Democracy by design

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10 min read

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In a world where technology permeates all parts of our lives, the acceleration of advancements in this sector means it’s now more straightforward than ever to create and launch new digital products and services.

For this reason, it’s important to be consciously aware of how products we create affect people and the impact such innovations can have on how inclusive our society is. Far too often, accessibility and inclusivity are considered only as an afterthought or not at all, but businesses, companies, and communities are realising the importance of a more inclusive world. The wheels of change are in motion, with many designing for the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities – all of us, really.

Thanks to technology being so pervasive, it provides a greater opportunity to meet people’s unique needs with existing solutions. For example, for many people, voice interfaces and smart home technology are already a critical part of navigating daily life, and they can be key enablers of both safety and autonomy. Smart speakers, such as Google Nest and Home, Amazon Alexa and the Apple Homepod, help facilitate independent living for older adults and people with disabilities. Using voice commands throughout their homes makes daily tasks more straightforward for those with limited mobility and provides safety and independence. For people with hearing impairments, smart light bulbs can be used in place of sound to act as smoke alarms and doorbells.

These devices, designed for everyone, are less isolating and intrusive than traditional assistive technologies and are proof of the positive strides that have already been made in accessibility technology.

Architects of inclusivity

Inclusive design recognises that people have unique needs and ensures that products are designed to maximise access and usability for as many people as possible. This means considering the diverse and unique needs of people who may be disabled, elderly, or whose native language isn’t English. It’s about ensuring that products are usable by people with different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and people who may have differing levels of digital literacy. If accessibility and inclusivity aren’t considered as a core part of the design process and embedded within an organisation’s culture, it means that solutions often end up excluding a large section of our society. Crucially, there is a difference between inclusive and accessible design too. Inclusive design closely relates to accessibility, but rather than an outcome, it’s a methodology for approaching design. Accessibility on its own, though, leaves out large sections of the population who don’t have a defined, legally recognised disability but have issues with interfaces based on circumstances in their environment.

It’s of paramount importance that companies design with, not for, diverse users. This means ensuring that the people involved in product development have diverse backgrounds and their voices are represented throughout the design process and product creation. For example, in 2019, at a Google hackathon, Thomas Panek, blind runner and the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, asked the designers and technologists if it would be possible to help guide a blind runner independently, and Project Guideline was born. Created by Google Creative Lab and Google Research, it uses machine learning technology to help blind and low-vision users walk or run without any assistance. As Panek can now attest, with access to a mobile phone, bone-conduction headphones and a painted line on the ground to follow, suddenly running unassisted is possible. The fact Project Guideline won Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Award in the Experimental category demonstrates how influential it is to gauge a product’s usefulness from prospective users.

Making the right moves

While all digital products should be inclusive and consider accessibility, advancements in technology enable various innovative solutions to meet specific accessibility challenges. Imagine for a moment how difficult watching live tennis is for someone living with blindness or low vision. During the Australian Open, blind and low vision audiences can now use Action Audio to turn spatial data from real-time ball monitoring technology into 3D sound, making it easier to follow matches at the tournament. The 3D sound emphasises ball speed and trajectory, proximity to the line and shot type, and augments critical moments to allow blind and low vision audiences to follow the game without seeing the ball. This kind of ground-breaking application of technology has a tangible impact on the way people can experience live sports.

“Everyone has the right to have as much access as possible. I love tennis, but being blind, all I can hear is the ball going up and down then I have to wait for the results. I’m really looking forward to this next step forward in accessibility.” says Maurice Gleeson, CEO at Blind Sports Victoria.

Elsewhere in sport, it’s estimated that 43 per cent of the 5.1 million visually impaired people in the UK are football fans; thus, many struggle as spectators to follow their favourite teams’ matches. During the 2020 season, in a bid to raise awareness about the technology available, Virgin Media teamed up with Vision Aid and invited two deserving Southampton FC fans, who are visually impaired, to sample an innovative technology at a special experience at the Saint’s home stadium. The IrisVision technology magnifies whatever the wearer looks at through a lightweight headset, clearly showing the image in front of their eyes on a large screen. Watching live football matches with IrisVision glasses enables the user to have a less restricted view, meaning they’ll be able to see all the action on the pitch rather than just specific areas.

Another encouraging example came in 2021 from the retail sector. Nike’s Go FlyEase sneaker is the first sneaker you can put on without having to bend down or use your hands at all, so wearers are not reliant on dexterity to put on the shoes. Still, more importantly, it is proof that universal design can lead to a product that’s better for everyone, not just people with a disability. “It’s improving people’s lives,” says Sarah Reinertsen, former Paralympian, and Nike’s FlyEase Innovation Team manager.

Tommy Hilfiger heeded the need to design clothes with greater inclusivity in mind, and it’s one of the first fashion brands to create high-end adaptive apparel. “It can be very difficult to button buttons on a skirt, or zip up a zipper, or tie a shoelace, or get a limb into a sleeve or pant leg, so we created ways to redesign the clothes, so they are adaptive,” said Hilfiger, who is surprised how few brands are designing in this space. The Tommy Adaptive line is made specifically for those living with a disability, with adjustable hems a simple example of improving clothing to accommodate wheelchair users or anyone with prosthetic limbs.

