A short while ago I was researching for a project where I was designing an inclusive saucepan. After observing my mum, who is a wheelchair user, struggling to use saucepans at home and seeing her anxiety from a fear of dropping hot food I decided I would tackle design exclusion. This experience has enshrined my interest in human centred design and inclusivity, so here I’d like to share the lessons I learned and resources I found for anyone undertaking any project where vulnerable people are involved:

1) Empathy, Empathy, Empathy
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is the at the heart of inclusive design. If you are unable to feel how your users feel, then you won’t truly understand their problems and how serious they are. It’s impossible to teach empathy, but there are tools and techniques for listening to people and getting to know their problems (see Tools and Resources below). A great way to experience how your user is feeling and to identify with their problems is to live a day in the life of someone with specific needs. Spend a day in a wheelchair or tape up your hands to restrict movement in order to simulate the challenges people face everyday. These methods are often really cheap and can provide great qualitative insight.

2) Ethics
When working with vulnerable people an ethical code of practice is very important. How will you ensure your user testing won’t cause physical pain when working with people with sensitive conditions? How will you ensure you have the proper consent from people who might not have the capacity to give it? How will you ensure your users rights are protected? Here are a few areas for you to consider, courtesy of designingwithpeople.rca.ac.uk:

  • Contact – how do you recruit people for your project?
  • Consent – how do you obtain their consent to participate?
  • Confidentiality – how must you treat the information you are given?
  • Conduct – how should you behave when engaging with people?
  • Context – how should you conduct yourself in specific situations, for example when researching on the web, with children or with vulnerable adults?

3) Codesign
Involving your stakeholders throughout the design process, especially the people who will live with your product, is key to great inclusive design. They will provide real world insight into their problems, contribute creatively to the design itself and validate key decisions quickly and efficiently. These benefits are well known to service design, UX/UI and design thinking practitioners. There are also many examples of great codesign in product/industrial design, but still too often consumer goods are brought to market without ever having met a consumer along the way.

4) Use workarounds and life hacks for inspiration
People are creative and they’ll use a myriad of tricks to make life easier. Think of the fire extinguisher holding the door open, the sellotape around the TV remote and the post-it with all your passwords on. These are often called ‘life hacks’ and disabled people are full of these ideas! When you loose the ability to do something you find clever ways of working around these problems. My mum would buy many 1 litre bottles of milk, because she can’t hold up the larger bottles - a simple solution to a simple problem. Observe your users and note any workarounds they might have, they might not even know what they’re doing. These micro-solutions will identify problems to you and will provide inspiration for more durable solutions.

5) Be aware of stigma
An often overlooked aspect, even within inclusive design, is stigmatisation. Designing an inclusive product is not the same as an assistive or medical product. Inclusive design should be attractive and usable for able and disabled people alike, therefore there should not be a negative stigma attached to the product. This requires a deeper contextual understanding from the designer and a skilful use of aesthetics. The best example is that of glasses. Many years ago prescription glasses were ugly and came free with preconceptions, but now glasses are more or less a fashion accessory. This is an intelligent recontextualisation of what is effectively a medical product.

A good litmus test for weeding out stigma associated with your design is to ask yourself “Would I use this?","Would I feel embarrassed?" and "What would others think of me when I use this?". This will help you go through the same thought process as your users.

6) Ergonomics
This may sound like a lecture from A-level Design & Technology, but never forget the basics of ergonomics and anthropmetrics at every turn. When designing things for people, make them people sized! Not only people sized, but people shaped, visible/audible to people, understandable to people and accessible to people. As a designer it’s not just your responsibility to make a product attractive and functional, but to ensure it’s attractive and functional to as wide an audience as possible (unless exclusivity is your USP, in which case you and I are not alike as designers.)

To summarise, if your design is for people, any people at all, then consider inclusivity. Try to imagine what abilities your users may or may not have and ask yourself if they’d still want to buy your product. A human-centred design process will bring you closer to the user and find solutions that work for the people you’re designing for.

Tools and Resources
The Inclusive Design Toolkit

Designing With People

Designkit, by IDEO

Principles of Inclusive Design, by Design Council

OXO Good Grips

Inclusive Design, from The Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture


Codesign Workshop Resources, by Smallfire.co.nz