What is inclusive design: learnings from Outer space

As a blind person I’m very aware that the majority of apps and websites are still not design to meet my needs, but in this age of extreme computing everyone needs inclusive design. As an example of the extremes some people go to let's go back to 2012 when Felix Baumgartner jumped from a hot air balloon on the very edge of space.

It may not be obvious, but I believe this attempt to break world freefall records has a lot to teach us about how inclusive design delivers better design for every user.

I’ll get back to what we can learn from Felix as he plummets to Earth a little later, but first let’s think about how we use computers today.

We’re living in the age of extreme computing. In this mobile-first world many of us interact with devices in ways that are far removed from the conventional office or home set up. We've grown used to sitting in a comfortable chair, choosing the right keyboard, mouse and screen and having ultimate control over our environment. If the sun is too bright or too dull, for example, we can pull the blind or turn on the lights.

Extreme Computing needs inclusive design

Today you could be juggling a phone one-handed as you weave down the street coffee in-hand, desperately trying to finish off that text before you reach the bottom of the escalator. Or perhaps you’re tilting and shading your screen under the glare of the midday sun as you try to pay for something on your phone. In either case you’re involved in extreme computing – and extreme computing needs inclusive design.

Let me explain. There are two aspects to inclusive design (also known as ‘accessibility’) that will help in this age where we’re all computing on the edge. The first is optimisation and the second is choice.

Optimise for everyone and every situation

That sounds like a challenge, doesn’t it? Optimising your devices (if you’re a device manufacturer) or your content and functionality (if you create websites or apps) for everyone and every situation. Well the accessibility guidelines are actually meant to do just that. In the case of websites or apps, for example, you’re designing to optimise for the needs of people who may have a vision, motor or learning impairment for example.

If you have no disability but you are using your phone one-handed on the move then you actually do have a temporary impairment that is identical to someone who has a motor difficulty 24-7. It’s true. You need exactly the same design considerations (good sized tappable areas separated by enough white space, for example) as is needed by someone with Parkinson’s or a tremor.

In the same way, if you are trying to find out some information or purchase a product online very quickly in the few seconds you have available as you stand on that escalator, then you require that the site or app you are using has extreme usability to be able to complete it in the time you have available. This extreme usability is needed by someone with a learning difficulty to be able to successfully complete it regardless of how much time they have. Exactly the same requirements – and accessibility, or inclusive design, will help to achieve it.

You get the idea. Similarly good colour contrast and choice of font will help those with small screens on a sunny day just the same as it will help those with a vision impairment regardless of their screen size.

Inclusive design means choice

Felix Baumgartner missed out on of his world records because of a problem that could have been solved with inclusive designThe other aspect of inclusive design is that an accessible website or app then becomes translatable into other forms. Whether you are blind (like me) and need to have content spoken out, or you need to have text magnified or colours altered, the website will accommodate those choices. If you need to use a keyboard instead of a mouse then go ahead. And when a website or app allows for these choices it suddenly becomes less dependent upon the devices that people use.

And this even includes Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home Hub (both coming soon to the UK) which have no screen or keyboard whatsoever.

Inclusive design is life-changing – and potentially life-saving too.

Let’s get back to Felix Baumgartner who is trying to break both the highest and longest freefall records. He is wearing a state-of-the-art visor with a heads-up-display that shows him his altitude and speed etc. This fancy gadget worked fine on the ground but up there as soon as he jumps off the platform it instantly mists up and he can’t see a thing – no instruments, no ground coming up very, very fast. 

So he did what any of us would have done in that situation and he pulls the chord tout suite. Thus he got the record for the highest freefall (nearly 25 miles up) but not the longest freefall as he pulled the chord much earlier than planned.

Now if Felix’s team had thought about inclusive design they would have automatically built in choice – choice to be able to switch to another output method such as haptic feedback every thousand feet fallen for example. The mindset of inclusive design is not to assume that one input or output method fits all. Quite the opposite.

What is the cost of inclusive design?

An accessible website or app allows for everyone’s choice whether it’s driven by a permanent disability or by a temporary impairment brought on by extreme circumstances.

In the case of Felix plummeting to Earth, the lack of inclusive design could have literally cost him his life. For the rest of us it might cost us our life choices.