Inclusive Design

Your constantly-updated definition of Inclusive Design and collection of videos and articles
151 shares

What is Inclusive Design?

Inclusive design is an approach to create accessible products and experiences that are usable and understandable by as many people as possible. It goes beyond accessibility to consider users’ diverse needs, backgrounds and experiences.

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading...

Why Do We Need Inclusive Design?

Inclusive design ensures that every person—regardless of their gender, location, native language and physical abilities—can enjoy and use products or services.

To understand inclusive design, we as user experience (UX) designers must understand the sections of our users who have historically been excluded from product designs:

  • Women

  • People of color

  • People with non-binary identities (LGBTQ+)

  • People who do not speak English natively

  • People with restricted mobility

  • People with different cognitive abilities.

These exclusions are sometimes obvious. In most cases, they’re subconscious. For example, you may find websites that use gender stereotypical images such as suit-clad Caucasian men in a boardroom or young female service professionals. 

Conversely, inclusive experiences are those that reach beyond assumptions about demographics to embrace the full range of human diversity. They bring out the best in human-centered design to grant equal access across the board. Making your design work accessible to people from all backgrounds, ability levels, and other imaginable categories ensures a strong brand identity as well. When design focuses on inclusivity, it proves it hasn’t let the biases of a bygone era make it visually impaired.

A diagram of a multicolored circle  Description automatically generated

Inclusive design is the meeting place of several key design factors.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Inclusive design has its roots in the disability rights movement, which began in the 1950s. The goal of this movement was for people with disabilities to have access to the same rights, opportunities, and resources as non-disabled people. One example of a powerful design benefit that came from this is the curb cut. Curb cuts help wheelchair users, but they also act as ramps for cyclists and many others. 

A picture of a sidewalk granite curb cut for wheelchair users and other users.

Sidewalk granite curb cut for wheelchair users, or anyone with tired or aching knees.

© Nick-philly, CC BY-SA 4.0

Inclusive design practices take this spirit of accessible design a step further in user interfaces. For example, it’s not just about images that have high contrast and alt text for screen readers. It’s also about how you design these images. For example, you practice inclusive design through clear and unambiguous messages that depict a diverse group of people. You also do it through thoughtful use of pronouns in the caption. You make your target users feel welcome because you include them from your designer’s research right through to user testing. In the process, you learn to recognize exclusion in web design and far beyond.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

To practice inclusive design, don’t design for an "ideal user" or make assumptions about user behavior or their needs for functionality. Instead, ask critical questions during the early stages of your design process. In your UX research, you can uncover potential barriers that may affect your users. You should consider the accessibility of content for individuals who may have disabilities, limited vision, or use assistive technologies. Many aspects of disability are in the realm of neurodiversity. For instance, think about how users on the autism spectrum might not recognize features in your design because of how you set out the elements. 

It’s also important to challenge assumptions about users and understand how their experiences may differ. For example, is design practice geared solely toward users in the United States? In the early phases of design and development, it’s vital to get to grips with questions like this.

Such questions could involve age, gender identity, ethnicity, language, culture, location, religion, and socio-economic status. For example, “What is the impact of language on users’ understanding and use of the product?” When you have the answer, you as a UX designer can create products that you tailor to the needs of a diverse range of users. Consequently, all users will benefit because you will have designed to address a vast range of pain points. When you build inclusive products, you infuse them with a sense of belonging to a huge span of user groups .


A picture of a person on Shopify's homepage.

Something as “small” as images can be a huge step towards inclusive design. Shopify’s homepage has a rotating cast of diverse users. Its prominent headline “Making Commerce Better for Everyone” and the subtitle, “...supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs, the world’s biggest bands, and everyone in between.” reinforce this ideology.

© Shopify, Fair Use

Inclusive Design vs Universal Design vs Design For All vs Accessibility: Related but Distinct Concepts

A diagram showing the position of Accessibility as a concept within Universal Design and as it relates to Inclusive Design.

Accessibility is the lowest common denominator and is an integral part of inclusive and universal design. While inclusive design and universal design both cater to the widest range of users, universal design strives for a single solution to cater to everyone, while inclusive design tries to achieve the goal through multiple adaptations.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Inclusive design is related to three other concepts in the spirit of removing barriers: Accessibility, Universal Design and Design for All. Accessibility is narrower in scope and involves designing products so that people with disabilities can use and enjoy the products just as well as people without disabilities. Accessibility is the bare minimum with respect to Inclusive Design and Universal Design.

