Products and services with a great user experience should feel like a welcoming party, where everyone's invited and nobody feels left out. This is what inclusive UX design is all about – creating a space where differences are celebrated, not sidelined.
Keep reading to learn about the importance of inclusivity in UX design. You'll also gain insights on best practices, examples, and resources to help you create products and services that support and enable people of all backgrounds and abilities.
What is inclusive UX design?
Inclusive UX design aims to develop interfaces and experiences that are accessible and meaningful to a diverse range of users.
Inclusive design originated from the mid-twentieth century movement toward architectural accessibility for veterans and the aging population. It evolved through the late twentieth century with the concept of "universal design" or "design for all," and matured in the digital era with the push for digital accessibility.
Today, it’s a holistic approach acknowledging human diversity, striving to include as many people as possible in the design process to create universally accessible products.
Alita Joyce, a UX researcher at Google, explains it well: "The focus is on fulfilling as many user needs as possible, not just as many users as possible. At its core, inclusive design is about empathizing with users and adapting interfaces to address the various needs of those users."
Accessibility vs inclusivity in UX design
Inclusive design in UX is often associated with designing for people with disabilities. However, it transcends beyond disabilities and considers all users' diverse needs.
"I prefer to use the word ‘inclusivity’ in place of accessibility. In the context of product design, inclusivity means making your software the most usable by the widest range of people, including – but not limited to – people with disabilities," shares Alison Shaw, Director of Design Systems at Zendesk.
For example, adding captions to a video about how to use your mobile app can make content accessible to users who are hard of hearing, and using high-contrast colors can help those with visual impairments.
Inclusivity stretches the scope of UX design to accommodate all users, not just those with disabilities. If we’re to use the same example (a tutorial video of your mobile app), this means considering factors like age, language, culture, and technological proficiency. You practice inclusivity by making the video available in multiple languages or dialects in countries where your app is available.
Why inclusive UX design matters
Designing without inclusivity can make users feel left out or offended, which can negatively impact your brand. Here are some common issues that could arise when exclusion occurs in UX design and why you should try to be more mindful of the biases that could get in the way of inclusivity.
Designing with gender stereotypes can unintentionally marginalize users who don't fit traditional gender roles or norms. For example, assuming that only women will use a parenting app can make it harder for fathers, non-binary parents, and others involved in child care to connect with the design.
Despite legal requirements and ethical considerations, many products and services still overlook users with disabilities. A typical example is not providing closed captioning for videos, which can prevent deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals from fully engaging with the content.
UX designers should be mindful of racial and ethnic differences to avoid offending or excluding users. For instance, photo-editing software must include diverse skin tone filters to represent all users. Ignoring this can result in a lack of representation and even perpetuate systemic biases.
In an attempt to seem more inclusive or globally aware, you can unintentionally include inappropriate elements from other cultures, which can be insensitive or disrespectful. For example, incorporating indigenous patterns or symbols without understanding their cultural significance can lead to accusations of cultural insensitivity or appropriation.
As a designer, it's important to understand the cultural context of any elements you use in your designs.
Benefits of inclusive UX design for businesses
Inclusive UX design is more than just an ethical obligation. Bruno Perez, Head of Product Design at Devbridge and long-time advocate of inclusive design, expounds on this:
"I believe that inclusive design is not about being 'nice,' or even a moral necessity. It may well promote better relations between people… And by taking an inclusive design mindset, we can actually save time and resources in the long run, fueling innovation that leads to business advantage. Sometimes we aim to solve a specific usability issue and end up creating a market shift – for example, subtitles for the deaf community.”
Let’s take a look at how adopting an inclusive mindset as a designer can positively impact organizations of all shapes and sizes.
1. Expand customer reach
Inclusive UX design caters to a broader range of potential users. For example, an e-commerce site that accommodates different languages, age groups, and abilities can attract a diverse customer base globally.
2. Improve customer satisfaction and loyalty
Your business can enhance user experience and customer satisfaction by catering to diverse needs. For instance, a language learning app for tech-savvy millennials and less tech-savvy older adults can foster brand loyalty across multiple demographics.
3. Enhance brand reputation
Inclusive design signals your company's commitment to social responsibility. For instance, a streaming service that offers robust closed captioning and audio description options demonstrates a commitment to accessibility, improving public perception.
4. Gain a competitive advantage
Inclusive design can help your organization stand out from its competitors. As an example, a fitness app that includes workout modifications for individuals with physical limitations stands out in a crowded market of apps primarily targeting non-disabled individuals.
5. Reduce long-term costs
Designing with inclusion in mind from the start avoids costly adaptations later. Consider a restaurant review platform. Designing it with features like image descriptions for the visually impaired and easy navigation for those with motor skill issues could save costly post-launch redesign expenses.
6. Boost revenue and profit
With the above-mentioned points, inclusive design can ultimately drive higher profits. A travel website that's not only accessible to people with disabilities but also caters to a variety of language preferences and cultural nuances could tap into new markets and increase potential revenue.
Building inclusivity in your UX design process: Best practices and resources
"As UX professionals, our design choices can inspire, motivate, connect, empower, and support goal achievement. They can also alienate, offend, marginalize, misrepresent, and create barriers, which obviously is not a good user experience," reflects Trina Moore Pervall, UX Engineer and Inclusive Design Advocate.
If you want to pursue a truly inclusive user experience, get started with these tips and examples to enhance inclusivity in your design approach.
1. Tie inclusive design into your business objectives
Integrating inclusive design into your business objectives isn't just a nice-to-have – it's a strategic advantage. It goes hand-in-hand with reaching a wider audience, fostering brand loyalty, and driving innovation.
