Thanks to the cult of Apple and other companies with slick products or presentation, it’s become stylish to talk about applying “design principles” to other disciplines. But according to designer Rie Nørregaard, the key design lesson we should all learn is one that many designers are still learning themselves: designing for more than the “default” user.
Nørregaard’s podcast Designing for Humanity (transcripts available here) explores inclusivity as a fundamental part of design. Human-centered design, she recently wrote, means asking, “How can we solve [a given] problem for a range of different people, all at once?”
That means considering people of different genders, ethnicities, abilities, and people in different temporary circumstances. And as designers learn to ask and answer that question, many other professions can learn from them: developers, entrepreneurs, creatives, anyone whose work will be used by more than one predetermined, tightly defined set of people.
Academic and writer Sinéad Burke has advocated for inclusive design for many years, but as a guest on the show, she admits that she didn’t think of this as a design issue until she was approached for her TED talk. At 3'5", she says, much of the world was not designed with her in mind. “As a society we have said that to make something accessible undermines its aesthetic, because we look at accessibility as something ugly,” she says. She lives with the consequences of that daily. The most functional stools, she says, are not designed with adult dignity in mind. So while at home she uses a pink and blue stool that clicks into place, “it’s not something that I would use in public spaces, because my dignity nor the emotion attached to the product has never been considered. Instead, she says, “I actually just go without and struggle or ask for assistance.”
That’s a human consequence of design choices. And design choices aren’t only made by designers, Nørregaard tells Lifehacker. She emphasises the growing responsibility of programmers, and the danger of “intention without awareness” that frequently shows up in technological solutions like facial recognition (which often fails for dark skin tones) or digital assistants (which usually default to female voices). The problem arises when a designer fails to question and address their assumptions, their “defaults.” (As longtime iPhone engineer Ken Kocienda recently told Lifehacker, this is why tech companies need to hire and promote a more diverse workforce: when the decision makers are almost all able-bodied white men, they frequently fail to anticipate the needs of everyone else.)
There’s a right way and a wrong way to use your phone’s autocorrect, says the person who invented it. Ken Kocienda, former Principal Engineer of iPhone Software for Apple and author of the new book Creative Selection. Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, led the team creating the first software keyboard for the first release of iOS. And he says that it’s possible to get too aggressive with autocorrect.
These decisions come up in all kinds of non-technological roles too. “Design has a seat at the table in shaping things that it didn’t have even a decade ago,” Nørregaard tells Lifehacker. Guest Laura McBain, co-director of the Stanford d.school K12 Lab, comes from a background in education planning, and is using her role to find design solutions at every level, looking for “small-grain experiments” to improve performance for every student, down to choices like rearranging desks. She admits that she’s still sometimes sheepish about calling herself a designer; she hears colleagues call themselves “just a teacher” and “just a principal,” and she sees the language of design as a way for these educators to own the influence of their decisions, and to realise the power they have, not just follow rules handed down through a larger system. And this is crucial when the system is flawed, or designed only for the “default” student without awareness of the realities that teachers and principals live with.
Inclusive design isn’t something that designers bestowing down to us non-designers from on high. Its principles and lessons were taken from other fields. Guest Tucker Viemeister, an industrial designer who helped design the famously accessible OXO “Good Grips” kitchen tools, credits his approach not just to his industrial designer father, but also to his social worker mother. “Design is how we treat each other,” he says on the podcast. The heart of design isn’t making something look good or feel innovative, but to consider the experience of the end recipient.
“The world we live in right now is mostly designed for averages, which means it doesn’t really suit many people very well,” Nørregaard tells Lifehacker. “Nor does it take into consideration many of us at many times.” That’s what we need to change. Not just the people with “design” in their job title, but all of us whose decisions affect others.
This isn’t even limited to those with obvious power over large systems, but to anyone who’s had to bend or break the system to meet their needs, especially when those needs have been marginalized. “People who live their lives ‘on the edge’ hack their way to solutions all the time. We all do sometimes,” says Nørregaard. It’s good news for readers of Lifehacker: whenever you hack something to make it work better for your situation, you’re committing an act of design.