Ideas by Hitomi Yokota

Introducing the Inclusive Co-design Toolkit

How might we make co-design processes inclusive of people with language barriers?

Human-centred design and co-design are key trends in the design industry; designers and researchers believe that engaging users and stakeholders in the process will create more meaningful outcomes for them. Yet, too often, we try to design with and for the majority of the community first and then adapt our solutions to fit the needs of minority groups.

When we say we “co-design with users,” who are we talking about? Often, the users we engage are stakeholders (e.g., customers, end users, frontline staff, key decision-makers) who grew up in similar environments or who are fluent in our language.

But what about those who are new to our environment and still learning the local language? In increasingly culturally diverse cities like Toronto, Paris, and Hong Kong, we coexist with people who are still learning the dominant local language, many of whom are newcomers such as immigrants, international students and workers, refugees, and asylum seekers.  



Looking at Toronto, we can see that cultural inclusivity is especially important, as one in two residents of the city are foreign born, 45.2% of residents’ mother tongue is not English, and 26.6% speak languages other than English at home (Statistics Canada, 2016 Census). 

This means that to co-design only with native or advanced English speakers is to design with only a limited segment of the population in mind. 

In fields such as healthcare, finance, transit, or telecommunications, project outcomes affect everyone, including language minority groups, who are often excluded in co-design efforts and therefore are treated as secondary recipients of designs created for the mainstream audience.

Collaborating with 30 stakeholders relevant to the question of inclusive co-design—immigrants, ESL students, ESL teachers and coaches, refugees, researchers, and designers—I conducted research to identify barriers to user engagement and develop best practices for designers and researchers in engaging language minority groups in co-design sessions.

What barriers may exist in co-designing with language minority groups?

The research identified four major barriers to engagement with language minority participants:

  1. Linguistic barriers (e.g., vocabulary, grammar, listening)

Limited English proficient (LEP) speakers find communicating about complex topics—such as academic issues or the details of their professions—particularly difficult compared to communicating about everyday topics.

  1. Emotional barriers (e.g., fear of being judged, fear of losing social identity, lack of confidence) 

ESL teachers frequently mentioned how even some of their more proficient students fear conversing with native English speakers because they lack confidence. Students with lower proficiency who care less about making mistakes end up improving their proficiency level more quickly. 

  1. Ideation barriers (e.g., participants having difficulty coming up with ideas beyond the examples given)

This is not unique to LEP speakers and is seen with native English speakers as well. However, it is presumably more likely to be seen with LEP participants, because:

  • Articulating new ideas adds another layer of linguistic difficulty. 
  • LEP speakers are more likely to have educational backgrounds that did not encourage individual ideation in group settings. 
  1. Researchers’ assumptions (e.g., cultural assumptions regarding behaviours, rules, and customs) 

Researchers tend to connect people’s place of birth or length of stay in a given place to their behaviours, although individual behaviour can be affected by many other factors. Some researchers we spoke to mentioned that they try to understand the behaviours often associated with participants’ cultural backgrounds to better prepare for engagement. This can lead to bias and prevent researchers from learning from participants’ real experience.

How can you overcome these barriers?

Download the Inclusive Co-design Toolkit. This toolkit contains the best practices for you to follow when planning for user engagement with language minority groups, as well as a sample workshop structure and materials you can use as a starting point to build your own.

The best practices are divided into four stages and cover the four barriers to engagement described above.

Four stages of best practices

  1. Adopting an inclusive mindset
  2. Starting to plan your engagement
  3. Planning for facilitation 
  4. Planning for activities and materials

What does it mean to be inclusive?

Putting vulnerable populations at the centre of design processes not only helps those in need, but also those who are less vulnerable, and even majority groups. Take this accessibility door button, for example.

As the pictogram suggests, it was originally designed for people in wheelchairs, whose physical mobility is limited. However, it also helps many other people, including the temporarily injured or sick, kids, the elderly, parents with strollers, and people with heavy luggage.

Likewise, one of the best practices in the Inclusive Co-design Toolkit is “Model step-by-step instructions for activities.” Often, we provide workshop activity instructions to our participants verbally. But even English-speaking participants may not understand them right away. By providing visual instructions alongside verbal ones, we can help LEP speakers as well as fluent English speakers.

Let us know how it goes!

This is the very first version of the toolkit, and we expect it to evolve further. We hope the toolkit will help you to engage with language minority groups so that we can collaboratively create more meaningful design outcomes for broader audiences. Please don’t hesitate to let us know how it’s working for you and how it can be improved!

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