How to build truly inclusive digital products

Sara Salguero

22 August 2022

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It’s a fact that inclusion and diversity are becoming more present globally, increasingly (and fortunately) becoming part of the daily lives of companies, organisations, and people. Designing for everyone, considering different abilities, bodies, and ages, has become essential and, as designers, we must keep them in mind when creating digital products.

But how do we achieve such an inclusive product? How do we ensure that anyone can access it comfortably, regardless of their abilities, under similar conditions? Keep reading to find out.

Basic concepts: usability vs. accessibility

Before diving into inclusion in design, we need to talk about usability and accessibility. Are they the same thing? The answer is no, although they are somewhat related:

Usability, in digital terms, is a quality attribute that evaluates the usability of a digital product. It focuses on several main aspects: 

  • Learnability: How easy is it for people to complete simple tasks on the first interaction?
  • Efficiency: Once the tasks are learned, how long does it take for people to complete them?
  • Memorability: When people go for a while without using the digital product, how long does it take for them to be able to use it efficiently again?
  • Mistakes: How many mistakes do people make, how serious are they, and how long does it take them to recover from them?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the digital product’s design?

On the other hand, accessibility is a basic characteristic of the designed environment: the ability of a product to adapt to people of all physical, sensory, motor, technological, cultural, and economic (dis)abilities. In the digital design environment, therefore, accessibility is based on designing for everyone, on ensuring that no one feels excluded when using our product.

To achieve this, there are direct actions that we as designers can carry out to make our digital products more accessible. These actions can include: adding subtitles to videos with audio, transcribing videos and audios, using alt texts in images, and maintaining a layout logic to move around the web using the keyboard. These things will make us realise that disability is in the environment and not the person.

We can design an optimal digital product with usability and accessibility principles in mind, but is this enough? There are a few more issues to consider.

Adapt or die

When designing, we must always keep our target market in mind, in order to redirect and adapt the design of our product to them. Designing an app for digital natives between the ages of 15 and 25 is completely different from designing a product for the Zen Gen, between 55 and 75 years old, whose approach to technology is much more relaxed, 

Bearing this in mind, do you think a 20-year-old has the exact same needs of a 60-year-old? Or that a 15-year-old has the same digital background as a 55-year-old? The answer is no.

Similarly, we should not mistake inclusion for positive discrimination. Designing by focusing on a specific user persona (a semi-fictional user based on the real customer and that we use to be able to design with empathy) shouldn’t lead us to developing an exclusive product dedicated to that target by making use of stereotypes. An example of positive discrimination in design is adapting neutral products to a single gender. The same happens with the inclusion of older people in the technological world.

People at the centre: designing “with” and not “for.”

A key point to bear in mind is the importance of designing with people and not for them. In other words, if we know that our product is —or is going to be— used by a group of people with specific needs, let’s take those needs into account when designing.

For such purposes, learning about our users’ digital behaviour patterns will be of great help: we must observe and analyse their digital habits, as well as study what other players are doing. Similarly, we must never forget that changing a pattern users have already acquired can lead to confusion. When we change a functionality, people must learn a new behaviour and internalise it into their behaviour patterns.

But how do we at Good Rebels make sure we are taking people into account when designing? The answer is simple: by asking them. By conducting solid research, investigating how they behave and discovering what their real needs are. And for this purpose, there is no better method than going out there and performing tests, interviews, or focus groups that allow us to empathise with the people involved in order to understand their behaviour, discover their real needs and limitations, and thus create a digital product that is suitable for them. 

As we mentioned before, it is essential not to leave anyone out: it is about designing without other “noticing” that effort. After all, we cannot forget that good design is invisible.

What is inclusion in design? Why is it necessary and essential for the design to be inclusive?

There are two great commandments that every good UX Designer should keep in mind. The first one goes like this: “you are not your user.” We don’t design for ourselves; we design for those people we have interviewed and who need to use our product to solve a problem. And this ties in perfectly with the second great commandment of UX: “empathy.” It is essential to be empathetic if we want to design not only for the user experience but for the user. It is not for them; it is with them.

Thus, we must be aware that in design, as in life, there is an emotional factor that we must take into account. Not everyone adapts to change in the same way, just as not everyone has the same knowledge or needs.

We attach the utmost importance to designing functional, usable products that solve people’s problems at Good Rebels. A solution to a problem that only a tiny part of the population can use is not a good solution. An excellent example of this is pictured in the series “Silicon Valley” (spoiler alert), in which a group of programmers develops a platform to compress files without loss of information. They validate it with a few people and see that everything works correctly. But they bring it to market and, surprise, only a tiny part of the population understands how it works. Why? You might ask. They tested it with people, didn’t they? Yes, but not with the real people who will use the application; they tested only with other developers. Therein lies the problem: they are designed for people but without them.

This is a case of fiction that we could well find in real life and often generates a feeling of guilt on the user: “Am I not intelligent enough to understand this? This is where the emotional factor we were talking about comes in: it is crucial to consider how the people at whom our product is aimed feel.

It’s not that design is now less inclusive; it has always been that way. The difference is that now we do pay attention to this issue. Before, lack of inclusion wasn’t seen as a problem. 

Case study

At Good Rebels, we care about being inclusive and designing with empathy and usability, and we make sure we transmit this to our clients, such as Correos Prepago, a sub-brand of Correos (the Spanish national mail) that offers prepaid cards to residents in Spain. 

When they set us the challenge of optimising their website’s conversion rates, Good Rebels carried out extensive research in which we discovered that a large part of the audience for this product are older people, immigrants, and other groups with difficulties in accessing banking services. It’s not surprising: Correos Prepago is committed to financial inclusion, reaching out to rural areas where, in many cases, there are no bank branches, offering its services to people who cannot have bank accounts or are not familiar with the digital environment.

As designers, this brings us to a critical point: our mission is to design with these groups in mind. And how have we done this? By making a series of conscious design decisions based on the results obtained in our research: simplifying the design, creating larger and clearer button panels, increasing the size of some of the texts, using simple and understandable language, providing extra help texts to complement some actions that can be confusing, developing clear tutorials and onboardings to introduce the user to the new features, etc.

Thanks to these actions, we will manage to increase user satisfaction. Designing “with”, not “for” people. 

So how can we be accessible in design?

In short, if we want our design to be more accessible, these are the key points to bear in mind:

  • Disability is in the environment, not in people. We must ensure that no one feels excluded, regardless of their abilities.
  • The importance of inclusivity in design: designing “with” and not “for”. It is essential to know who the digital product is aimed at to take them into account.
  • People at the centre: never forget that we design for real people who have needs and problems for which we will find solutions.
  • Don’t forget one of the pillars of UX: empathy. Listen, research, and always keep people in mind.
  • Some ways to be inclusive in design: implementing complementary elements, adapting the strategy and trying to be accessible to all groups.

We’re at the moment in history when we can start talking about change and diversity, even if these changes are slow. Will you join Good Rebels in the evolution and revolution of inclusion?