Opening up inclusion: Anti-oppression and inclusive design

Try this: Google the terms “inclusion” and “design.” What did you find? Chances are you received thousands of search results—blog posts, articles, toolkits—that talk about the benefits of involving more people in the design process and the importance of designing products, services, applications, and experiences that are accessible to everyone.

In my search, I came across an article published by Fast Company titled “The No. 1 thing You’re Getting Wrong about Inclusive Design” by Kat Holmes, a researcher and designer at Microsoft who has a long track record of advancing the practice of inclusive design. Holmes argues that the concept of inclusive design is at least a decade old and is closely linked to the concepts of universal design and accessibility. But they are not the same things. Accessibility, she argues, is an attribute of inclusive design, which means inclusive design isn’t just about designing products that are accessible to everyone but focuses on making practices and methods of design themselves open and inclusive to people of all abilities. Holmes argues that “an inclusive designer is someone, arguably anyone, who recognizes, and remedies mismatched interactions between people and their world. They seek out the expertise of people who navigate exclusionary designs. The expertise of excluded communities gives insight into a diversity of ways to participate in an experience.”

Inclusive design can be defined as deliberate actions taken to break down cognitive and physical barriers that may prevent people from taking part in the design processTwo great sources of information about inclusive design are this open-source manual and toolkit published by Microsoft [PDF], and this inclusive design toolkit published by my colleague at Bridgeable, Hitomi Yokota, which offers helpful tips and advice for anyone interested in breaking down language barriers that may limit participation in the design process.

Opening up the definition of inclusion

In the spirit of iteration, I wonder if our current definition of inclusion is not inclusive enough. What about barriers that are not physical or cognitive that also impede people from taking part in design? Here I’m referring to systemic oppression, or what Patricia Hill Collins famously called the matrix of domination—essentially, how race, gender, and class overlap to socially isolate and exclude certain populations and people. Another way of looking at it is through the lens of identity—how your race, life experiences, where you grew up, how old you are, where your parents are from, who you are attracted to, what you do for work, etc., are tangled together in a web that informs who you are and how other people perceive you. Scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw calls this web “intersectionality” and argues that in order to break down barriers of exclusion, we need to become better attuned to how the intersection of different identity markers creates different experiences within the same systems and structures. This is important because, as she puts it, “When facts do not fit with the available frames, people have a difficult time incorporating new facts into their way of thinking about problems.”

This last point is relevant to the work of designers because so much of what we do focuses on understanding people’s lived experience so that we can design products, services, and experiences that address their needs. If our privilege, or inability to relate to other people, gets in the way of our accurately documenting people’s needs, then our work could be defined as oppressive. There is a way to remedy this, but it requires an expanded definition of inclusive design that incorporates the principles of anti-oppression. This ultimately means doing design differently.

Anti-oppression in context

Understanding oppression means grappling with questions of power. Eric Liu’s Ted Talk “How to Understand Power” provides a useful starting point for practitioners. He argues that power means getting people to do things you want them to do. This can be done by using physical force, but more often than not, it happens in much subtler ways. It happens through social norms, laws, and the way we structure institutions. He also argues that power is like water. It’s always changing and moving. It’s never static, which means that it is relational—that who has power can change over time and in different contexts. Oppression is the negative side effect of power relations that marginalizes and excludes certain people based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or other factors, while at the same time giving other people certain societal advantages such as wealth, education, and healthcare.  

Anti-oppression attempts to counteract this asymmetry by calling out how power operates in everyday situations, such as in a meeting at work or in the classroom. This also means acknowledging that power comes from your privilege and taking deliberate actions to give up this power to people who have less of it. Anti-oppressive practice is about taking the knowledge you have about how oppression excludes people and proposing tactics, strategies, and methods to break down these barriers of exclusion.

Design and anti-oppression

There are still only a few published examples of anti-oppressive design in practice. Thomas Smyth and Jill Dimond offer up a critical assessment of how to apply an anti-oppressive framework in interaction design projects. The framework offers a series of questions that designers can ask to determine what work they should take on and evaluate whether the work they have done advances their mission to end oppression. Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliveira have created a list of ways to approach your design work with a critical, anti-oppressive lens. These resources are a helpful starting point. 

Tips for practitioners

Taking an anti-oppressive approach to design means more than making the design process open to more people. It also means acknowledging and taking action to address bias. Over the last seven weeks, I’ve had the privilege to test this idea out on a project I’ve been working on with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), A Way Home Canada, and Making the Shift, along with a host of community organizations located in Hamilton, Ontario. The project focuses on connecting policy development and service delivery to human-centred design. The aim is to co-design prevention-based services that are built on Duty to Assist, a Welsh-based legal intervention targeted at people at risk of becoming homeless. 

We’ve taken deliberate steps to apply an anti-oppressive framework to our work. It is by no means perfect, but I hope some of the lessons we’ve learned can help other design practitioners who are also committed to addressing systemic oppression.  

  • Invest in upfront learning: Most design projects start by unpacking a defined problem, typically through desk research. For projects that take an anti-oppressive lens, this upfront learning must also include learning more about the histories of the communities you’ll be designing with. In our case, we learned about the needs of LGBTQ2S people, the Dish with One Spoon wampum belt, and the recommendations associated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We also completed many training sessions to expand our understanding of the different systems at play—Indigenous cultural competency training, anti-racism training, and LGBTQ2S training.  
  • Give more than you take: A lot of design research focuses on getting end-users to reveal their needs. This process can feel a bit transactional. Anti-oppressive design, in contrast, focuses on building relationships between project partners that are rooted in care and reciprocity. Every time you ask someone to give their time or knowledge, it’s important to acknowledge this contribution and provide something in return (that doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary). In our case, this means not only compensating youth financially for taking part in the project but also giving back in other ways, such as giving them supplies to help continue to make art and tell their stories.
  • Be ready to get it wrong: Using the right language or misgendering a project team member may happen. The best thing to do is to apologize and move on. Part of engaging in anti-oppressive practice is remaining vulnerable, which may mean admitting when you don’t know the answer. This will feel uncomfortable at first. The key is to be humble and admit when you don’t know something. In our interviews with youth, it became clear to them that we didn’t know the names of all the social service agencies in Hamilton, and they rightfully called us out on this gap in our knowledge. We are continuously working on developing our repertoire of knowledge. 
  • Keep the design process open: Throughout the project, partners should have the opportunity to shape the process at all times. Admittedly this is not always easy, especially if project timelines are tight. The trick is being open to the possibility that you may have to adjust the project process to accommodate the needs of project partners. For instance, we asked youth how they would like to co-design with us. We found out they were less comfortable working alongside frontline staff and policymakers. So we proposed drop-in prototyping jams that provided maximum flexibility for young people to share their ideas without feeling bogged down by a top-down process.
  • Focus on team care: Most people understand the need for self-care. Team care, though, can be just as critical, which can include looking out for one another, talking openly about how we’re feeling, and asking for help when we’re feeling down. We do daily debriefs and regular check-ins to gauge how team members are feeling and make appropriate community supports for team members available. 
  • Understand if you should be designing it: Before a project, it’s essential to assess whether you have the tools, resources, experiences, and knowledge needed to address the challenge at hand. If you have a severe knowledge gap or know that someone else may be able to design something better, you may not be well-equipped to work on the project.

Doing inclusive design means addressing the invisible barriers that exclude people from taking part in the process.  The practices and principles of anti-oppression provide a useful starting point for designers looking to do design differently. 

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