Design in Three Dimensions
Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre, on how to bring inclusive design to the masses.
Jutta Treviranus wants to be clear about something: you aren’t average.
“As a field, we’ve created this notion of an ‘average’ person, and that’s often who we design for,” says Jutta, the Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre. Instead, Jutta says, by trying to design for everyone, we’re actually designing for no one. “We’re all somewhat variable. The categorization of people into a single static identity group means no one has equity.”
Though Jutta began the center in 1993 with a focus on how technology could be designed to support people with disabilities, she’s clear that the principle is about far more than that.
“It’s paradoxical, because disability is a potential state we can all find ourselves in,” she adds. “It is the human difference that our social structures have not yet integrated.”
The bedrock of her design philosophy stems from the idea that diversity is our greatest strength. If a design can accommodate everyone, Jutta argues, instead of just the majority, then it’s also stronger, more sustainable—and more cost effective in the long run.
We sat down with Jutta to unpack what she calls the “three dimensions” of inclusive design.
dscout: “Inclusive design” has become such a big buzzword, but it seems to mean very different things to different people. Can you tell us what it means to you?
Jutta: I’ve always resisted the idea that designers could come up with a set of criteria that would apply to everyone, and the first dimension of inclusive design is to recognize that everyone is diverse. We have to push against the idea that there is a “typical” person. That has huge implications for research—and too often, we base our design decisions around what the best choice is for that average person. But it turns out there really isn’t an average, and if we design for that kind of norm, we’re actually doing everyone a disservice. Because we’re all somewhat variable, and the categorization of people into a single static identity group means no one has equity.
A typical dataset of a population will often look like a jagged scatterplot or a starburst, where you have 80 percent of the dots in the center, and the remaining 20 percent are outside that center. It’s the Pareto principle. That 80 percent in the center occupy 20 percent of the data diversity. And so the industry has moved to designing for that 80 percent, because it’s the lowest hanging fruit—the most bang for your buck and time and effort. You’ll spend the least amount of time and come up with a design that works for most people.
So you think you’ll start there, and then afterward you can worry about the other 20 percent. Or you just don’t worry about them at all. My contention is that that’s the opposite of what we should do because it’s the 20 percent in the outer areas that occupy the unexplored territory. They’re the ones that we haven’t addressed. The people who have the greatest difficulty using current designs are the people that are the most critical to include in the design process.
The people who have the greatest difficulty using current designs are the people that are the most critical to include in the design process.
You’ve called that the second dimension of inclusive design, which is an inclusive process. What does that look like?
The frequent diagram of a typical design process is made up of iterative cycles that expand and contract options a designer is considering. And at the end of the process, you land on a “winning design,” and that’s your choice. We use a very different diagram, and we call it our “virtuous tornado.”
We like it! The virtuous tornado starts with edge scenarios—people or organizations that have difficulty using the current design. Those are the people we want to engage. In an inclusive design process, they’re our coach designers. We iterate through cycles to include more and more of those individuals or scenarios, and try to address as much of that unexplored space as possible.
How does that work practically? How do you find and recruit individuals who aren’t being served by the current design?
You have to continuously and iteratively ask, “Who’s missing here?” “What have we not thought about?” When we work with companies, we ask them to show us their complaints or the people that have registered issues with their product.
Right now, we’re working on a project in Toronto, advising Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) on a plan for a smart city on the city’s waterfront. It’s a project that’s gained a lot of press attention globally, and we’ve come in to give feedback. The initial plan was very top-down. So we put out a call to the community, to try and speak to people who aren’t named as beneficiaries of the plan, but are nonetheless part of our part of the city. People who are homeless, recent refugees, people within the indigenous community. We’re capturing the stories of these individuals, and then using those stories as a basis for evaluation of the plan—evaluating how their needs are reflected within it. A lot of what we’re coming up against are uncertainties, or things the plan hasn’t addressed.
— Jutta Treviranus
The virtuous tornado starts with edge scenarios—people or organizations that have difficulty using the current design…You have to continuously and iteratively ask, “Who’s missing here?” “What have we not thought about?”
And you’re giving that feedback to the design team?
Yes. A large part of what we’re really contesting is who is making the design decisions. We’re trying to promote the notion that the residents and the people who are going to live in this space need to participate in the design. To bring in as much of the 100 percent as possible. There are obviously civic reasons to do that, but there are business reasons too. What we’ve found is that if you think about the whole 100 percent, as opposed to just the majority, or the 80 percent—it will actually save you money in the long run, because it creates a more flexible, mutable system that can deal with the unexpected.
If you only consider the majority of your customer base, instead of your whole customer base, then you’ll field a lot of requests down the line for adding or changing features as context changes and the needs of that majority shift. And ultimately your costs will rise and your system will reach end of life much more quickly.
That’s what you call the third dimension, right? Designing in a complex, adaptive system.
Yes. It’s the idea that, today, no design decision is made in isolation. Wherever one design meets another, there’s a friction point, unless we think about the system as a whole. If I’m designing a new educational curriculum, for example, and I don’t think about how a teacher is going to be able to administer it, that’s a friction point. If I think about the teacher, but not about the principal, or whoever is advocating for the school system, that’s the friction point. At each of those friction points we have to think about what the impact is on the larger system. It’s why inclusive design is really built on these organic, non-linear models of growth.
It’s especially important now, because in the age of machine learning and social networks, we’re even more likely to assign a value to something based on popularity. What’s popular rises to the top, becomes even bigger, and the cycle repeats itself. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we’re winnowing down what we’re exposed to. When a machine recommends something to us, it recommends something that other people like us have already chosen. We’re being exposed to less and less, and that’s decreasing our adaptability. Machines are becoming more and more adaptable, and people are becoming less and less adaptable. Which is dangerous—because a system of single generalists is much less likely to survive than a cooperative, complex, adaptable one.
It reinforces the argument that diversity is our biggest asset.
— Jutta Treviranus
Ask yourself “What might restrict someone from even considering using this design?” In the end, that’s what will have the greatest impact.
So practically, how can we start to bring more of these principles into our work and design processes?
If there’s one thing that I recommend starting with, it’s paying attention and bringing in the perspectives of people who may have difficulty using your design. One of the cop outs that I’ll sometimes hear in response to that is, “Oh, well, we don’t have anyone like that.” And I understand that—there are human reasons why we avoid talking to people who aren’t happy with our work. Compliments and praise give us motivation. It’s not an easy thing to do, to seek out what’s not working. But it’s necessary. Seek out the people who you aren’t reaching. Ask yourself “What might restrict someone from even considering using this design?” In the end, that’s what will have the greatest impact.
Designers talk so much about innovation, wanting to do something disruptive, find the next moonshot or Apollo or the next great frontier. Well, here’s a frontier that doesn’t have any negative aspects or unintended consequences. It’s unexplored territory. Inclusive design isn’t causing greater pollution. It’s a highly positive space, and it will only serve to benefit more of humanity.