Both inclusive design and universal design aim to ensure that a design is usable and understandable for the maximum number of people. The difference lies in how designers implement the design. Universal design opts for a one-size-fits-all answer to design. All users use the same product, without any specialization. For example, in a digital design, subtitles cover accessibility in the sense that hard-of-hearing viewers have them. Also, they satisfy this universal design principle of equitable use. Viewers who aren’t hard-of-hearing but who aren’t native speakers of the language either can understand the content better with the closed captioning. The feature also benefits people who are in loud environments.

A screenshot of an IxDF video on YouTube, featuring captions of the speaker's words.

YouTube offers subtitling options for users who are hard of hearing but also for any user who needs them at the time (e.g., in a loud environment or for non-native speakers).

© YouTube, Fair Use

Inclusive design doesn’t require designers to stick to a single design. Designers can implement multiple variations of the design to cater to different user segments.

Design for all is most closely related to inclusive design. It focuses on including accessible features in digital interfaces from early on in design—as opposed to retrofitting a “mainstream” design with options for users with disabilities later. However, its scope is not quite as explicit regarding how it involves users in the design process who have been traditionally underrepresented.

In general, universal design is used for physical products, where customization or multiple variations become expensive to develop. Inclusive design works well with digital products as they are relatively inexpensive to mass-customize. Dark mode options, text-size selectors, options to select age, and ways of identifying the user’s full name (i.e., some cultures term and place “first” and “last name” in different ways) are some examples of inclusive design.

Screenshot of an Application showing three versions: 'Not inclusive', 'Confusing' and 'Better!'.

Always research current best practices to make the most inclusive and optimal decision for your products.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Principles of Inclusive Design

Microsoft defines 3 main guiding principles of inclusive design:

A screenshot showing Microsoft's 3 Principles of Inclusive Design.

Microsoft’s three fundamental principles of Inclusive Design: Recognize exclusion; Learn from diversity; Solve for one, extend to many.

© Microsoft, Fair Use

  1. Recognize Exclusion: We may not realize it, but all of us have biases—it is human nature. If we design solutions for user problems without recognizing these biases, we will end up excluding certain groups of people. Note that this is not limited to physical disabilities. It can apply to other forms of exclusion, such as social participation or temporary impairments. For example, if your app won’t work well on older phones (e.g., for users who can only afford those), it will exclude them. It is only after we recognize and acknowledge exclusion, that we can begin to design inclusive experiences. User research can provide powerful insights for you to design more inclusively. User testing can also reveal points of exclusion.

    A screenshot of Girls Who Code's homepage.

    Nonprofit Girls Who Code’s mission steps from historical exclusion. Despite the name, their target audience includes non-binary people.

    © Girls Who Code, Fair Use

  2. Learn from Diversity: Inclusive Design puts people in the center throughout the process. Involving people from different communities throughout the design process will help you gain fresh, diverse perspectives. So, include people from different age groups, cultures, ability levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels and more in your design team. 

  3. Solve for One, Extend to Many: When you design a feature with one group in mind, you can expand the scope to help others who can benefit. For example, if you offer users an option to listen to content rather than read it, you’ll help users who have limited sight as well as those who may just want to rest their eyes.

A screenshot of a Medium page.

Medium offers the feature to listen to a story on its platform that is helpful for people who might find it hard to read long passages either due to vision difficulties or simply to rest their eyes after a long day staring at the screen!

© Medium, Fair Use

Additional Inclusive Design Principles

In 2017, accessibility experts Henny Swan, Ian Pouncey, Heydon Pickering, Léonie Watson developed a set of seven principles for inclusive design:

  1. Provide a Comparable Experience: Build your UI so everyone can perform tasks and achieve goals in a way that suits them without compromising on your content. Different users will have different ways of using your interface, and tools to do so. For instance, you help users of all types with content for alternative means such as screen readers and transcripts. Or you might give users options to change the font size, color, etc. of their subtitles to suit them.

    A screenshot of YouTube showing subtitles or closed captions that a user has selected to be yellow in color.

    YouTube offers the feature to adapt how your subtitles appear, including the color.

    © YouTube, Fair Use

  2. Consider situation: Consider the situation, or rather the context of your user and design accordingly. For example, Google Maps automatically switches to dark mode when you enter a tunnel or at sundown.

  3. Be Consistent: Use well-established patterns to make an interface that users will find familiar. So, use design patterns to achieve that consistency in information architecture and more, and maximize users’ understanding. Another example of consistency is to write the same things in the same way (e.g., micro copy, instructions) and in plain language to make text easy to understand.  

    A screenshot of Microsoft's homepage.

