When we think of a futuristic reality for the human race, we think of flying cars and holographic calls. We may not be there just yet but we are sure on our way to building a digital future for all. In fact, the next billion users are hailing from developing countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and more. More people are coming online especially during the pandemic with 40% of them in East Asia subscribing to mobile internet for the first time. The future looks bright indeed with emerging tech focusing on the next billion users. With that said, we can’t simply continue design in the same ways we primarily designed for the predominantly wealthy and privileged groups adhering only to western views.

It’s an impossible mission when we set out to design a solution for everyone. A sensible way forward is to solve for one and extend to many. It’s about shifting the mindset starting by asking who are we excluding and why? One way or another we all have experienced being excluded in something that was not made with you in mind. But, what does it mean to be inclusive in the work that we do and its impact on people?

So, what is Inclusive Design and Research?

Inclusive Design is the design of an environment so that it can be accessed and used by as many people as possible, regardless of age, gender and disability. An environment that is designed inclusively is not just relevant to buildings; it also applies to surrounding open spaces, wherever people go about everyday activities. ” – Inclusive Design Hub

Image by @jevakallio                          

Image by @rockbot

Inclusivity is beyond helping those in need, it’s about making sure there’s a place for everyone that comes on the internet. However, a minuscule task like registering an online account and having their identity recognised as an invalid name in the system causes more than just a roadblock in the user experience.

And, why is it important to us?

Let me ask you this–What do Dominos, Nike and Beyonce have in common? 

A class-action lawsuit filed against them for unlawful discrimation denying people with visual impairment equal access to purchasing their products. 

“ The best way to identify inclusion is to start with recognizing exclusion. 

– Kat Holmes, author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design and Inclusivity Design Director at Microsoft (2014-2017).

When we include users who are not identified as “Power Users”, many are under the assumption that it will only benefit the tiniest fraction of the customer base. In actuality, the majority of us have already benefited from inclusive tech for a long time now and written it off as a pleasant user experience, but to some it’s a crucial gap from being able to use a product to not having equal access to it.

Virtual Assistants

Image by @benceboros

Voice Command features on Siri, Google Home Hub, Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and more has eased the experience for those who are physically unable to look up or command an action like making a call, either due to multitasking or a temporary or permanent physical impairment. 

Closed Caption on Videos

Image by @macroman


Closed Captioning is more than just subtitles for spoken words, it also extends to any non-speech element such as someone expressing a sigh or humming a melody to a song. It’s helpful for the deaf people, or those who are hard of hearing, as it allows them access to gather context of the video content.

Alt Text on Images

Screenshot image from Instagram


Alt text is one example where its importance is unapparent unless you’re one or both of the following – a person who requires a screen reader to access a website OR a Social Media Marketer. The inner workings of ALT Text are embedded in code and only appear when the images fail to load or images are intentionally not displayed on browsers due to poor internet connectivity. Marketers leverage ALT Text for SEO rankings—it serves as the perfect free tool to run a complete SEO check on your website and optimize it for higher ranking seamlessly.

Language of the Mind  

What language do you think in? A person who is multilingual tends to form a dominant language with their inner thoughts. The language of the mind is extremely malleable when you’re able to switch languages in one sentence which is common in Southeast Asia countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines.

As UX Researchers, we study how people openly and nonchalantly communicate their thoughts and stories with us. Sometimes, we ask them areas of topics relating to their journey in learning about their healthcare options, process in making decisions in buying groceries, to seeing how they solve problems in a constraint environment and more. Mindfully listening and understanding their verbal and body language helps build up the context of a participant’s story.

Words that people use are a great indicator on their level of expertise and familiarity on the topic as well. With that said, the meaning of words can be subjective and hold cultural differences and knowledge gaps when interpreted loosely.

It is no longer enough to simply offer a product translated in ten to twenty different languages. Users also want a product that acknowledges their unique cultural characteristics and business practices. 

– Elisa M. del Galdo and Jakob Nielsen, author of User Interface for International Use.

There are 3 ways to categorize keywords learnt during research. 

  Image by @macroman


For example, describing the state of a person’s online presence.  

A layman term would be referred to as “they are currently not online”.
Digging deeper through a lens of a cultural term, gamers tend to phrase it as “afk”, an acronym for “away from keyboard”.
On the other end of this spectrum, there’s an expert’s term which an engineer or a production staff may identify as “inactive user or offline user”.

There are various ways to expand on cultural terms, it is not exclusive only to geographical influences. For example, some Gamers might just call it “DC” which is short for “Disconnected”.