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Participation for all

Enabling equal access to content is a significant step forward in fostering inclusion, but beyond that, we need solutions that allow people to participate actively.

More than a decade ago in its 2011 World Report on Disability, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stressed the importance of involving people living with disabilities in designing products and services that directly concern them. Today, one billion people – 15 per cent of the world’s population – currently experience some form of disability, though the technology used to design and innovate often can still be inaccessible. SenseKit, a finalist at Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility Challenge in 2019, is an easy-to-use prototyping kit made up of wearable sensory and haptic devices that enables anyone to design their own sensory experiences using substitution or augmentation. Adam Grant, AKQA Innovation Director says, “The modularity of SenseKit’s design means that people can create their own accessibility hacks according to their needs or creativity. Many technological disability aids are designed with narrow use cases in mind, and this is the complete opposite – we wanted to create a kind of LEGO kit for sensory substitution.”

The digital divide

When designing experiences, we also need to consider the digital divide and how products and services support people who may not have ready access to the internet. Based on the Australian Digital Inclusion index, 11 per cent of Australians are currently highly excluded by digital solutions due to not being able to access or use the internet and other digital technology. COVID-19 has also had an impact here. With many critical health and education services shifting online, it’s easy to see how people with limited access may be put at risk if their needs aren’t considered as part of the design process.

In New Zealand, AKQA recently worked on a new website experience for Plunket, a charity and Aotearoa’s largest support service for the health and wellbeing of tamariki (children) under five and their whānau (family). The team worked with Plunket and the Ministry of Health to address a digital equity issue that arose through user research – the importance of internet access or mobile data in utilising critical health services. To ensure the solution was inclusive, AKQA created a ‘zero data’ version of Plunket’s site to ensure everyone could access the content on the site regardless of their circumstances.

The time is now

Organisations have a social responsibility, and commercial interest in ensuring their products are inclusive and accessible. Inclusive design can increase the commercial potential of digital products, enabling them to reach previously untapped audiences. According to the Centre for Inclusive Design, organisations can reach four times more customers if products and services are designed with unique needs in mind. “Faster processes and tools are enabling broader projects for lower effort. We’re reaching an entire audience more often that has been excluded from access to information in the past,” says AKQA Group Creative Director, Paul Ostryzniuk. “It’s as if you’re finally reaching a treasure trove, an iceberg of new customers and new audiences that you don’t have to work any harder for; you’re just letting them hear you and interact with you, which is a wonderful thing about accessibility.”

Companies like AccessiBe are helping in this respect, leading the way in web accessibility with the goal to have the entire internet accessible by 2025. AccessiBe works with brands from various sectors to optimise the user experience of their websites for everyone. Clients range from the likes of Tupperware, Band-Aid, Kohler and Lotus, each able to tap into the commercial potential Paul Ostryzniuk mentioned, through their websites, thanks to features like an easy to navigate sidebar that allows customers to choose an accessible profile that suits them best. Not all companies are as forward-thinking as generally speaking, our digital world tends to prioritise agility and speed to market, but even so, as brands like Lotus show, organisations are becoming aware of the commercial impact of doing so. Retrofitting solutions is proven to be significantly more costly than designing with inclusivity in mind from the start. According to the Centre for Inclusive Design, the relative cost of retrofitting a product or service can reach up to 10,000 times the cost of introducing inclusive design earlier on.

Because of how ubiquitous technology is today, decisions made during design and build either contribute to greater inclusion or further exclusion of often marginalised groups. By ensuring that design acknowledges the diversity of experience and difference, it’s far more likely that the products and services we build will help to shift the needle to create a more inclusive world.

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Action works wonders

The impact of truly inclusive design extends beyond the direct outcomes generated by the products and services we create. It inspires us, builds empathy, reduces divides and reminds us that we’re all human.

As an industry, we need to ensure that every product and service we create contributes to the active design of a more inclusive world. We need to embrace inclusive design and development practices while investing in training teams to develop more accessible solutions. New and innovative ideas emerge from diverse teams as AKQA Executive Innovation Director, Tim Devine says, “Wonder is the source of our desire for knowledge, and if our teams don’t embody our ‘social imagination’ we will fail to think of things as if they could be otherwise.”

Following Tim’s thoughts, we cannot let perfect become the enemy of good. Whatever the concept of perfection that many people strive for equates to, it needs to evolve accordingly. Beautiful design alone is no longer good enough. Still, as we continue to iterate, learn, and improve by including people with diverse needs throughout the product creation process and incorporating inclusivity and accessibility in everything we do, we can create a better future for everyone. After all, good design is inclusive design.

The best way to do this is simple; the more that companies, businesses, and individuals normalise the idea of using accessibility tech, the quicker the world will catch on and level the playing field in this respect. Amazon’s Alexa is an excellent example of this, constantly finding new ways to experience the world with accessibility features that are helping everyone to be more self-sufficient and more connected so that we all live in a world of wonderful, equal opportunity.

Illustrations by Michelle Thompson.

All opinions expressed throughout this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AKQA or its affiliates.

Written by

Candice Ong - Associate Director, Experience Strategy

AKQA Melbourne