    Microsoft’s homepage shows a highly familiar layout. The logo is in the top left and the search is the magnifying functionality in the top right.

    © Microsoft, Fair Use

  4. Give Users Control: Provide several ways for users to appreciate content and complete tasks. For example, if you have a long list of content for users, consider letting them choose to have a grid or a list. Another form of control might be to let users delete items by swiping left and also have the option to select them from another screen so they can delete more at once.

    A screenshot of a computer  Description automatically generated

    Dropbox offers a variety of views.

    © Dropbox, Fair Use

    A screenshot of a computer screen showing Dropbox's offered views.

    Dropbox offers a variety of views.

    © Dropbox, Fair Use

  5. Offer Choice: Give your users several ways to achieve the same goal. For example, three ways to delete an email on an email client: Swipe, hit the delete key on the keyboard, or right-click and select delete. 

  6. Prioritize Content: Help users focus on one thing at a time. For example, for each page of a website, present users with the core task, feature or information they need and expect to find. So, be clear what the purpose of each page is and highlight that to them. Use progressive disclosure to reveal the prioritized content to them. If it’s a button, for example, what is the most frequent action users will take on a virus-scanning app? It will be “Scan Device” rather than secondary actions such as “See Scan History.” 

    A screenshot showing Avast antivirus at work on a computer.

    Avast prioritizes the function of running a smart scan here.

    © Avast, Fair Use

  7. Add Value: Focus on adding value to your interface with features that are not only efficient but also versatile in how they let users interact with content in diverse ways. You can do this in several ways—for example, integrating with connected devices, such as voice commands to control a TV. Or you might add some bonus functionality, such as a “show password” feature.

    A screenshot of PayPal's login page.

    PayPal offers a “Show” feature for users to see their password as they enter it.

    © PayPal, Fair Use

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading...

The Benefits of Inclusive Design

Inclusive design offers numerous benefits, both for users and businesses. Here are some key advantages:

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Improved User Experience

Inclusive design enhances the overall user experience. It ensures that everyone—irrespective of physical or cognitive abilities, age, culture, educational background, gender, and language can access and navigate digital products effectively. This results in a more inclusive and satisfying experience for all users.

  • Expanded User Base

Inclusive design enables products to reach a broader audience. As they accommodate diverse needs and preferences, inclusive designs attract users who may have been excluded in the past. This expands the potential user base and increases the market reach of the product.

  • Competitive Advantage

Inclusive design has become a standard practice for many businesses. By embracing inclusive design principles, brands can differentiate themselves from competitors and position themselves as leaders in accessibility and inclusivity. This can enhance brand reputation and attract loyal customers.

  • Compliance with Accessibility Standards

Inclusive design ensures compliance with accessibility standards and legal requirements. Many countries have laws mandating digital accessibility, and failure to comply can result in legal consequences. By prioritizing inclusive design, businesses can avoid legal issues and demonstrate their commitment to accessibility.

  • Innovation and Creativity

Inclusive design promotes innovation and creativity by encouraging designers to think outside the box. From there, they can develop solutions that cater to diverse user needs. When you consider a wide range of perspectives, you can uncover new ideas and create unique user experiences in products or services that take the extra step beyond user-centered design and universal design.

Inclusive Design in Practice: Examples and Case Studies

Many well-known brands have embraced inclusive design principles and have created products that cater to a diverse range of users. Here are some examples:

Google

Google has prioritized inclusive design in its products. The Google Camera features the technology to capture accurate and fine-tuned tones of people’s skin color. Previously, cameras had overlooked this tendency for the imaging of people with darker skin colors to come out inaccurately, Google embraced inclusive testing to accommodate everyone.   


A screenshot of a camera taking a picture of a person.

Google’s camera fine-tunes how it captures some skin tones to ensure accuracy.

© Google, Fair use

Microsoft

Microsoft has made significant efforts to promote inclusive design. Their inclusive design toolkit provides resources and guidelines for designers to create products that are accessible to a wide range of users. Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller is a notable example of inclusive design. It was specifically designed to meet the needs of gamers with limited mobility.


Screenshot / Picture of the Microsoft Xbox Adaptive Controller.

The Microsoft Xbox Adaptive Controller offers exceptional control.

© Microsoft, Fair Use


These examples demonstrate how inclusive design can be integrated into various digital products to improve accessibility and enhance user experiences.

Best Practices for Inclusive Design

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

1. Conduct User Research

User research is a crucial step to understand the diverse needs and experiences of your target audience. Conduct interviews, surveys, and usability tests with individuals from different backgrounds and abilities to gain insights into their specific requirements.