Let's say your business goal is to take your brand global. As the team's designer, you must consider language options, regional date formats, and culturally appropriate visuals. You also need to be aware of cultural differences in symbols, colors, and web regulations for each country.
2. Define your organization’s inclusive UX design principles
Inclusive design principles should be foundational to your UX approach, like Airbnb's comprehensive guidelines emphasizing universal accessibility. The key is to define your inclusive principles, mirroring your organization's ethos and the diversity of your user base.
For instance, these principles could focus on enhancing accessibility – such as ensuring good color contrast for users with visual impairments or incorporating alternative text for images. Or they could underline the need for gender-neutral language and diverse representation in your visuals.
These principles will serve as your team's roadmap, guiding design decisions toward creating a user experience that respects and addresses the needs of all users.
3. Look out for exclusion in your products or services
Every user should feel that your product is built for them, not for someone else. Look out for exclusion or for those parts of your design that, though unintentional, might inadvertently create boundaries for some users.
Consider a fitness app as an example. If it only showcases young, fit individuals, it could inadvertently send a message that it's designed only for a certain group. This could potentially alienate older users, or those who are less fit or just starting their fitness journey. The key is to develop a keen eye for these exclusions, whether in your imagery, your copy, or even how you structure your user interface.
4. Build a diverse design team
When it comes to building a great design team, it's important to think beyond just skills. Diversity is key. This means having a mix of different age groups, cultures, gender identities, abilities, and a variety of professional backgrounds and specialties in UX design.
A diverse team can better anticipate and address potential design issues because of their wide range of experiences and viewpoints. For example, a team member with a background in healthcare could bring invaluable insights about making a product more usable for busy healthcare professionals.
Recommended reading: When building a diverse team, how can you set them up for success?
5. Get started with user research and usability testing
If you want to be more inclusive as a design team, there's no better guide than your users. Get to know the people you're designing through research and user testing.
These approaches help you understand not just what they want but what they need, enabling you and your team to cater to them more effectively.
New to user research? Read User research questions: Questions I explore the most as a user researcher.
Not sure how to get started with testing? Check out our library of usability testing guides.
6. Use inclusive imagery and diverse illustrations
Inclusivity in design isn't limited to functionality; it also extends to visuals. Just like a good storyteller, your design should reflect the diverse identities of your audience. This is where inclusive imagery and diverse illustrations come into play.
Take Microsoft, for example. They've developed a library of inclusive stock imagery representing a wide spectrum of people. By doing this, they tell their users, "We see you, we value you, and we've designed with you in mind."
Applying this mindset to your designs means incorporating visuals representing people of different races, ages, abilities, genders, and other facets of identity. It might be an illustration featuring people with different skin tones or an image showing someone using a wheelchair.
These inclusive visuals serve two important purposes:
They help every user see themselves in your design, promoting a sense of belonging.
They show your commitment to inclusivity, not just in design but also in the broader sense of your organization's values.
7. Write inclusive copy
Words, just like visuals, carry weight and can shape how users perceive your product and whether they feel included. Writing inclusive copy and content is using gender-neutral and non-discriminatory language, avoiding stereotypes, and making every reader feel acknowledged and respected.
Consider a simple greeting on a website. Instead of "Hey, guys!" you might use a more inclusive phrase like "Hello, everyone!". Similarly, when asking for personal details, offer a range of gender options or consider whether that information is even necessary.
Recommended reading: Getting started with writing inclusive copy
8. Be mindful of the reading experience
Want to make sure everyone can easily read and enjoy your content? Consider font size, line spacing, color contrast, and typeface. These may seem like small details, but they can make a big difference for users with visual impairments or who prefer different viewing settings.
Dark mode can also be a good option for reducing eye strain, especially when using screens in low-light conditions.
Check out Apple's Human Interface Guidelines for more tips on creating an inclusive and comfortable user experience.
9. Provide a wide range of demographic identifiers
Allowing users to self-identify through a comprehensive set of demographic options demonstrates respect for their identities and acknowledges the diverse makeup of your user base.
In practice, this involves providing a broad range of options in forms where users are asked to provide demographic information. For example, in the gender field, instead of providing just 'male' and 'female' options, consider including 'non-binary', 'prefer not to say', or an 'other' field where users can write in their identification.
You can also use this approach for other demographic characteristics like race, ethnicity, and age. For instance, when asking about age, rather than having specific age brackets, consider having a fill-in-the-blank field to avoid potential age discrimination.
Offering these choices also helps create a database that more accurately reflects the diversity of your users, which can further inform and improve your design decisions.
10. Design clear affordances
Affordance refers to the properties of an object that indicate how it can be used. In UX design, affordances are cues that tell users how they can interact with the interface. For example, a raised button suggests it can be clicked or tapped, and a slider might have visual cues indicating that the user can drag it.
Designing clear affordances in your designs means making these interactive cues obvious so users don't have to guess or experiment to figure out how to use your interface. Good affordance design enhances accessibility, aiding users with cognitive, visual, or motor impairments to interact more easily with your product.
Getting started with user research for more inclusive products and services
Inclusive design is more than just diverse color palettes, imagery, or typography; it's about creating a space where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued.
As a designer, you can carry the banner of inclusivity high, foster innovation, drive growth, and shape a digital world that truly belongs to us all. When you design for everyone, you improve the user experience for everyone. And it starts with thoughtful user research and testing.
Lyssna is a simple yet reliable user research tool to help you and your team design inclusive experiences.
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Frequently asked questions about inclusive UX design
Kai has been creating content for healthcare, design, and SaaS brands for over a decade. She also manages content (like a digital librarian of sorts). Hiking in nature, lap swimming, books, tea, and cats are some of her favorite things. Check out her digital nook or connect with her on LinkedIn.
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