Why inclusive tech remains elusive

Kayla Love instantly identifies with drop-down boxes on the internet that include an “Others” option.

“Because ‘others’ equals us,” says Love, a multi-racial Black UX (user experience) designer from Puerto Rico who identifies as genderqueer.

Miles away in Bengaluru, Prasanna Venkatesh simply loves the auto-captioning feature in Google Meets.

“It allows me to contribute to my maximum ability at work even in a remote setup,” the senior product design manager, who is hard of hearing, says of the cool feature in Google’s video-communication platform.

Shaheena Attarwala, a Mumbai-based product design manager, says the image of a
Dunzo mascot wearing traditional Muslim attire makes her resonate with the brand.

It makes her feel “seen”.

Why inclusive design is essential_Shaheena Attarwala_Quote_ETTECHETtech

Consumer internet companies are taking baby steps to appeal to a broader spectrum of users, though right now, they are few and far between.

For the most part, the internet is inaccessible to the physically challenged (roughly 97% of websites, according to
this report) and does not reflect the diversity of internet users globally.

Most companies think accessibility and inclusion take up time, effort, and money; to others, it is simply an alien concept.

The result is an interconnected web created by a few people, for many more people like them (mostly young, urban, upper-caste, abled, English-speaking, economically well-off, cis-gendered straight male) excluding all those who are
not like them.

As different sub-groups become more vocal online, however, internet companies are finally turning a corner in terms of inclusive design, albeit slowly.

Apple, Google and Microsoft – among the more mature tech companies — are at the forefront of this change, says Trip O’Dell, a Seattle-based product designer whose observations are also informed by his lived experiences as a dyslexic user.

Google Maps has improved accessibility over time with the help of audio, visual, and contextual clues, O’Dell notes, while also giving a shout-out to iPhone’s suite of accessibility tools. “Some of the more innovative features that have been added to [Microsoft] Office such as transcription and captioning in PowerPoint, and automatically suggesting alt text for images, show its commitment to inclusive thinking,” he adds.

In China, hyperlocal app Meituan Dianping and messaging platform WeChat allow (visually challenged) users to place an order for food delivery by sending an audio recording. “A separate team does the job of placing the order on their behalf,” notes Venkatesh, who closely follows the food delivery space.

Facebook now has over 50 gender options for users to fill in their profiles.

Several hotel reservation forms allow people to pick “Mx” as a gender-neutral honorific now, says Soren Hamby (they/them), an inclusive service designer from Suffern in the New York City metro area who is part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Screenshot designETtech

Hamby shares an example of a hotel reservation form that includes gender-neutral honorific (Mx)

Earlier this year, LinkedIn and Instagram rolled out an option to add pronouns to user bios in a few countries. Hamby is yet to update their pronouns (they/them/theirs) on social media.

Techtonic shift

How did tech companies have a change of heart? One word: Compliance.

Many countries, like the US and Canada, mandate incorporating WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 standards in websites and apps, says Natasha Taraporevala, lead designer at a fintech company in Bengaluru.

In the UK, a website has to either meet the minimum criteria for accessibility and inclusion to be allowed to go live or publicly list the pending accessibility criteria they need to fix on the website homepage, adds Venkatesh.

Failure to comply can invite lawsuits.

These lawsuits are piling on, says Cat Noone, CEO of Stark, a SaaS company that provides tools to make software accessible. “There were close to 3,000 of them over accessibility issues just last year,” she says.

Popstar Beyonce’s
eponymous website and fast-food company Domino’s had
accessibility lawsuits slapped on them in recent times, while retail chain Target was on the wrong end of a
multi-million dollar settlement for a 2008 lawsuit.

“It is now three times as expensive, as well as time-consuming, to deal with the aftermath of non-compliance,” says Noone.

Stark’s accessibility tools have clocked half a million installs so far, she claims, adding that the company counts India (including companies building for the US and adhering to WCAG 2.0) among its top three markets after North America EU.

However, WCAG itself only lists basic accessibility standards.

For instance, Clubhouse, a live audio-only platform,
has no legal obligation under WCAG 2.0 to provide audio captions for the hearing impaired.

Due to the work-in-progress guidelines, hearing-impaired users like Venkatesh are unable to access these platforms. While Twitter Spaces has a rudimentary captioning feature unlike Clubhouse, the experience still leaves a lot to be desired.

Similarly, a vast majority of apps end up excluding vision-impaired users as they don’t have adequate voice-over support.

