How To Design For Everyone, In 3 Steps

First? Ignore the average user–they don’t exist.

How To Design For Everyone, In 3 Steps
[Source Image: EgudinKa/iStock]

Inclusive design is officially a buzzword, with companies like Airbnb releasing an inclusion toolkit and Microsoft attempting to use its principles to make better products. But the idea behind that buzzword–that designing for a wider variety of people makes more effective products for everyone–is still far from mainstream. At a panel at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York yesterday, four designers working on the front lines of the fight to make products, services, and spaces more accessible shared why inclusive design should be the primary way of thinking about design–regardless of who the end user is.


The World Health Organization defines disability in part as a mismatch between the features of a person and the features of the environment in which they live. While you can’t necessarily give a blind person sight or make an old person young again, you can adapt their environments so that that mismatch is less pronounced–or doesn’t exist at all. This is where inclusive design comes in.

The panelists, many of whom have physical and psychological disabilities themselves, advocated for a more universal way of thinking about design. Some of the design principles they shared were hidden in the most ordinary places, like in eyeglasses, or in airplane cockpits. Others could be found in the most mundane behaviors, like tying your shoes or brushing your teeth. Here’s what those simple, universal objects and experiences can teach us about inclusive design.

[Source Image: EgudinKa/iStock]

Form Is Just As Valuable As Function

We don’t think of glasses as medical assistive devices, but that’s what they were–at least until the 1960s or so, when designers got their hands on them. Through the force of design, glasses become instruments of self-expression rather than stigmatized objects that connote that the wearer is different.

Many of today’s assistive devices look as medical, hard, and uninviting as the eyeglasses of centuries past. The emotional impact of these devices can be the difference between the user feeling empowered or feeling ashamed. That’s according to the designer Keira Gwynn. “Aesthetics have become just as important as function itself,” she said.

Take hearing aids, for example. Many of them are flesh-colored so they’re less obvious to onlookers. During her talk, designer, lawyer, and advocate Elise Roy spoke about how she always wore a beige hearing aid when she was younger because she wanted to appear as though she was just your average kid. But now she opts for bright colors like red and neon green. “I’ve come to realize is that different is the new normal,” she says. “Different, even if it seems like a limitation, is what makes us thrive, what makes us valuable.”

Products–particularly products that are targeted at disabled people–need not look particularly medical, nor should they necessarily “blend in.” Giving people an array of choice that allows them to wear something that expresses their personality is a vital element of inclusive design.

[Source Image: EgudinKa/iStock]

Design For The Extreme User–And Make The Average User Superhuman

It’s a myth deeply ingrained in our society that there’s an average or “normal” person. The idea dates back to the 1800s, when the Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quetelet attempted to find the numerical average for a host of body measurements, like the chest circumference of soldiers, as well as the average stature, the average weight, the average age of marriage, and even the average of death for humans. This attempt to calculate how an ideal human looks and acts ended up codified in design as the “average user.”

Except that Quetelet’s theory, which was aimed at bringing order to human society and creating a metric against which each individual can be measured, doesn’t work. Roy illustrated why using an example from the 1940s, when U.S. Air Force fighter jet cockpits were typically designed to fit the “average” man. Yet pilots commonly lost control of their planes, leading to frequent plane crashes. In an attempt to find out if the design of the cockpits had something to do with the crashes, researchers took the measurements of just over 4,000 pilots–and found that not a single one fit within the average measurements for the entire group. The planes were redesigned to fit the extremes instead, and the crashes stopped.

“In design, again and again, we see that looking to the average does not produce cutting-edge innovations,” Roy said. “Instead we should be looking to extremes. What gets forgotten is that people with disabilities are great examples of extreme users. We experience the world in such a different way. They are a gold mine for helping us to think differently.”

For Kat Holmes, the founder of a firm that helps companies build equitable digital experiences (and who formerly led inclusive design at Microsoft), the illusion of the average user is one of designers’ biggest biases. “There’s this myth that endures to this day that shows up in design and engineering: the 80/20 rule. You design for the middle of that curve, and we’ll get to the 20% later,” she says. “What if there was no such thing as a normal human being? If there’s no normal, there’s no edge cases–just diverse people changing from one moment to the next.”

So what happens if you do design for the extreme user? Even people who are abled become superhuman. “We are learning how to create ability in the absence of natural human ability,” Roy says. “The typewriter, audiobooks, the remote control were originally designed for people with disabilities, but they’re loved by everyone because they created the super-abilities we all want.”

Who doesn’t want to change the channel without leaving the couch, or read and drive at the same time?

[Source Image: EgudinKa/iStock]

Inclusive Design Gives People Independence

When she was working for the famed product designer Raymond Loewy, the designer Patricia Moore saw her grandparents unable to do the things they needed to do, like dressing themselves, brushing their teeth, or opening the refrigerator door. “There was nothing wrong with my grandma,” Moore says. “She wasn’t broken. But the tools we gave her were inadequate.”

Her statement perfectly captures that mismatch between someone’s ability and their environment. While her coworkers thought her outrage over the issue was unworthy of their time and attention, Loewy, who was in his 80s at the time, thought differently–and pushed Moore toward the field that has become her specialty.

Moore, a renowned gerontologist and designer who has spent years traveling around the U.S. disguised as an 80-year-old woman to understand the challenges that elderly people face, believes that inclusive design is first and foremost about giving people independence. That’s something we all crave, from the early moment in your life when your mother is tying your shoe and you yearn to do it yourself, to the moment decades later when you struggle to put on your shoes and wish you didn’t need to ask for help. “What all of us know and wish and hope and dream [is] that by design we’re taken into account and by design we’re given the autonomy and the independence we deserve and desire,” Moore says.

She points to countless examples of everyday people making the environment around them work, even when it isn’t designed to be accessible for them–and sometimes even when it is. She met one elderly woman in particular who would climb 100 stairs every day, step by step, supported by her cane, to get to her temple to pray. Moore met this woman’s daughter, who in frustration told her that she could easily drive her mother up the ramp right to the temple’s door. But Moore had a different interpretation: “She is living the life she desires, she is hanging on to the last threads of capacity and independence and ability,” she says. “And that is what we must design.”

Moore’s insight that designing for inclusivity is fundamentally about designing for independence is coupled with another sobering truth–we will all be disabled at some point, whether by age or by a chance accident (that includes Moore, who was hit by a car last year). Even when you pass in and out of moments of disability, whether with a broken leg or a nasty bout of the flu, feeling independent is still crucial. That’s why she believes in designing products, services, and spaces so they’re more accessible to the elderly.

“When you design for the greatest generation you design for all generations,” Moore says. “When you recognize it’s the life span we should be designing for and not any one silo, you recognize we all have questions and we’re trying to figure out where to go. Then you have your design brief and then you can begin.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.