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5 simple ways design leaders can build a meaningful approach to inclusivity

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When I began my career in accessibility more than two decades ago, I realized the inequity in my work. While working for an online grocery site, I spoke with a blind customer who depended on our site for her groceries. She expressed the challenges she faced while shopping in-store and why she relied on the site’s effectiveness to save time and make her overall shopping experience easier. Something that often took her several hours, she could do in just a few minutes online — if — we could make it accessible to her. This customer’s story demonstrates the importance of creating experiences for all. To do so, it all starts with building design inclusivity into a company’s core.

Companies and designers must embed inclusivity into the fabric of their creation process – making it more than just a buzzword or standard they feel they need to meet. In fact, only 60% of employees with disabilities trust leadership and feel that their leaders’ actions aren’t consistent with their promises.

It’s clear that while companies have come a long way in building inclusivity into their operations and processes, many still lack a long-term vision. In doing so, they’ll gain a clear understanding of why this work is so important and how their work is influencing the greater good of society. So, what can designers and design company leaders do to take their current inclusivity efforts to the next level and create a meaningful path forward for implementing change? 

Throughout my years working with software and tech companies to integrate equitable design practices across every aspect of the customer experience, I’ve found that focusing on this key set of practices leads to an inclusivity-first culture.

A group of people walking down a sidewalk

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Adobe Stock: Full-length view of diverse group of business people chatting in graphic office lobby while moving towards camera, focus on smiling young woman in the wheelchair, by Seventyfour.

1. Realize the bigger picture. 

Designers and design leaders must change their organization’s objectives to reflect product equity as a part of its bottom line and if they don’t, their employees and customers will never understand the bigger picture of design inclusivity and why it’s an essential component in design. They must understand the potential implications of their products and how their designs could be perceived. As a result, employees begin to apply an “inclusivity lens” to their work, cultivating inclusive products that are a fit for multiple audiences.  

2. Hold employees accountable. 

Driving inclusivity requires a complete shift in mindset and design leaders must recognize that every employee is responsible for shifting the company culture towards inclusivity. Product leaders need to build an open line of communication with their employees.

To ensure we’re creating equitable experiences for all, we launched a dedicated team at Adobe, “Product Equity,” that works with product teams, design researchers and marginalized communities to identify where we’re falling short and how we can create equitable products that reflect customers’ needs.

This team strives to make external engagements meaningful so that people are invested in inclusivity and feel like they are fairly treated in the process. Creating a safe space for customers and employees to voice their feelings on inclusivity, to know they’re being heard and know they have a valuable role in building inclusivity in their organization, fosters deep-rooted change.  

A group of people sitting on a bench

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Adobe Stock: Happy young multi-ethnic start up at work, by francesco

3. Allow room for growth.

Products need to evolve as the customers evolve. The first step requires leaders to consistently measure their team via a capacity model – which allows them to keep a close pulse on who requires training, who needs support and who is capable of more advanced work. The second step involves close mentoring – giving a designer some generic guidelines to inform a product constructed by someone else does not work. Instead, design leaders need to walk designers through how the product was created from start to finish, including what led to the product’s evolution. 

Leaders should push designers to think of all the ways their work can go wrong, such as how one set of customers with a specific disability might benefit, while another group with a different disability might run into challenges. Equipping designers with step-by-step training and mentorship will help them understand what they need to keep in mind when creating equitable products.

Training the entire team ensures all members know their individual responsibilities rather than leaving them to a single designer, researcher or engineer to solve. Continually refining team structure and educating designers and product developers guarantees they’re always up-to-date on emerging trends and customer demands, thus allowing room for growth. 

4. Go to the source. 

Designers and design leaders need to understand how engaging with diverse communities creates opportunity. Companies often overlook inclusivity at the product level and see it as a compliance issue, but it’s much more – it’s a fundamental component of good design. Engaging with diverse groups is an interactive process, requiring ongoing and mutually beneficial relationships with a wide range of communities.

Many companies forget to involve customers, across a range of abilities and from a variety of geographies, genders, skin tones and cultural backgrounds. The goal of this work is to expand the universe of users and potential users for your product and no designer can do that without listening early, often and with humility. As a result of collaborating with diverse customers and communities, designers and design leaders discern how different people react to their products or designs and what is needed to make them feel included.

It is not okay to assume that the feedback from these communities comes free with a gift card for their time. Diversity, equity and inclusion aren’t just about whom you speak to, it’s about who you compensate, including partnerships, hiring and promotion. Cultivating the diversity in your organization, or correcting for the lack of it, is a critical step to addressing the inclusivity of the products you make.

A group of people sitting around a table

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Adobe Stock: High angle view at diverse business team discussing a project at meeting table in modern office with focus on young woman in wheelchair listening to colleagues, by Seventyfour

5. Explore new avenues and keep asking questions. 

In building long-term design inclusivity, it’s crucial to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Diversity comes in many forms and so does inclusivity. Designers and design leaders should not be afraid to ask questions and explore what makes people different when it comes to disability, race, gender, age, culture and more.

Building design inclusivity into a company’s long-term strategy starts with shared understanding, continuous education and organizational culture and design companies must approach inclusivity with a fresh perspective. But this is not where it ends and there’s more work to be done beyond resetting a company’s objectives and pathway to get there. 

Inclusivity is no longer an option for designers and design leaders to consider. As their needs evolve, more customers are demanding inclusive products and seeking other products and solutions that better fit their needs. Building inclusive products or designs requires ongoing, trusted relationships with customers from all backgrounds.

Companies that approach inclusivity with consistency and commitment will gain trust and respect from not only their customers, but their employees. As designers and design leaders implement these key practices, they’ll have the power to create a more equitable future.

Matt May is Head of Product Equity at Adobe.

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