Inclusive Design: An Overview of Current Thinking

August 26, 2019

When designing products and services, you can challenge and stretch your thinking by actively engaging with people who have different perspectives and abilities. This lets you understand how best to design products that satisfy diverse human needs and motivations, expand human interactions by making them more inclusive, and view diversity as a source of inspiration for creative professionals. In this article, I’ll focus primarily on inclusive design, which Microsoft defines as follows:

Inclusive design is a methodology, born out of digital environments, that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.” [1]

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The University of Cambridge’s Inclusive Design Toolkit [2] cites this definition of inclusive design from the British Standards Institute:

“The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible, on a global basis, in a wide variety of situations and to the greatest extent possible without the need for special adaptation or specialized design.”—British Standards Institute [3]

Why Are Inclusive Design and Accessible Technology Important?

In 2003, Microsoft commissioned Forrester to conduct research [4] to investigate the impact on computing technology of the diversity in people’s abilities. This report showed that, as the population ages, more users of computers and other computing devices such as mobile phones and tablets may notice a diminution in their abilities and experience physical and cognitive difficulties and impairments. Because of the ever-increasing use of computers for work, information consumption, and communication, it is imperative that we maintain the productivity of older workers. Thus, there will be an increasing need for accessible software and technology. The report stated, “Future computer users will demand and expect greater accessibility in computers—regardless of their abilities.”

As Figure 1 shows, by type of impairment in the United States, 60% of working-age adults between 18 and 64 years old—that is, 101.4 million adults—are either likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology because of impairments that pose difficulties in using computers.

Figure 1—Computer users likely benefit from accessible technology
Computer users likely benefit from accessible technology

Image source: Study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Forrester Research, Inc.

Microsoft’s Inclusive Toolkit Manual [5] acknowledges that UX designers sometimes generate and evaluate ideas based on their own experience. While any designer’s goal should be to create experiences that solve people’s needs, work well for human beings in general, and improve people’s lives, if designers use their own abilities as a guide, they’re likely to create products that are easy for some people to use, but exclude others. If you use your own abilities and biases as a baseline, you’ll end up designing products for people of a particular gender and age, with specific physical, cognitive, and language abilities, and the same level of technical literacy. You might even assume the same access to money, time, and social networks.

With more than 7.5 billion people in the world, your ambition should be to create products that are appropriate for each of them—physically, cognitively, and emotionally. To achieve this goal, you must begin by looking at human diversity as a resource for better design.

Designing for inclusivity not only provides greater access to your product and service experiences for more people with a wider range of abilities, it also reflects the real and evolving differences among people. Your designs should reflect that diversity.

Every design decision you make either raises or lowers barriers for the people who are using the product, service, environment, or experience you’re creating. Take responsibility for lowering these barriers by creating inclusive products. Identify cases of exclusion and embrace them as opportunities to drive new ideas and create inclusive designs.

Failing to correctly understand the people for whom you’re creating products results in products that cause unnecessary frustration and exclusion. This reduces their commercial success because of bad press and increased returns and also increases customer-support costs. Figure 2 shows just how few people find our products easy to use, while many are actually excluded from using them.

Figure 2—Few users find products easy to use
Few users find products easy to use

Image source: European Inclusive Design Consortium, on Centre for Business Innovation

To better understand population diversity, it is important to challenge the polarized definitions of able-bodied and disabled. These are not binary states, but exist on a continuum. The research that Microsoft commissioned in 2003 to investigate the benefits of accessible technology made the following determination:

“The concept of disability may have limited the understanding of the need for accessible technology. … The IT industry must consider the wide range of people who could benefit.” [4]

While the consideration of population diversity has initially focused on the perspective of variations in people’s abilities, we can broaden this concept to comprehend the diversity of varied real-world contexts, lifestyles, aspirations, genders, and past experiences. [2] The pyramid model shown in Figure 3 represents population diversity in relation to variation in people’s abilities. (The bottom layer of the pyramid represents people with no difficulties, then the severity of difficulties progressively increases at successively higher layers in the pyramid.)

Figure 3—Diversity within the population by variation in abilities
Diversity within the population by variation in abilities

Image source: University of Cambridge. Inclusive Design Toolkit.

The Differences Between Inclusive Design, Accessibility, and Universal Design

Let’s briefly look at three different, but similar approaches to designing technology that is accessible to all:

  1. Inclusive design
  2. Accessibility
  3. Universal design

Inclusive Design

According to the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University, [6] inclusive design “considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference.” Because the goal of inclusive design is to design mainstream products and services that are usable by as many people as possible, it draws on the full range of human diversity by learning from people with a broad range of perspectives.

However, as the Inclusive Design Toolkit [2] states, “Inclusive design does not suggest that it is always possible or appropriate to design one product to address the needs of the entire population. Instead, inclusive design guides an appropriate design response to diversity in the population through:

  • developing a family of products and derivatives to provide the best possible coverage of the population
  • ensuring that each individual product has clear and distinct target users
  • reducing the level of ability required to use each product, …to improve the user experience for a broad range of customers, in a variety of situations”

Kat Holmes [7] and others have embraced Susan Goltsman’s perspective on inclusive design, “Designing inclusively doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so everyone has a sense of belonging.”

In contrast, exclusion occurs when people encounter physical or digital barriers that prevent their participating in certain aspects of society. Understanding these barriers reveals actionable steps that lead to inclusive designs.


