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The Pursuit of Inclusive Design Requires Action, Not Just Intention

Inclusivity can’t only be a side project—it has to be built into your brand’s core.

Merrill Wasser is senior vice president of strategic growth at Long Dash. She is a business and brand experience consultant, previously holding roles at Razorfish and Digitas.

If ever there was a mantra that captures the ethos of inclusive design, this is it: “There is no such thing as an average user.” It’s a sentiment that captures the infinitely unique permutations of the human experience. Here are just a few of those permutations: One billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, lives with a disability. At least 40 percent of Americans belong to a cultural or racial identity group that is not white and is often marginalized or underrepresented. Nearly 14 percent of the country’s population is born outside of the United States, while veterans make up five percent of the American population. And when it comes to wealth inequality, the vast majority of Americans do not have a bachelor’s degree (almost 70 percent) while ten percent of Americans live in poverty.

The sheer scale of this diversity is difficult to comprehend. So when brands look at inclusive design as a checklist of user needs to tick off, they overlook an important reality: Inclusive design isn’t a task or a project. It is an approach that means designing for as many people as possible. It starts by recognizing points of exclusion across the entire user journey and then methodically removing those points of exclusion to make experiences more accessible and representative of as many people as possible.

The hallmarks of truly inclusive design consist of developing a deep understanding of the needs of marginalized or underrepresented groups and embracing a genuine organizational commitment to inclusion. Last year, for example, Crayola launched its Colors of the World crayons representing more than forty different skin tones to foster diverse expression in children’s art to advance its mission to raise “creatively alive kids.” Over the past several years and in pursuit of its mission to inspire every athlete in the world, Nike has released several inclusive products—from its Pro Hijab designed for Muslim athletes, to its Fly Ease line of shoes that are easy to slip on and off for people with disabilities.

Yet, even the best intentions can go astray. Taco Bell recently released a video of its CEO as an animated potato to celebrate the return of potatoes to its menu, but failed to include captions for the hearing impaired, making the video inaccessible for millions. And when Band-Aid launched bandages in diverse skin tones last year, it was criticized for stepping in too late and taking away market share from Black-owned businesses like Trucolour and Browndages that had already launched similar products.

The takeaway: inclusive design can’t be siloed away as a side project cut off from the broader brand experience, supply chain, and company culture. It has to be built in at the core.

Most brands still have a significant amount of work to do to instill an inclusive mindset across their products and experiences. But it is also important to recognize just how much progress has been made. Samsung’s latest product launch is an example of just how far some brands have come in putting inclusion at the core of their products. At CES this year, Samsung released its latest slate of products in its First Look 2021 video. Rather than leading with the latest bells and whistles in its technology, Samsung boldly led with a message of inclusion and accessibility. Its new TVs include numerous features aimed to help those who are hearing or vision impaired, such as sign language recognition, a reengineered high contrast chip set, and the ability to move closed captions to a preferred area of the screen.

Federico Casalegno, Head of Samsung’s Design & Innovation Center, explains that “Samsung has long been committed to revolutionizing access to technology for all. Making accessibility a forethought in our product and UX design journey from our intentional research through to development is an example of how we’re designing for inclusivity—one that unlocks a greater user experience that enriches people’s lives, regardless of their capabilities.”

Samsung’s product launch marks a crucial inflection point—once sidelined or buried in the glossy marketing of CES, inclusive design is making a bold and much-needed entrance on center stage.

Bringing inclusion front and center begins with anchoring employees around a shared belief system—beliefs like “there is no such thing as an average user.” Without being anchored by a strong values system, inclusive product design becomes a hollow PR stunt, afterthought, or checklist to be solved with a new design or capability. It is only when people actually believe inclusion is a value their company holds in high esteem that they can embed inclusion across the entire supply chain, the entire brand ecosystem.

It is also critically important to acknowledge personal or implicit bias on design teams. Every person brings their own lived experience, assumptions, and implicit bias to the table. Teams that fail to recognize their bias often become subject to groupthink and end up designing for users that look, think, and act like themselves. Inevitably, certain groups will be excluded and underrepresented from the design process. A better approach is to strive for a diverse makeup on design teams and to seek insight into as many different types of users as possible. One of Samsung’s accessibility design principles, for example, is co-creation, which means Samsung’s designers work side by side with employees with disabilities, research institutes, and specific communities to inform an experience designed for all users.

Brands are continuously caught in the battle of shareholder priorities versus stakeholder demands; advancing the bottom line versus doing good in the world. The good news, though, is that these imperatives are not mutually exclusive. There is a growing body of evidence that values-driven brands with a keen focus on inclusion have the potential to outpace and out-perform companies that take a more conventional approach.

No brand has a perfect track record of living by its values or designing universally inclusive products and experiences. But consumers are not demanding perfection—they are demanding progress. Younger generations in particular expect to see brands communicate candidly and transparently about where they need to improve and how they are setting benchmarks to get there. Companies that want to stay ahead of the curve need to be listening carefully now to these shifting expectations so they can start taking bold and decisive steps towards a more inclusive brand experience. The brands that do this are the ones who will thrive in the era of values-driven brands and universal representation.

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