Why inclusive design is about more than the option to adjust your text size

When talking about inclusive design people often think of the accessibility of a design, like the option on a website to increase the text size for visually impaired people or the elderly. This is indeed part of inclusive design. However, in my opinion, it implies much more. In this blog, I'd like to share my view on inclusive design as an innovation designer and as someone with a bi-cultural background.

Let’s start with why I’m writing about inclusive design and why this topic is close to my heart. I was raised within the Dutch and Palestinian culture, which are very different from each other. One half of my family did things in a completely different way than the other. I started to wonder why they do things in certain ways, and what lies behind their behaviour. I also realized that feeling left out can be in small things.

When we visited my Dutch grandparents, we were served a cookie from a jar. After one or two cookies the jar closed. My Palestinian family felt unwelcome. It is not common to close your servings in front of the guests, instead, there is plenty of food on the table. I asked my Dutch grandparents why they did it this way and they answered: “We want the cookies to stay fresh and we don’t want to exaggerate”. Both are fair arguments as well.

This curiosity for getting to the core of human behaviour is what has driven me in my role as an innovation designer for Rabobank for the past three years. As an innovation designer, I develop and test new ideas for the bank. To make sure we develop products and services that people want or need. With the aid of experiments like interviews and landing pages, we validate our risky assumptions; the parts of our product or service that might prevent it from becoming successful.

People often ask me why I work at a bank as a designer with a background in social projects. My answer is: if you solve real problems for people and put them at the centre of your design process, that also makes a social project, with the potential to have a big impact, because of Rabobank’s resources and large customer base.

Now, I would like to share my thoughts on inclusive design with you.

Be aware of your lens

Everyone has prejudices and their lens of how they look at the world. Our background, how our parents raised us, culture and experiences determine how we see things. One product can be seen differently by different people. That is very understandable. However, by only thinking from your perspective, there is a chance that you unconsciously only design for the people you relate to and potentially leave out others. A well-known example is this video of an automatic soap dispenser that detected light skin tone but could not detect the hands of people with darker skin tone, so the soap was not distributed.

Having a diverse team can help. In my opinion, it is good to have a representation of the people you design for within your team. It’s easier to empathize with people that are closer to you and it can facilitate a more open mindset and empathy for others. There are multiple ways to become aware of your prejudices, like unconscious bias training and challenging each other on this as a team.

Design with clear intentions

Ask yourself why you want to develop this idea, for who and what value you want to add to their lives. How does your idea impact people and society? It is both important to have a clear vision and a thorough list of assumptions; to make sure you build something people actually want. Formulating a list of risky assumptions is a good way to question yourself and your team on your thoughts on the idea as well.

Conduct inclusive research

In order to design inclusively, it’s important to test your idea in the right way. Therefore, it’s important to:

Listen carefully

Make sure you listen openly to your users and be respectful and humble towards them. Also, check the body language besides the verbal answers. Sometimes answers and body language don’t match. People have a need to be heard and valued. They want to help out and may just confirm your wishes to do a good job. Therefore, it is good to comfort the participants of your research, and tell them that there are no right or wrong answers and that it is about their experiences. An extra person during an interview can help find the inconsistencies.

Test with the right people

Make sure you test your service with your target group. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it can be tempting to test with people you know.

​​​​​​​Get to the core

Innovation is not just asking your potential users if they want to buy your product. It’s about finding out if the product you have in mind is fulfilling their needs and solving their problem. Sometimes stakeholders ask me “Why validate? When the mobile phone was invented, people claimed they would not need one.” Maybe back then people did need to stay connected with family and friends or to feel safe at night but did not yet know that the mobile phone could fill that need. The product is the embodiment of the need.

Map the context

A product or service is more than its function. A coffee mug is more than a container for your liquids. Someone’s favourite mug may just be the one that doesn’t collect water on top after the dishwasher or the one that enables you to walk up the stairs safely without burning your hands.

Leave room for the unknown

Next to formulating assumptions, it is good to leave room open for the unknown, the things you didn’t think of beforehand. From my experience, I get very valuable insights in the last part of an interview when I ask the participant if there is anything else to share that might be relevant or good to know.

Hopefully, this blog has inspired you and broadened your view on inclusive design. If it did, please feel free to share this blog with your colleagues and start the conversation.


About the author

Sabrin Ghazal
Innovation designer

With a background in design and entrepreneurship, and being raised within two cultures, Sabrin likes to use her creativity and her drive to understand human behaviour in designing new products and services.

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