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Good design is inclusive design: perspectives on digital accessibility with Tom Pokinko at Open Inclusion

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Tom Pokinko wearing glasses

The world is finally waking up to the importance of accessibility.

As we kick off our NavSta mobile wayfinding project with Transport for London, Connected Places and Open Inclusion, we sat down with Tom Pokinko, Research Director at Open Inclusion, to talk technology, accessibility, and why inclusive design (hopefully) won’t exist in future.

Calvium: Tom, could you please introduce yourself and the work that Open Inclusion does?

Tom Pokinko, Open Inclusion: I’m Research Director at Open Inclusion, where I’ve been for almost three years now. Open Inclusion is a human-centred design and innovation consulting agency in London. We use design to help organisations be more inclusive, and improve their services and operations with user insight. I lead our research strategy and manage our UK-wide panel of 400 individuals with a wide range of access needs. We do research of all types with our panel members to provide insights that help create better designs for our clients. We also do market research and strategy, run inclusive innovation workshops and train teams.

C: What is inclusive design and why are you passionate about the topic?

TP: The textbook definition of inclusive design that I revert to is this: ‘Inclusive design is design for the full range of human diversity’. Now, that’s an ambitious definition. Obviously, it’s not possible to fully achieve this every time, but the idea is that we try. Through inclusive design, we are looking at the incredible diversity that we all share. We live in diverse cities and communities, we come from diverse families and backgrounds, we may have access needs that make us even more diverse. Inclusive design is the creation of products and services that try to take these needs into account.

I don’t actually see inclusive design as a niche; I see it as good design, period. My background is User Experience, so I love capturing diverse insights to help make products and services better, and that’s why I’m passionate about inclusive design.  

There are two other reasons. One: I think in ten years’ time we won’t even be talking about inclusive design. We’re just going to be talking about design and it’s going to be inclusive by default. Second, as a human being who cares about society and our wellbeing and doesn’t want society to fail. There is a social element to inclusive design that makes me very passionate.

“I don’t actually see inclusive design as a niche; I see it as good design, period”

People with disabilities and access needs are not the only people that benefit from inclusive design. We all have diverse needs at different times in our lives, and even day to day we have varying needs. But it’s true that a lot of people who benefit from inclusive design are disabled. So, you have a massive community of people who have traditionally not had their needs met by what we want to call ‘mainstream design’.

C: Can you give examples of projects that you’ve undertaken and explain the positive impacts that you’ve seen?

TP: Yes, absolutely. I can talk about project areas or actually industries that we’ve affected, because we work across many different industries.  

For example, we’ve worked with a number of high-profile clients in travel and transport, where we see challenges around navigating venues. Often our users suggest digital solutions to make that easier. Imagine you’re a visually impaired traveller and you’re looking to request assistance. You know someone’s going to meet you when you arrive at a busy station but you have no idea where that person is. We’ve looked at solutions that help to mitigate this stress. It’s been very fulfilling, because I’ve seen first-hand how a rather simple prototype digital solution can change the experience for a traveller and relieve at least 50% of their stress going into a busy travel hub.

Another example is in retail. We’ve worked with retailers of all shapes and sizes to help make their physical space more accessible. We’ve also worked on in-store digital with them as well.  Here you have people who want to have a great shopping experience, because who doesn’t get the occasional thrill from buying something nice?

Staff training is a big part of what we do as well.  It’s empowering to see how a little bit of disability awareness in staff can radically improve the customer experience for someone on a retail journey.

C: What are the challenges of practising inclusive design?

TP: I’m Canadian, and in the Canadian inclusive design community there is a wonderful speaker called David Berman. In 2012, David wrote that inclusive design was going to be the next big thing – it was poised in the way same way environmental design was five years before that.

Some people still see inclusive design as a niche, but sustainable design was once considered a niche and is now almost mainstream. It’s baked into modern life. You have everything from high technology companies like Apple to supercar manufacturers like Lamborghini who are talking about sustainable design. I think inclusive design is going to have that mainstream penetration or uptake in a few years’ time.

I’m already seeing it. When I started in this industry about seven years ago, it was in a different place to now. For now, some of the challenges of doing inclusive design are not that different from any design challenge, really.

If you want to gain useful insights from your users, it’s going to take time. If you have to consider some additional needs of your users when doing so – users who may have difficulties with speech, with access to venues, who learn differently or have cognitive conditions and think differently – it may take a little longer (but not always).

There can be other challenges too. We once ran some focus groups with people on the autistic spectrum, and I forgot to mention to one participant that there would be ten people in the group, along with me, my notetaker next to me, the client, and a speech-to-text reporter providing live captions (something we always include in our research sessions). She walked into the room and just walked straight out – I followed and discovered that she would have struggled with such a large crowd. It was a failure to manage expectations on my part.

So, there can be occasional challenges, but by managing the situation ahead of time, properly and with enough consideration, these challenges can be avoided. This could include things like sending photos of the room to prospective focus group participants so they can familiarise themselves with it in advance, or sending materials to visually impaired participants in a different format. These are things we do as standard. At Open Inclusion, the inclusive research begins long before people actually set foot in the venue, before any focus groups or interviews, before any surveys are sent out. It begins right from the recruitment phase.