The goal of accessibility is to ensure that products meet individual users’ needs and preferences—especially those who have differing abilities. However, according to Matt May:

“While accessibility represents the desired outcome, users’ needs and preferences are so diverse that there is no perfectly accessible final result. Accepting that designing for people is an iterative process that requires accepting new information about what they want, and adapting our products accordingly, is the proper mindset for improving accessibility over the lifespan of a product. … Accessible design has the same problem as accessibility itself, [which the general public often conflates with] issues of availability…or generic ease of use. [However], concepts of inclusion and universality tend to lead people to think about the needs of people with disabilities, and sometimes beyond.” [8]

Universal Design

Ron Mace of The Center for Universal Design [9] defines universal design as follows:

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

According to the Inclusive Design Toolkit, [2] universal-design and inclusive-design philosophies are much the same. Within the context of product design, both of these approaches accept that, while “it is not always possible for one product to meet the needs of the entire population…, all mainstream products should be accessible to as many people as…possible.” However, in contrast to universal design, which had its origins in design of the built environment, inclusive design has always focused on product design—specifically, “choosing an appropriate target market for a particular design and making informed decisions to maximize the product-performance indicators for that target market. While inclusive design intends to extend the reach of mainstream products, it acknowledges the commercial constraints [that are] associated with satisfying the needs of the target market.”

Dimensions of Inclusive Design

The Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University [6] has defined three key dimensions of inclusive design, as follows:

  1. Recognizing diversity and uniqueness
  2. Employing an inclusive-design process and tools
  3. Striving for broader beneficial impacts

Figure 4 depicts the dimensions of inclusive design and subsequent sections provide more detail.

Figure 4—Inclusive-design dimensions
Inclusive design dimensions

Image source: Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University

Recognizing Diversity and Uniqueness

Inclusive design always keeps people’s diversity and uniqueness top of mind. While the idea of a hypothetical average user is useful, the needs of individual users at the margins—the outliers—become increasingly diverse. Individual users typically deviate from the average user in some particular facet of their needs or goals. Therefore, solutions for the masses do not work well for them. Adaptive digital systems that support flexible, individual configuration or AI-driven personalization deliver optimal inclusive-design outcomes. It’s also possible to achieve “diversity-supportive design” through the integrated, component-based architectures that are necessary to maintain interoperability and consistency across products.

Employing an Inclusive-Design Process and Tools

Because groups that comprise people with diverse perspectives excel in decision-making, innovation, and the ability to make accurate predictions, “inclusive design teams should be as diverse as possible” and include people who have lived the experience of users at the margins. Supporting an inclusive design process and ensuring the use of accessible, usable design tools encourages diverse participation in the design process.

Striving for Broader Beneficial Impacts

Inclusive designers must “be aware of the context and broader impact of any design” and should endeavor to effect beneficial impacts beyond those that are targeted at the intended beneficiaries of a design. “Inclusive design should trigger a virtuous cycle of inclusion…and recognize the interconnectedness of users and systems.” Realizing such broad, positive impacts requires the full integration of inclusive design into the product-development process.


Designing technology using inclusive-design practices offers many beneficial outcomes. Microsoft’s Inclusive Toolkit Manual [5] describes the following benefits of inclusive design:

  • increased accessibility
  • reduced friction
  • greater emotional context

However, the impacts of inclusive design extend far beyond the products people use. Inclusive design also impacts designers’ mindsets, methods, and behaviors. “What we design is a byproduct of how we design. Measuring the benefits includes measuring the shift in our culture and ourselves.” [5]

One finding of Microsoft’s report The Wide Range of Abilities and Its Impact on Computer Technology is that, before developers of technology products can address the growing demand for accessible products effectively, they must first acknowledge the reality that the concept of disability may have previously limited their understanding of that need. Rather than adopting the assumption that accessible technology is useful only to people who have disabilities, developers must consider “the wide range of people who could benefit from using accessible technology. … It is essential [that they] understand

  • the [types] of difficulties and impairments [that] people are experiencing [and their degree of severity]
  • [the frequency of their occurrence] among current and potential computer users…
  • specific ways [in which] accessible technology [could] help people overcome [such] difficulties and impairments”

Microsoft’s report concludes: “Accessible technology has the potential to powerfully extend, expand, and enhance user experience and productivity. Addressing the needs of those who are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology requires an industry-wide effort.” 


[1] Microsoft. “Inclusive Design.” Microsoft, undated. Retrieved August 10, 2019.

[2] University of Cambridge. Inclusive Design Toolkit. University of Cambridge, undated. Retrieved August 10, 2019.

[3] British Standards Institute. “Design Management Systems, Part 6: Managing Inclusive Design.” London: BSI, February 4, 2005.

[4] Microsoft. The Wide Range of Abilities and Its Impact on Computer Technology. (Word Doc) Microsoft, 2004. Retrieved August 10, 2019.

[5] Microsoft. Inclusive Toolkit Manual. (PDF) Microsoft, 2016. Retrieved August 10, 2019.

[6] Inclusive Design Research Centre. “What Do We Mean by Inclusive Design?OCAD University: Inclusive Design Research Centre, undated. Retrieved August 10, 2019.

[7] Holmes, Kat. “Who Gets to Play?Medium, October 15, 2016. Retrieved August 10, 2019.

[8] Matt May. “The Same, But Different: Breaking Down Accessibility, Universality, and Inclusion in Design.” Adobe Blog, April 2, 2018. Retrieved August 10, 2019.

[9] Mace, Ron. “The Center for Universal Design.” North Carolina State University College of Design, undated. Retrieved August 10, 2019.

Senior UX Designer in the Experience Design and Engineering Practice Team (EDGE) at HCL Technologies Ltd.

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India

Neha DhoundiyalNeha has more than six years of experience designing effortless, digital-product experiences. She loves everything about the creative process, from concept to execution. Neha continually explores new methods of manifesting her ideas by creating everything from illustrations to digital media.  Read More

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