3 mistakes to avoid when designing for inclusion and equity

May 13, 2022
Making mistakes is part of embracing any new practice. But we can't let our fear of mistakes prevent us from designing more inclusively and equitably. Discover what steps you can take to mitigate your risks of mistakes and the harm that could potentially come from them.

So you're eager to start putting inclusive and equitable principles into practice in your research and design work. What could go wrong?

To start, let's be clear that we're all human and we're bound to make mistakes. Especially when we're dipping our toes into the water and starting to explore new ways of working that are more inclusive and equitable.

But while it's important to lean in and experiment, you still have to take precautions. Otherwise, your missteps may actually counteract the positive effects of inclusive and equitable design or, at worst, inadvertently reinforce patterns of oppression.

Let's take a look at 3 common mistakes you can make with inclusive and equitable design and how to avoid them.

1. Chasing after tools, checklists and how-to guides to the detriment of critical reflection

All of these serve a purpose, don't get me wrong. They can provide clarity, are often the product of years of experimentation and learning and help guide our work. But where they go wrong is when we turn to them as a shortcut, especially at the beginning of our learning journey. They end up doing the thinking for us at times.

We're no longer asking questions like, "Why is this harmful pattern showing up again and again in our content?". Or "Why do we keep sidestepping accessibility in early designs and prototypes?".

These questions open up tough but necessary conversations on root causes and roadblocks — misalignment in values and practices, conflicting priorities, no consensus on tradeoffs, skewed team demographics, unequal power dynamics, implicit and explicit bias and so forth.

Without such discussions, you will likely end up on the surface of this work, which will limit any real social change. You may face more internal resistance and lack the resources and buy-in to get the full team to do things differently and to make more time for inclusion work.

For instance, your team may follow diversity best practices and agree to use photos and illustrations in your user interfaces and marketing materials that feature more diverse faces. But there's no impetus to change how you "fix" existing features and develop new ones. While on the surface it looks like you're embracing more inclusive practices, behind the scenes, no real change has occurred in your product or service. Instances of racism, sexism and lack of accessibility remain unaddressed.

As a result, your efforts will end up lacking depth and lasting impact. And they won't be sustainable over time.

2. Engaging in research and codesign with marginalized groups without the proper training or prep.

I dove into the details of my blunders in a recent LinkedIn post on user research I conducted with asylum seekers and refugees in France 5 years ago.

For this project, I enlisted a teammate to join me in research and didn't adequately prepare him for the nuances of research with vulnerable populations.

I also discovered that I hadn't yet developed the skills (in this case, trauma-informed practices) to properly handle a trauma response in a research participant. I didn't know how to manage my vicarious trauma, or the trauma that I personally experienced as a result of the participant's emotional response.

In the end, this research generated harm to both the research participant and to me as the researcher.

This means we can't do this work without the proper training and preparation. Period.

Going in with a superficial understanding can lead to just as much or more harm as excluding this population entirely from our work.

So we need to lean in to learning deeply about inclusion, equity and ethics in relation to research and design. We need to anticipate what could go wrong and prepare a plan ahead of time. We also need to bring in the right professionals to support us with more complex situations, such as a licensed social worker, an experienced practitioner of inclusive and equitable design or an ethical technologist.

3. Not thinking critically about consent.

Consent forms are a golden standard in ethical research. And we can't do inclusive and equitable work without a strong adherence to a code of ethics. But sometimes these consent forms aren't designed with inclusion in mind. Our behaviors don't always abide with what's written in a form (especially if creating consent forms has been automated and templatized). And sometimes there aren't even consent forms to begin with.

Next time you are doing work with end users, especially those who are part of marginalized groups, think critically about your biases.

  • What is your "default" of what consent forms should look like? How can the "default" be exclusive or inaccessible to those outside of what we assume are "average" users?
  • Are research screeners and consent forms written with language that is understandable to everyone?  
  • What if the user's native language isn't the language the interview will be conducted in?
  • What if they have cognitive impairments or neurodivergent learning differences (such as dyslexia, where people have difficulty reading) — could they understand it?
  • What if they can't read at all due to visual impairments or illiteracy?
  • What other ways could you obtain informed consent that are accessible or culturally relevant?

Consent is not only something that's obtained prior to your engagement with the end user. It's something that you must consistently address throughout the end-to-end experience. This means explaining to participants what agency they'll have in the interview, testing session or codesign workshop.

For instance, this could be the ability to stop the session at any time, to take a break, to opt out of answering a specific question or elaborating a response. It means reminding them of their agency repeatedly during the session and pausing to check in with them on how they're feeling. It also means surveying participants after the session (if they consent to it) on the level of safety and respect experienced in the session.

4. And a bonus mistake — not taking accountability for your mistakes.

Yes, this one's a bit meta as it's about what happens after you make a mistake. We can't learn from mistakes if we don't hold ourselves responsible for our part in them. And we can't hold ourselves responsible for mistakes if we don't even recognize that we made any.

More on that in a future post!

Where does this leave us?

We can't let the fear of mistakes — and fear of the backlash that may follow — leave us in a state of inaction. I would argue that the current way we do research and design is filled with "mistakes" if by mistakes we mean the harm, exclusion, and oppression that are generated by our practices and solutions. And let's just say that that hasn't stopped anyone from taking action!

At the same time, you also can't rush into things and sidestep the foundational work.

I recommend taking measured action.

Measured action means that you and your team take your time to reflect on your past work, on your biases and on your gaps in skills and knowledge. You make concerted efforts to close these gaps through training and critical discussions within your team and outside of your team with experienced practitioners and professionals.

And it is only after you've laid this groundwork that you can start experimenting and modeling new behaviors and practices that will help direct your work toward more equitable outcomes.

This is the crux of my approach as an Inclusive Design coach, advisor and educator — guiding teams to critically examine their practices first instead of hastily jumping into action through a rushed application of tools and frameworks.

This will go much farther in mitigating the risk of making mistakes and the potential harm that those mistakes can generate. Remember, however, that mistakes are inevitable. They are a necessary part of growth and progress, so long as we proceed with caution.

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I help teams align their business practices with their values by harnessing the power of inclusive design. All it takes is an openness to change and a willingness to evolve your culture and practices.
"I strongly recommend Sandra for any job that requires strong analytical skills, an innovative mindset and leadership."
Muy Cheng Peich, Libraries without Borders