Inclusive Design versus Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

August 25, 2022
Inclusive Design and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion can seem like separate disciplines. But when combined, their impact is amplified. Discover 3 ways that you can effectively bring the two disciplines together.

What does Inclusive Design have to do with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? Are they one and the same or completely separate?

Let's start by defining each discipline.

Inclusive Design is a human-centered innovation approach, mindset and practice that ensures that everyone, regardless of their identity or background, can fully access and benefit from the products, services, experiences, and environments we build.

An illustration of a double diamond: a first diamond includes a magnifying glass with the text "discover" and "define" above the diamond, while the second diamond includes a lighbulb with the worlds "develop" and "deliver" above the diamond. Two circular arrows connect the diamonds. Underneath the diamonds lie 4 blocks that say "diverse perspectives, bias & power structure checks, equity & inclusion principles and ethical considerations"
My Inclusive Design Approach

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion normally plays out in many workplaces within the domain of talent acquisition, engagement, development and retention (aka hire people, keep them engaged, help them grow and make them stay as along as possible). This translates into strategies, programs and policies that bring in and value diverse perspectives, cultivate inclusion and belonging in the workplace and promote equitable outcomes with regards to pay and opportunities for advancement.

Based on my experiences as a dual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Inclusive Design practitioner, I strongly believe that these two fields are intricately linked with one another. This means that you can't have one without the other.

If you are looking to promote diversity, equity and inclusion within your organization and/or build products, services and environments that are more inclusive and equitable, then let's review 3 key ways that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Inclusive Design come together for amplified impact.

1. Inclusive design falls under the umbrella of diversity, equity and inclusion.

For diversity, equity and inclusion to be truly transformative (and actually fulfill its true purpose), it should cut across all business functions (not just HR). And it should be weaved into business practices. And this is exactly where it can translate into inclusive design.

Teams across all functions, and not just design or product teams, can practice inclusive design to build inclusive and equitable solutions. This could mean HR teams designing inclusive onboarding experiences, marketing teams designing campaigns that depict a broad range of perspectives, identities and stories and customer service teams designing customer scripts anchored in inclusive language.

Under this light, inclusion design efforts contribute to a larger mission of creating more inclusive and equitable workplaces and should be an integral part of any diversity, equity and inclusion organizational strategy.

2. Inclusive design should be rooted in diversity, equity and inclusion principles.

Teams who wish to practice inclusive design, especially those who are already practicing design methods, should be integrating and activating DEI principles across their workflows, processes and OKRs — from research and design to development and go-to-market — on an ongoing basis.

It does not mean simply checking off a list of accessibility legal requirements, which is what many teams practice today as "inclusive design."

Or saying, "let's bring more women, people of color and/or disabled people onto our research and testing panels" without factoring in intersectionality, fair compensation, explicit consent and safety.

3. To be successful with inclusive design, we can't ignore people, culture and systems.

For inclusive design to truly yield its many benefits — especially the liberation and empowerment of marginalized groups — we have to examine the larger context in which oppression operates.

We end up designing products, services and environments that are oppressive because of power asymmetries — that is,  dominant groups yielding their power over marginalized groups to restrict agency, access and choice. The result are solutions that are built for the "default" majority and exclude those on the margins.

Power asymmetries have been held firmly in place by culture (through social norms, shared ideologies and beliefs, etc,) and by various systems (through laws, policies, procedures, etc.) over time. And the same things happens in organizations.

This is why diversity, equity and inclusion — with its overt focus on talent, culture and systems — needs to be interlinked with inclusive design approaches.

If we want to build solutions that shift power from dominant groups to marginalized groups, we have to critically examine the people in the organization who are imagining and building solutions, the culture that guides their behavior and thinking and the systems that lead them to uphold patterns of oppression.

Only then can we start to identify root causes and barriers, address deeper cultural and structural problems and drive sustainable change toward inclusion, equity and justice.

A narrow focus on the application of "inclusive design" tools, processes and methodologies deprives the work of its sociocultural and historical context. And this is the recipe for short-term, incremental impact and, at worst, an unintended perpetuation of harm and oppression with our so-called "inclusive" solutions.

Where can you go from here?

What can you do to maximize the benefits of inclusive design while bolstering efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion in your organization?

  1. Layer in inclusive design into your diversity, equity and inclusion strategy (if you have one) and diversity, equity and inclusion within your inclusive design strategy
  2. Connect diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that are focused on talent and people with accessibility and inclusive design initiatives focused on product, design and engineering
  3. Conduct culture and leadership audits at both an organizational and team level and use insights to inform inclusive design strategy at a team-level
  4. Coach senior leadership on inclusive leadership and the benefits of inclusive business practices when applied through inclusive design
  5. Train managers, teams and individual contributors across as many as business functions as possible (if not all of them) on how to cultivate an inclusive design practice

As a responsible innovation and inclusive design consultant, I'm happy to support you to get the most value out of a dual DEI and inclusive design strategy. Get in touch to learn more about how we can work together.

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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