Why applying DEI principles in your design work matters

inclusive design

Design is present in every organization whether they are offering products or services, and more and more frequently so is design thinking. Design thinking refers to a broader framework that involves methods from human-centered design to approach problems. It is interlinked with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) because it encourages and needs people from different backgrounds and expertise to work together towards an innovative solution to a problem. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, design thinking is a non-linear and iterative process that seeks to understand users better by challenging assumptions and creating innovative solutions to be prototyped and tested. The design process generally consists of five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.


What is done in design that is directly linked to DEI?

When designing our lived realities and environments, both virtual and physical, it is imperative to remember the constant change around us, in our behavior and in our surroundings overall. It’s therefore crucial for designers to constantly cultivate their skills in order to respond to the changing needs. One emerging need for designers is to understand issues related to DEI and incorporate them in their work, for example by adopting the use of inclusive design approaches.

The British Standards Institute defines inclusive design as:
“The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible … without the need for special adaptation or specialized design.”

But what are the links between design and DEI?
Here are a few intersections where design work and the principles of DEI meet:

  • Designers use methods to understand people’s needs and desires as a starting point. This understanding makes it possible to match the right technology to the most feasible business solution.
  • Designers and other people in tech solve everyday problems for a wide audience. However, it’s worth remembering that it’s a great privilege to help solve inequalities that you personally don’t experience. Inclusive design is all about that.
  • In the creative process, designers are sometimes told to “trust their gut feeling”. The issue with this is that often it’s the same as letting implicit bias take control. To avoid this, getting familiar with DEI can help with understanding and learning how to face people in a smart way without letting biases negatively affect those interactions.
  • Human-centered design in itself has the potential to solve many issues related to inequality, but on the flip side, there are also significant risks for oversimplifying and thus exacerbating inequalities.
  • Designers should be aware of which human they place in the center when doing human-centered design. Does it tend to be eg. a middle-class white, able-bodied, heterosexual and cis-gendered person? Or are they allowing for a more diverse range of people to be centered?
  • Design is about finding a point of view. DEI can help us become aware and visualize whose point of view we are optimizing for.


Biases as common barriers to inclusive design

Unconscious biases are internalized assumptions about something, someone or a group of people of which we are unaware and therefore don’t question. Some of the most common biases present when designing products and solutions are for example:

  • Confirmation bias – To search for validation in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs.
  • Conformity bias – The tendency people have to act similarly to the people around them regardless of their own personal beliefs —  peer pressure.
  • Illusory correlation – Assuming that one factor about a person correlates to another one.
  • Availability heuristic – Tendency to think that things coming to our mind easily are the most important ones.


Why inclusive design doesn’t get prioritized in everyday work?

There are other barriers to inclusive design besides unconscious biases that impact whether it is prioritized or neglected in the day-to-day work. These could include:

  • Lack of concrete metrics
  • Lack of commitment from the top management
  • Lack of diversity in development and design teams
  • Not in the company strategy or product vision
  • Lack of funding for including a wider, more diverse user base in research and co-creation
  • Not enough insight and effort to build a business case for inclusive design
  • Not a part of the ways of working
  • Lack of training and awareness on all organizational levels
  • Lack of concrete tools and methods for designers to use in their work.


What can you as an individual do?

Designers have the power and privilege to advocate for more inclusive solutions but in order to do so they need the support from the team and the leadership.

You can get started by:

  • Learning about your own biases, discuss them with the team and find ways of tackling them across the design process.
  • Advocating for a diverse team and seeking opinions different from your own.
  • Make sure you have a diverse group of users involved at all stages of the design process . Do not only think about diverse users, but actually involve them in the work.
  • Apply the design thinking stages when designing your products and solutions.
    • Empathize – this is about researching the user’s needs and ultimately gaining a better understanding of the problem you are trying to solve
    • Define – based on the research you can state the user’s needs and problems. By doing so you can create personas in order to start ideation. Make sure there is diversity and representation when you do!
    • Ideate – time to “think outside the box”, challenge assumptions, and brainstorm ideas that will cater to a diverse audience
    • Prototype – based on your learnings and ideas you can try and identify prototypes that would be the best possible solution for the largest possible audience.
    • Test – it is time to try if the designed solutions are good for the diverse user personas, if they do not, take it as a gain of knowledge and iterate your solutions.

Diversity doesn’t always make our work easy. A diversity of thought, for instance, means it can be more challenging to reach a consensus. On the flip side, this will make your solutions more inclusive and sustainable as you’ve considered the needs of both your stakeholders and end-users.


Inclusive design vs. accessibility

As a final note, if you are taking care of accessibility in your design you are one step forward but not yet fully embracing inclusive design. Accessibility is a process that follows guidelines to create products that can be used by people with a variety of disabilities. In practice, it often focuses on reducing the negative impact of inaccessible design. Inclusive design goes beyond and uses a methodology that draws on the full range of human diversity. It aims to have a net positive impact on people’s lives.


Keep learning


This blog is written collaboratively by:

Jesse Ukkonen (he/him) is a Senior Product Designer and Design Lead at Qvik who specializes in bridging technology and humanity. He applies inclusive design principles to achieve real-world impact.

Michelle Sahal Estimé (she/her) is a Service Designer at Gofore. She is particularly interested in advancing equality within our digital society through the use of ethical and inclusive design.

Yesmith Sánchez (she/her) is a DEI Senior Consultant at Inklusiiv who combines her knowledge in strategy and DEI to support organizations embed inclusive practices across different functional areas.

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