The other challenge that can be encountered is bias, which can happen in any user-centred research. The researcher has to ensure that they do not influence outcomes and results: that they’re trying to be as impartial as possible and really listening to what users are telling them. This is especially pertinent for inclusive design because there is such diversity of access need.

We’re all human beings – we’re all inevitably, to some extent, biased, because we speak from our own experience. I’m a sighted person, so I don’t have the same experience as someone who’s been blind from birth. I have fairly good hearing, so I don’t have the same experience as someone who is hard of hearing. Things like this create a challenge in keeping our own biases in check.

C: Terms such as ‘inclusive design’, ‘accessibility’ and ‘universal design’ are often used interchangeably. What’s your understanding of these terms, and the differences between them?

TP: Out of those terms, ‘inclusive design’ and ‘universal design’ are probably the two that are most often used interchangeably. My understanding is that ‘universal design’ originated pre-digital, applying initially to the design of the built environment. So, when you’re designing a hallway in a building, you’re trying to find that sweet spot where you’re taking diverse access needs into consideration, but ultimately you can’t change the width of that hallway: once it’s set, it’s done. As a result, universal design aims for a one-size-fits-all scenario: it’s universal by definition.

We arrive at those standards of universal design by balancing. I know the width of the smallest and the largest wheelchairs that I can buy on the market, and I might average the two. Then I’ll double that, so I’ll think about two wheelchairs passing each other side by side, so the hallway is wide enough for both of them, and I might add a little extra. So, I’ll stick to my widest wheelchair as long as that’s not cost-prohibitive. As a result, universal design guidelines often differ from country to country, from organisation to organisation. Different built environment guidelines won’t always match, as it’s an exercise in compromise to an extent, and what products and knowledge are available to planners at the time.

By comparison, ‘inclusive design’ coincided with the advent of digital tools, especially assistive technologies. Digital environments, unlike physical ones, are flexible. The idea of inclusive design is that we can take into consideration diverse access needs, and even where they conflict, we can, in many cases, introduce choice. For example, we can introduce a way to modify the user interface of a website or an app so that if I’m visually impaired, I may choose a very high-contrast interface.

But if I’m on the autistic spectrum or I’m dyslexic, that high contrast will actually be a distraction. So instead I might opt for a calmer, low-contrast UI, something like a soft green background and a darker grey foreground text. Digital allows us to offer the user choices to suit their preferences.

If universal design is a one-size-fits-all outcome from a process of compromise, then inclusive design is one-size-fits-one and that’s ok, because the flexibility of digital means these choices can all sit alongside each other.

The term ‘accessibility’, on the other hand, is one we can’t forget about – it’s probably the most familiar term. Inclusion is slowly becoming more mainstream, and we’re seeing evidence of this.

But what is accessibility? Literally speaking, it’s about your ability to access something: how easy it is for a product, device or service, or an environment, to be accessed. Historically, it’s a term that has traditionally been associated with the world of disability. So, when people think ‘accessibility’, they think of the blue wheelchair symbol, which is, of course, just one facet of disability – a very specific type of motor impairment. In any case, accessibility is this term that indicates how easy a product or service is to access, and it generally implies that we’re talking about people with long-term disabilities.

One aspect of accessibility that ‘accessibility’ does not necessarily include by default is user experience. A website could be very easy for any screen reader to use by being coded in HTML with minimal or no CSS, using lots of text with alternative text for the occasional image. It is very accessible but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s a great user experience.

I prefer the term ‘inclusive design’ because it incorporates universal design, it includes accessibility and usability, and it seeks to create great user experiences.

C: Can you point to two or three examples of digital inclusive design that you wish were your own?

TP: One of the obvious – but big – ones is Apple’s iOS. I’m not talking about the operating system itself, but the integration of the iOS operating system and the devices, primarily iPhones and iPads.

They’re great examples of inclusive design, baking a screen reader and other accessibility features into their operating systems on all devices. But what’s so revolutionary and powerful about iOS devices is that they’ve rethought the user interface away from a keyboard to an intuitive and easy-to-use touchscreen, to the point where YouTube is full of videos of babies and cats using these devices.

They address access needs through an innovative interface: they didn’t aim to create an accessible product, they just did. They just tried to create a great design, and that’s why it’s a great example of inclusive design.

My second example is Flieger watches – pilots’ watches. Pilots in World Wars 1 and 2 had extreme needs: they were flying upside-down, in cold temperatures, often in low light and under significant stress.

Pilots’ watches grew out of that need: a very extreme need to have ultra-legible, ultra-simplified interfaces. They innovated a triangle at twelve o’clock that allows you to read the dial even when upside down, meaning you can always tell where the twelve o’clock is.

They also innovated highly legible, large numerals in sans-serif fonts: everything else that is not needed in that interface has been removed. So that’s another great example of something I’d call inclusive design, which was created because of the extreme needs of its user base, rather than for an accessibility project.