2. Involve Diverse Perspectives

Build a diverse design team that includes individuals from different backgrounds, abilities, and experiences. This diversity will help uncover different viewpoints and ensure that design decisions are not biased or based on assumptions. Also ensure that stakeholders appreciate these differences and how different people use interfaces and technology. 

3. Prioritize Accessibility

Consider accessibility throughout the design process. Start by following WCAG guidelines to ensure that your digital products are accessible to individuals with disabilities. Test your designs using both automated tools and manual testing involving individuals with disabilities.

4. Design for Flexibility

Create flexible and customizable interfaces that allow users to adapt the product to their specific needs. Provide options for adjusting font sizes, color contrast, and other visual elements. Consider offering alternative input methods for users with limited mobility.

5. Test and Iterate

Regularly test your designs with users, including those with diverse abilities and backgrounds. Use their feedback to improve the accessibility and inclusivity of your product. Iterate and refine your designs based on user insights and evolving accessibility standards.

When you follow these best practices, you can foster inclusivity and create digital products that all users find accessible and enjoyable. Remember, too, to watch out for elements of exclusion that may remain. For example, if your design includes pictures or illustrations, do they reflect a truly diverse scenario that you would be proud to represent your product? 

Overall, inclusive design is a goal well worth aiming for. To achieve it, you need to understand user experience research, accessibility, user flow, and interactive design principles. When you recognize how different factors like information organization, visual design, and product qualities affect the user experience, you can consistently create inclusive designs.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading...

Learn More about Inclusive Design

Register for the How to Design for Neurodiversity: Inclusive Content and UX Master Class webinar with UX Content Strategist, Architect and Consultant, Katrin Suetterlin.

Take our course on Accessibility.

Read Impact’s blog entitled Inclusive UX: What it is and 11 smart examples from brands leading the way, featuring Inclusive Design examples.

See Apple’s documentation for developers for insights into how Apple views inclusive design.

Microsoft offers several handbooks and guidelines on how to think inclusively.

Here’s Google’s comprehensive definition of inclusivity.

Literature on Inclusive Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Inclusive Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Inclusive Design

Take a deep dive into Inclusive Design with our course Accessibility: How to Design for All .

Good accessibility is crucial to making your website or app a success. Not only is designing for accessibility required by law in many countries—if you fail to consider accessibility, you are excluding millions of people from using your product. The UN estimates that more than 1 billion people around the world live with some form of disability and as populations age over the coming years, that number is expected to rise rapidly. Add to that the 10 percent of people who suffer from color blindness, and you start to get an idea of why accessibility is so important—not just for moral and legal reasons, but also so that your products can reach their full potential. You need to design for accessibility!

So… what is a proven and pain-free way to well-executed accessibility? If you’ve ever tried to optimize your site or app for accessibility, you’ll know it can be a complex and intimidating task… and it can therefore be very tempting to leave it until last or, worse still, avoid it altogether. By understanding that accessibility is about more than just optimizing your code, you’ll find you can build it into your design process. This will ensure you are taking a disability advocacy approach, and keeping the focus on your users throughout the development process.

This course will help you achieve exactly that—from handling images to getting the most out of ARIA markup, you’ll learn how to approach accessibility from all angles. You’ll gain practical, hands-on skills that’ll enable you to assess and optimize for common accessibility issues, as well as show you how to place an emphasis on the quality of the user experience by avoiding classic mistakes. Whats more, you’ll also come away with the knowledge to conduct effective accessibility testing through working with users with disabilities.

The course includes interviews with an accessibility specialist and blind user, as well as multiple real-world examples of websites and apps where you can demonstrate your skills through analysis and accessibility tests. Not only will this give you a more practical view of accessibility, but you’ll also be able to optimize your websites and mobile apps in an expert manner—avoiding key mistakes that are commonly made when designing for accessibility.

You will be taught by Frank Spillers, CEO of the award-winning UX firm Experience Dynamics, and will be able to leverage his experience from two decades of working with accessibility. Given that, you will be able to learn from, and avoid, the mistakes he’s come across, and apply the best practices he’s developed over time in order to truly make your accessibility efforts shine. Upon completing the course, you will have the skills required to adhere to accessibility guidelines while growing your awareness of accessibility, and ensuring your organization’s maturity grows alongside your own.

All open-source articles on Inclusive Design

Please check the value and try again.

Open Access - Link to us!

We believe in Open Access and the democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, world class educational materials such as this page are normally hidden behind paywalls or in expensive textbooks.

If you want this to change, , link to us, or join us to help us democratize design knowledge!