As designers, we pride ourselves in crafting solutions that place our users at the centre of our process, based on understanding their struggles and possibilities. Universal or inclusive design aims to ensure that a design or solution is usable by the broadest range of users, not just by understanding the differences across that range, but by considering that we can benefit the majority if we design for the most vulnerable.
A more inclusive norm
Ronald Mace, a renowned American architect, and designer used his struggles and experience as a wheelchair-user to conceive and champion the practice of Universal Design. In his opinion, we should design as if we all have a vulnerability or disability, for we will all temporarily or permanently lost some ability or capability through age, accident, or circumstance. We often discount vulnerability as being outside the norm, and design for the majority (the norm) or create products solely for the disability. Why not design to fit both?
Gender and design
Many products, services, and technology are still designed using male data or from a male perspective. The norms or standards that are often applied are based on mostly Western males' sizes and characteristics. Many examples where women are put at risk or excluded can be found across originally male-dominated fields, such as the construction industry, military, police force, and engineering and heavy industries. The standard bag of cement is comfortable for a man to lift, but not a woman. Bricks and construction tools weren’t designed with gender diversity in mind and increase the risk of injury and accidents for those outside of the male norm.
Although iconic power-tool brands have tried to target the female market, their bright pink tools aren't responding to the main struggles, or sensitive to their target market. If all power tools were designed to be lighter, less stereotypically styled, and easily controlled, could incidences of injuries and strains be reduced and increase the potential market?
There are others taking advantage of this opportunity space. Danish start-up Flid offers a series of hand-tools designed for all; that is sustainable, functional, straightforward to use, and attractive regardless of your gender.
Safe solutions require inclusion
PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) has also long been an issue for women. Equipment that is meant to ensure the safety and health of users often don’t fit women or those with smaller frames or different face shapes, such as black and minority ethnic men. As well as being impractical, ill-fitting and uncomfortable PPE, from stab vests to safety harnesses, hard-hats to eye protectors, can be fatal or create long-term health problems.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, where for example, 75% of the British NHS health workers are female, many on the front-line are experiencing the risk of using PPE designed for the average male. Staff has to wear their masks too tight, adjust with tape, or wear them improperly, all at a threat to their health. How can we create protective products that are can ensure all are safe?
Ethnicity, race, and design
Care and diagnosis can be critically compromised when descriptors only consider one type of skin, such as COVID patients being asked if they are 'pale' or if their lips have turned blue. Malone Mukwende, a medical student in the UK, created a handbook entitled ‘Mind The Gap' to help train medical staff on identifying symptoms across different skin types. In doing so, a significant share of patients can be confident that future doctors are aware of the diversity of symptoms for various conditions and improve their understanding of diseases.
Digital products are also guilty of excluding users based on their ethnicity, where users are either not recognized by the system or included in the original specification. One such example from New Zealand, where the official online passport application system would not automatically process an ethnically Chinese man's photo, because it incorrectly detected that his eyes were closed. As designers, we are responsible for being aware of the diverse user set and the implications our implicit or unconscious biases may have on the end-users.
Mutually-beneficial design for all
Many products that are now used by the wider population were designed for the most vulnerable. The bicycle evolved in the early 19th century, but its precursor was the wheelchair, first invented in 1655 by a watchmaker. Siri began its life as a voice assistant to improve the accessibility of the internet. Ramps in pavements benefit not only those in wheelchairs, but the elderly, those with push-chairs, and people temporarily using crutches. Automatic doors, taps, and other motion-sensor devices will be increasingly used as we search to find ways of moving through our environment without touching potentially contaminated surfaces.
By including previously excluded users within our research and design specifications, we can develop products that we all have an equal chance of using, which greatly enhances the experience for all.
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