How to design with empathy and inclusion

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Inclusive design. We double-dare you to find a more relevant term or concept today. With a globalised world and countless opportunities to reach all kinds of niches and communities around the planet, designing for your own needs is just another creative way to appear extremely selfish.

Yet, it is not just about designing with accessibility in mind. By covering the needs of the impaired, by designing with empathy, you will also indirectly cover the intersectionalities and the needs of the rest of your community as well.

On 4th June, Kin+Carta has held a series of webinars for Fwd20, its interactive digital summit. We reached out to the organisation's creative technology director, Kevin Mar-Molinero, who was happy to share his tips on inclusive design with us below. Keep reading to hear more about the topic from Kevin himself!


It’s normal to be different: How to design with empathy and inclusion

"Population diversity has been introduced first from the perspective of ability variation, but can be further broadened to consider diversity associated with different real-world contexts, lifestyle, aspirations, gender, and past experiences. In summary, ‘it’s normal to be different’."

- Lange and Becerra, Teaching Universal Design in Colombia, 2007

Inclusive design is a term very much in vogue, but the idea itself is not new. In truth, it’s simply a digital implementation of the Universal Design principles popularised by the architect Robert Mace, but it’s seemingly reached its moment in the sun.

It’s grounded in the principle that universal access to all should be the key consideration of design, rather than an afterthought to be ‘fixed’; and that inclusion and access, wherever they exist, are a design problem.

Inclusive design follows the ‘simple by design’ thinking that’s best summarised by Microsoft’s Inclusive Design guidelines:

1.     Recognise exclusion.

2.     Solve for one, extend to many.

3.     Learn from diversity.

It is by following these steps that we can hope to leverage the advantages on offer, and lay out the case for designing with empathy. Both from a moral and ethical perspective, and as a driver for innovation and revenue.


The case for an inclusion-first approach

"Inclusive design aims to remove the barriers that create undue effort and separation. It enables everyone to participate equally, confidently and independently in everyday activities. An inclusive approach to design offers new insights into the way we interact with the built environment."

- The British Design Council, Principles of Inclusive Design, 2006.


When considering how we design inclusively, it is always of use to place it in the context of your own lived experiences. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to suggest that every person reading this has had experience of impairments, be it directly through their own disabilities, or indirectly through the experience of a friend or relative. 

It’s through this lens of lived experience that my own journey to inclusive design began. Many decades before I had so much as entered the job market, I was, unbeknownst to myself, engaged in acts of inclusive design; modifying radios and keys with sellotape so my blind uncle knew the purpose they served.

This lived experience influenced my design thinking, and taught me that to consider the importance of the fact that close to one in five people have impairments, we must begin with empathy

As Susan Goltsman says, designing for inclusion is not to design a generic that fits all people, but to design a diversity of ways to provide access

In applying empathy to our design process, we can give ourselves a quick start to this diverse thinking. Through the likes of inclusive user research, ethnographies and oral histories, we can learn the barriers, and more importantly workarounds, that users with impairments come in contact with.

In a recent piece of inclusive design work carried out by the team at Kin+Carta Connect, we came to the understanding that people from diverse backgrounds had multiple intersectionalities that could offer opportunities for improvement and innovations.

This principle is in fact an important cornerstone of inclusive design, codified as the principle of permanent, temporal and situational impairments. 

Taking the design of shampoo and conditioner bottles as a simple example, many companies took the step of having the position of the lids reversed. This small design tweak allows someone with visual impairments to know which bottle is which, but it also allows a person showering, who has shampoo in their eyes, to do the same.

Again to apply this to digital we can think of it as: in fixing an issue for someone with reduced mobility due to only having one arm, we are also fixing for someone with a broken arm, or someone carrying a baby or coffee whilst reading their phone. 

We are, effectively, solving for one yet extending for many. 


Ethical advertising and content as inclusivity

"Design is much more likely to be the source of exclusion than inclusion."

- Kat HolmesEye on design


Whilst the exclusion that Kat Holmes spoke of was an exclusion from access to products or services - a functional exclusion - the same principle applies to the conversation and representation in advertising and content.

Over recent years, we have seen a more positive move towards inclusive advertising - in particular, two large FMCG companies have been behind real positive change. 

In supporting the UN’s Unstereotyped initiative, Unilever has shown the good that can be done, and that this ‘good deed’ is in fact also good business. In Unstereotyping its advertising by removing gender, race and sexuality from the equation, the ads themselves became 25% more effective.

This 'good deed' is also, in fact, good business

Likewise, a recent study commissioned by P&G into the inclusion of more LGBT+ actors and representation in its ads has proven to lower prejudice towards those groups by up to 10% (when tested on focus groups).

To return once more to the permanent/temporal/situational model, the inclusion of subtitles not only allows deaf users to engage with your content, but it also allows users in public spaces or loud spaces to engage with it too.

Representation matters. Inclusion of a broad spectrum, and not for tokenistic reasons; and consideration to tones of voice, gendered and non-gendered language, and providing accessible alternatives to media - audio descriptions etc - changes perception.


Kevin Mar-Molinero

Process as an innovator

“Be prepared to challenge what came before.”

- James Fox, Kin+Carta Connect


So given all this, how do we apply inclusive thinking to drive creativity and innovation forward? The answer is one that many won’t see as the obvious, or creative, answer.


In creating an inclusive design process, embedding at its core an empathetic understanding of diverse groups; by setting at the heart of that process ‘red lines’ that cannot be crossed as blockers to stop a release, we also set constraints that drive creative thought.

If we not only tackle problems from the perspective of a person with an impairment, but also look at the problem again from another perspective or situation, we can unpack the intersectionalities. It’s this mismatch gap that offers opportunities for new products, services, design languages and campaigns, which in turn improves reach and opens up new communities with large amounts of disposable income. The spending power of people with disabilities worldwide is $1.2tn (US).

But beyond profit, brand-building and bottom lines, the only thing we really need to know before we start designing anything is simple.

It’s normal to be different.

Kevin Mar-Molinero is creative technology director at Kin + Carta Connect. Header image by Rickie Marsden.


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