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Inclusive Design is a Brand Imperative

Acknowledging systemic challenges is the first step—but to create a more equitable world, brands must also take action.

Russell Vea is a full-stack developer, writer, and Long Dash alum.

More people than ever expect institutions to act with empathy. According to an Ipsos study conducted in May, nine out of 10 respondents said it is important for organizations to show empathy to build loyalty.

However, less than three-quarters of those same respondents said that they believed brands had realized this important fact. Just as events of the past few months have resurfaced and reignited conversations about injustices in America, they have also drawn greater attention to the intersectional systems that have historically marginalized groups of people.

Brands—always seeking a relationship of trust with their audiences—have an essential role to play in elevating and practicing inclusive design. By pursuing standards of accessibility and diversity, brand leaders can help build empathy with their consumers, ensuring their platforms meet the needs of all audiences. This worthy effort is not without its challenges, however. Here are three obstacles to inclusivity that all brands should be aware of and ways leaders can begin to remove them.

Removing barriers to information

We live in an age of almost limitless information—but this isn’t always the case for people with disabilities and those without reliable access to the internet.

In March, when the world began to lock down in earnest due to the COVID-19 pandemic, internet traffic to news and government sites hit record highs. As people around the world raced to learn about COVID-19 and its risks, organizations of all kinds leveraged infographics and videos to educate their audiences. For many, these are widely effective communication tools; for others, getting information this way is harder than it should be.

For the more than 10 percent of the U.S. population with vision and hearing impairments or difficulties, this vital information was effectively hidden. In a piece in The Markup, reporter Adrianne Jeffries found that of the 50 state government pages meant to inform the public about COVID-19, a vast majority contained design or technical implementations that made them more difficult for people with disabilities to access. In one prominent example, 41 of the websites contained color combinations (for example, light gray on white) that made it difficult, if not impossible, for those with a visual impairment to read. Those looking for what little guidance that was available during a moment of uncertainty were literally kept in the dark.

Bucking the bloat trend

Another troubling trend that pervades the digital world is web bloat, a state in which pages and sites feature massive quantities of images, super-high-resolution videos, and sprawling code—but are incredibly slow (or impossible) to load on anything but the fastest internet connections.

Despite the wider adoption of broadband and gigabit internet services, 17 percent of those surveyed in a 2019 Pew survey—a disproportionate amount of whom were people of color—access the internet solely through a wireless provider. At the same time, the size of the average website long ago surpassed that of the ’90s computer game Doom. This means that many people regularly encounter digital experiences with unbearable load times. Often, these users choose to simply disengage completely—according to Google research, the probability of a user leaving a page increases by 90% as page load time increases from one second to five seconds.

Defaulting to inclusion

Today, the United States faces a reckoning on systematic injustice—a reckoning from which technology and design communities are not excluded. Historically, design is one of many tools that has been used to perpetuate inequality in America: Consider the urban planner Robert Moses, who intentionally ordered designers to make bridges along the Southern State Parkway to prevent busses on the highway exiting New York City in what some consider to be a racist act.

Designs in the modern world, owing perhaps more to negligence than malice, often perpetuate the exclusion of people of color. Recently, Harvard researchers found that features implemented on short-term rental site Airbnb allowed for discrimination, even when they were initially meant to promote transparency and trust between the host and guest. The study, published in the American Economic Journal, concluded that renter profiles with “Black-sounding names” were 18 percent more likely to be rejected than others.

How your brand can incorporate inclusive design

In order to adopt a culture of accessibility and inclusion among your organization’s team, members can promote these practices:

  • Audit your platforms regularly with a freely accessible tool like the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool by WebAIM. This might raise accessibility issues such as insufficient keyboard navigation and low color contrast that your product team can work to address.
  • Account for the blind when posting images to platforms by ensuring alternative text is included, a new feature that Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have rolled out. 
  • Account for the deaf when publishing videos by making sure to include subtitles. Not only will this help the hard of hearing, but it will also make your content more appealing to the large proportion of people who view videos on mute.
  • To be a better ally to disabled people, read the resources found at The A11y Project.

By prioritizing accessibility, product teams not only make websites easier to use, they also help to boost search engine optimization for the brand itself, as Google ranks accessible sites higher than their non-accessible counterparts.

Reduce bloat

In order to combat web bloat, brands should dedicate the necessary time and resources to considering the technologies their team uses to build platforms. Too often, developers become enamored with “hype-driven development,” gravitating to standards set by shiny new tools made by big tech companies that market themselves as being battle-tested. But not everyone has the same requirements or scale as Facebook. More often than not, the pursuit of these trends result in bloated, slow-to-load websites. 

When building a web platform, brands should consider following the lead of the recently launched email service, Hey. Led by Danish programmer David Heinemeier Hansson, the company’s philosophy is one of classical implementation. Hey purposely avoids the latest tools, developing sites with technologies that were common in the mid-to-late aughts. As a result, parts of Hey have page weights that are five times lower than the average. Plus, the service loads fast, works on legacy computers, and is more mobile-friendly. In the fast-moving tech world, a slower, classical point of view could help your brand’s platform stand out.

Promote equity

Those who are responsible for managing design and development must consider the disproportionate impact of the platforms they build. As researcher Michael Luca explains, “The choices you make as a manager can have a profound impact on the inclusivity of the systems you are creating.”

Above all, it is critical for brands to ensure diverse voices are included—and heard—during the design process. Brands that hire people of color and foster an environment of inclusion, equity, and diversity are better positioned to ensure that there is a diverse set of perspectives present and empowered to provide meaningful input throughout the creative process—even while making decisions that have traditionally been overlooked, like choosing stock photography for marketing materials.

Consumers are demanding that brands not only reflect diversity in their external marketing, but also in their makeup of their employees. It’s not merely about the acknowledgement of these goals as priorities. Not only do the tactics outlined above help brands to improve the performance of their content, develop more user friendly products and services, and elevate their employees—but they also help play a necessary part in countering the broad systemic injustices we’re all seeking to rectify.

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