My third example is from service design, and it’s Disneyland theme parks. Disneyland take their customer experience really seriously, to the point where they introduce nothing that would get in the way of an absolutely fantastic experience.

Disney uses digital in very innovative ways. The brand is well-known for various ways of pinpointing people’s locations in the park, wayfinding technologies, everything that you need to ensure you forget that you’re in this highly complex (and in some cases dangerous) environment. They do think about disability too, and have many accommodations for people who are mobility-impaired, who are vision-impaired, who are deaf, have low hearing, are neuro-diverse. On average, one in five of their visitors has a disability – it’s a huge revenue stream for them that they would want to keep.

C: Do you have any statistics that can positively reinforce the benefits of inclusive design?

TP: I do: we actually compile some of the most up-to-date stats in the UK currently on disability and access needs. The first stat is that one in five people in the UK has a disability – that’s around 13 million people.

The spending power of this group in the UK is often quoted as £249 billion. We’ve done our own research and updated that figure to £265 billion, and even that figure is from 2016. So, in fact it’s even higher than that. If you’re not designing inclusively, that’s potentially the size of the market that you’re excluding.

Globally, this is estimated to be around $8.1 trillion. And I think that says something, because I’m sure we can all think about someone in our lives who has a disability. I have a brother with type 1 diabetes, I have another brother who has Crohn’s disease. I myself wear glasses on a day-to-day basis – that’s an assistive technology, right? So we’re surrounded by people with a wide range of access needs – including ourselves.

Only one in three disabilities is visible. If you’re only designing for people who are blind or mobility impaired, you’re missing out on two-thirds of the population who may have anxiety, who may have different ways of learning – and this is a huge one.

“If you’re not designing inclusively, £265 billion is potentially the size of the market that you’re excluding”

Cognitive access needs are only just now becoming more understood, and taken into consideration by designers. But this is an enormous area that is really ripe for exploration and understanding.

Finally, by the year 2020, believe it or not, over 50% of the UK population will be over 50. Across the globe, populations are ageing. As people get older, they may not identify as disabled or as having access needs, but these needs are beginning to develop. Their eyesight is not what it once was, their hearing is not what it once was. Basically, the need to design inclusively will just become more and more apparent as the years go by.

C: What opportunities does digital tech offer for accessibility and inclusion?

TP: I already talked about inclusive design as a term, and this idea of user preferences. Digital is amazing. It allows for self-directed choice and to actually co-design, enabling the user to become the designer of their own experience.

For now, we’re talking about changing text size and colour contrast, and perhaps having the phone read material to me instead of me having to read it with my own eyes. In a few years’ time, though, AI will come more to the fore. We already have Google, which can predict text inputs. We already have translation services at our fingertips. So the ability for a user to actually design their own optimised experience is huge, and it’ll only get bigger in the next few years.

“Digital is amazing. It allows for self-directed choice and to actually co-design, enabling the user to become the designer of their own experience”

I firmly believe that in maybe ten to fifteen years’ time, digital design will be inclusive design. We’re going to be thinking about extreme needs, edge case users and designing for those needs when we’re designing digital because it’s so easy to do and it’s just such a natural partnership.

C: Finally, what role will you be playing on the NavSta project, and what are you most interested to learn from the project as a research director?

TP: NavSta is a really exciting project. As you know, the byline is ‘demonstrating tomorrow’s station’. So this is in the transport environment, and what I like about it is that it’s actually dealing with the stations themselves, which, if you think about it, are these rather stressful and quite busy hubs. When I first moved to London from Ottawa, Canada, it was overwhelming. London is the biggest city I’ve ever lived in, and there are some stations that are like absolute zoos with people criss-crossing back and forth. They’re high-stress, high-intensity environments.

NavSta is all about identifying user experience barriers for travellers going through these busy and stressful environments, and providing solutions for these barriers. So, what I’ll be doing is insight gathering. With the help of our panel members, who have a wide range of access needs, we’ll be running research to firstly help identify and understand was barriers people with access needs face in these environments.

We’ll then be co-designing concepts and solutions. So another part of my role in this project is to oversee the inclusive design of potential solutions, working closely with the team at Calvium to feed back insights from our panel to the design team so we can create the best solutions possible to the barriers that have been identified through the research.

The final part of my role in the project is to oversee the usability testing of the prototypes. So, once we gather the insights and once we feed those insights back to the design team that’s building these solutions, we’ll be testing in situ – in the actual travel hubs themselves. I’m really excited about that: excited to see these insights and solutions in practice, and how that may impact (and hopefully does impact) on the quality of experience that our users will have.

I’m also excited about the fact that we’ll be focusing on neurodiverse users. As I alluded to before, people with cognitive access needs often fall through the cracks. They’re not on the radar of most mainstream designers, which means that interfaces are still too complicated, or user interactions still too alienating. So, it’ll be interesting to dig deep into the challenges these users face in such high-stress transport environments.

Thank you to Tom for taking the time to talk to us. To find out more about Open Inclusion, visit them online. To stay up to date with NavSta and our other work on accessibility-focused design, subscribe to our monthly newsletter.