As a product designer himself, Venkatesh understands that every product and website will always exclude a certain section of users when launched. An acknowledgement that this will be addressed in future is all he asks for.

Why inclusive design is essential_Prasanna Venkatesh_Quote_ETTECHETtech

Another major challenge in the way of inclusive design is the lack of diversity in the engineering and product design teams.

For instance, apps in segments like food delivery and ride-hailing, where women comprise the majority of users, are largely designed by men, says Vikrama Dhiman, head of product at Indonesian super app Gojek.

Further, while creating user personas, product teams still tend to assume the user is a man and go on to refer to the user as a “he” during feature development, notes Shankar Ganesh, a product designer from Bengaluru who identifies as gay and stresses on a user being referred to as “she”, “they”, or simply “the user”.

Government sites in India, from IRCTC to CoWIN, seem to be designed to exclude a large majority of rural India comprising technologically challenged people, multiple product designers say.

A lot of fintech products globally, are tailored to the top decile, notes Noone.

“Several payment pages have Credit Card as the first option even though more people pay via debit card and net banking,” adds Dhiman of Gojek.

The business case

Compliance aside, inclusive design is also being touted as good for business these days.

“The popular thinking right now is that inclusion might also end up making companies more money, increase innovation via the diversity of thought and experience, or increase productivity,” says Hamby who is vision impaired.

Why inclusive design is essential_Soren Hamby_Quote_ETTECHETtech

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability — that’s roughly a billion people.

“In tech, we often talk about “designing for the next billion users”, and designing for people with disabilities is highly relevant here,” says Taraporevala who is hard of hearing.

Additionally,
4%-5% of the global population identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Why inclusive design is essential_Graphic_ETTECH1ETtech

“When you serve your underserved user first, you create a product that’s much better for everyone,” says Love who runs Pilira Design Lab in Puerto Rico.

Take the case of Adaptxt, a smartphone keyboard that enables context-based next-word suggestions and word completion; the stuff we can’t do without these days.

It was developed by founder Sanjay Patel over a decade ago to help his brother interact with the keyboard on his smartphone with one hand after he lost an arm in a road accident.

“Soon, it was adopted by tablets as well as smart TVs as it made keyboard typing less cumbersome,” recalls Justin Jolly Samuel, a Hyderabad-based UX designer and a former Adaptxt employee. Similar technology was later developed independently by Google, Microsoft and Apple for their default keyboards, Samuel adds.

There’s historical evidence of inclusive design eventually becoming mainstream.

Attarwala from Mumbai points to the
origin story of the bendy straw. Sometime in the 1930s, Joseph B. Friedman created a straw that could bend in order to reach a child’s face over the edge of a glass. It was just so his daughter, little Judith, could drink her milkshake with a straw without much hassle.

What’s stopping tech companies from providing a better user experience to everyone, then?

Decision fatigue, says Lauren Celenza, a Seattle-based designer and an inclusive design advocate. “It can manifest in quick conclusions that inclusive design will take too much money or time to achieve.”

The MVP vs MLP debate

“There’s also a race to get the minimum viable product (MVP) out first instead of the minimum lovable product (MLP),” Noone from Stark adds.

Why inclusive design is essential_Cat Noone_Quote_ETTECHETtech

This urgency has resulted in many cluttered and confusing apps that overwhelm, pressure, and exclude some groups of users. And it’s also resulted in many burnt-out teams across the industry, says Celenza.

In reality, it is far more costly to retrofit inclusive design, “especially when faced with disappointed customers who are losing trust in your product and competitors who are gaining traction,” she adds.

Apps will become more inclusive when leaders and teams tame their urgency and shift their attention towards listening to the perspectives of historically excluded communities and colleagues, she emphasises.

It also implies answering key questions at the conceptualisation stage itself.

Junaid Hashmi, an interaction designer from Hyderabad, starts with a few basic ones, like: ‘How similar and different are the people using this, to me?’, or ‘What other ways could people use this?’, or even ‘Will people who buy a new phone, be able to use the app without any help, by themselves?’

“The product should also solve for less savviness with tech,” says Hashmi.

Max Masure (they/them), a community-centred UX researcher and a transgender non-binary queer person, takes it a notch higher: The question they ask of themselves often is, ‘Will our product support or harm vulnerable groups?’

“We need to value and focus on the impact on real people’s lives over the intention we might have,” they say.

As Noone rightly concludes: “Maybe the world doesn’t need more wrong answers in record time…”

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