With that said, an example like this emphasises word familiarity gap among different groups of people. As researchers, we can help identify words that resonate with them the most and build instant familiarity to meet their expectations when they navigate online. 


Ethics in Research

Designing solutions to solve everyday problems has eased the burden of many lives and communities. It is an advantageous and hassle-free experience for some to manage errands and daily tasks from a click of an app. The convenience factor plays a big role in eliminating nuance and frustration in a customer journey. However, the design process is not flawless, there’s a growing gap in demographic diversity and a culture of inclusion as highlighted by American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). 


                                   Persona Spectrum from Microsoft Inclusive Toolkit 

The ideology behind “there’s an app for everything” is the least accessible and beneficial to people living with a permanent disability. 15% of the word population is experiencing some form of disability, yet they are underrepresented in problem-solving conversations. There are always steps you can take to be more inclusive with the demographic of users in your next research study.

Prerequisite research is a constant practice when engaging with any sort of user groups. When minority groups are involved, an added layer of professional preparation is recommended to keep participants and researchers in a healthy and safe environment throughout the session. Seeking professional sensitivity or diversity training to help adjust your research’s team communication style to form appropriate dialogue with participants is recommended.

In tech design, minority user groups are a segment of people that are widely underrepresented in your user base. For example, if we are looking to gain understanding from someone who is permanently deaf vs. someone who experiences temporary hard hearing from managing concert stages, our approach in engagement will vary and needs to be mindful.

For underrepresented people, there’s little incentive to participate in something that’s broken for them, especially if they think that information they provide could be used against them…Joyce Chou & Roger Ibars, co-authors of In Pursuit of Inclusive AI

As Researchers, we try our best to make conditions and the environment comfortable for participants to open up as we are merely a guest in their world. It’s easy for participants to conclude their short time with us as a transactional exchange. Hence, the importance of having an end to end process with participants helps ease them out from the user session without feeling overwhelmed or misunderstood.

Practicing ethical research starts with defining your norm of conduct as a researcher. During a user session, information shared can be highly vulnerable if it was gathered from someone in a minority group. Therefore, emphasising participant welfare should be taken seriously prior to user engagement. The last thing we want is participants walking away with misinformation or any doubts about their experiences with us. 

For example, if we are looking to better understand how a typical day looks like in someone’s workplace, it’s common for researchers to shadow the participants to map out their day. However, taking the same enquiry and applying it to a participant who has a refugee status makes the entire process risky with any information they indulge to us in confidence. The element of risk comes when the majority of countries still considers refugees as illegal immigrants hence formally working is prohibited.  

Even artificial intelligence technology comes with their own biases when it’s unable to recognise human faces outside from the dataset that was fed to them. With the smartest advanced tech out there, it’s only as good and informed as the humans who are building it. 

There’s a lot to unpack on inclusivity with research and design. The conversation around it doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to be intentional. Reframing your process with an intersectionality thinking framework helps you better understand beyond the pain point of a user journey but also recognises a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. 

The topic on inclusive research doesn’t end with this article.
Here are more reading resources to start your journey with inclusive research: 


40 Tips For Inclusive And Accessible User Interface Design by Andrew Wilshere and Ezra Lamb

A11Y Resources List by Hannah Milan 

Can I Play That? (Accessibility Gaming) by Courtney Craven and Grant Stoner

Design Research Ethics by IDEO

Diversity & Inclusion in Design: Why Do They Matter? by AIGA

How Inclusion Shapes Design (video) by Kat Holmes

How Intersectionality affects Product Strategy by Enginess

How to Begin Designing for Diversity by Project Inkblot

IBM Accessibility Toolkit by IBM

Inclusive Design Podcast (Visual Podcast) by Inclusive Design 24

Inclusive Design Toolkit by Microsoft Design 

Inclusive Design: A Comprehensive Methodology by SayYeah

Ignoring Intersectionality by Bianca Nasser

Intersectionality: a critical piece of your service and product strategy by Lee Dale and Kate Matesic

Intersectionality, The Social Model of Disability, and Design for Real Life by Ryan Boren

Intersectional Design Cards by Stanford University

UX for the Next Billion Users by Google

Veronica With Four Eyes  by Veronica Lewis

What Is Ethics in Research & Why Is It Important? by David B. Resnik, J.D., Ph.D.

Got a learning resource link to add to the list? Suggest them here.

Kimberly is a guest author for UXArmy and a seasoned UX practitioner with deep experience using visual storytelling to solve complex problems. She develops frameworks to help teams and stakeholders in bridging the gap of design, tech and people. Previously, Kim has helped launch Brunei’s first independent fintech solution.
This article was originally written for UXArmy in April 2021 by Kimberly Mak.

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