move away from designing for people as passive test subjects to seeing them as having a much more co-creative role.’

Giving users such an active role in the design process can throw up some unexpected results for designers. Bas Raijmakers, creative director of design research consultancy STBY, says, ’Roger Coleman once told me an anecdote that he was helping his neighbour, who was disabled, to build a new kitchen. He asked her what the most important thing was to her and she said, “I want the neighbours to envy my kitchen.” So this really triggered with him that design for disability should really move beyond the functional alone.’

Raijmakers, whose consultancy has worked on inclusive design projects in the UK and The Netherlands, says he has seen the principles of inclusive design taken up by clients beyond the design process. He says, ’An interesting effect is that the organisations that are providing the services that are developed in this way are starting to understand that they need to change their organisation and approach. The change they need to make is to also collaborate in the delivery of their services. So the collaboration they start with their customers, citizens or patients during the design is continued during the delivery.’

A number of techniques have now become common in inclusive design, including workshops, user interviews and role play, and this is an area that is constantly developing. Szebeko says, ’We’re always trying to challenge those in our consultancy to think of new ways of engaging with people. Sometimes the process is like you’re a social worker or a community worker.’ She describes inclusive design as a rewarding process, which can result in more appropriate results. She says, ’It allows you to engage in curiosity and learn about people. It gives you insights into people’s situations – if you don’t have an understanding of an issue it’s obviously going to be much harder to solve a problem. We work in some very diverse areas, such as end-of-life or cancer, where you have to have a real understanding of the issues people have.’

Myerson sees the development of social media as a boon to those interested in inclusive design, saying, ’With social media networks you can post questions on user forums and get immediate responses to them.’ He adds, ’It’s a very dynamic ethos – it’s evolving all the time. It started looking mainly at disability and aging issues and now it’s spread to broader issues such as social, economic and digital exclusion.’

Myerson points out, however, that whatever processes are developed to more effectively bring the user into the process, the skills – and the presence – of the designer remain key. He says, ’The process is about using the visualisation and facilitation skills of designers to help people look at their lives.’

Empathic conversations  

Inclusive design techniques used by STBY at the Heartlands project in Cornwall (DW 16 December 2010)

  • Co-creative workshops to generate ideas and user forums to discuss concepts and prototypes  
  • Focus on future uses and aim to avoid long ’wish lists’  
  • Involving local artists to do research and express their insights in artworks that served as conversation pieces
  • Keep activities small-scale and carefully designed, to allow for in-depth empathic conversations that inform design teamsEmpathic conversations  
    Inclusive design techniques used by STBY at the Heartlands project in Cornwall (DW 16 December 2010)

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