upa - home page JUS - Journal of usability studies
An international peer-reviewed journal

Inclusive Design Advisor: Understanding the Design Practice Before Developing Inclusivity Tools

Emilene Zitkus, Patrick Langdon, and P. John Clarkson

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 8, Issue 4, August 2013, pp. 127 - 143

Article Contents


We added the transcripts from the interviews to the observation notes and then coded and categorized them using Atlas.ti, which is a computer program mainly used for qualitative data analysis. Codes in this study represent facts, behavior, process, procedures, and other aspects that are related to a design process or constitute a design activity. We took care to ensure that the same code was not duplicated for a single participant under the same interview topic. This procedure prevented the reoccurrence of codes that were only based on single views, which legitimized the growth of each code according to its reoccurrence and its relationship to other codes or co-occurrence according to each participant’s views. Every time relevant information was recognized by the software in a transcript, old transcripts were re-analyzed to find out how the views of past participants related to that particular aspect (Corbin & Strauss, 1990).

To gather designers’ opinions about the design process, the differences between design domains, and the understanding of clients’ roles, we summarized, framed, and presented the major findings of this study to the designers—our participants. The outcomes of these feedback sessions helped to correct misunderstandings and confirmed some of the results, but also brought new insights to this type of research.

In order to triangulate our data, we used multiple data sources: different research methods (including the continued presentation of our research outcomes to the designers) and a careful coding process.

Inclusive Interactive Tool for the Design Practice

The first and most important issue was whether the designers believed that an interactive tool built into design software would be useful. The designers had a positive response to the concept. The product designers associated the inclusive design advisor tool with tools to evaluate the mechanical or structural aspects of 3-D models, such as mould flow, stress-strain, and finite element method analyses tools, for example. Most of the product designers compared the 3 D inclusive design advisor to mould flow analysis, which is a software used to validate the design of plastic parts and injection moulds by emulating the moulding process. The use of such a tool reduces the need for prototyping design concepts and the risk of manufacturing defects.

All product designers we interviewed liked the idea of using 3-D software to incorporate an inclusive design analysis. However, they did say that the interface could be two dimensional, but it should be integrated into a CAD software (such as SolidWorks or Pro-Engineer) but not Google SketchUp. The comments below illustrate their sentiments (the reference is the participant ID, for example, D2 is designer number 2).

“So, if there was a tool which can plug into CAD which allow us to set up different ergonomic parameters, certain aspects of dexterity, or visual acuity, or things like that, and then to be able to see and to get some kind of feedback with that. So, that would be useful, I can’t see why it wouldn’t be. . . . A support system in CAD can pull in data of different areas. . . . If the principle is to design in CAD, I think you should have as much information as possible in that environment” (D2).

“Two dimensional could be useful in 3 D software, not in terms of graphic stuff, but I guess a 2-D ergonomic database.. . .That easily gives you that information—it would be quite useful” (D4).

According to some product designers and all other designers (packaging, graphic, and interface designers) an interactive advisor related to the legibility of text, icons, or any other graphic interface should be built for graphic designers into their respective tools.

“I think that most of the design agencies use Illustrator or Photoshop. So if it is incorporated on that it would be part of the tool [we] are used to use[ing]” (D5).

Many of the comments, however, highlighted that while the designers liked the concept of the tool, the adoption of such a tool would be guided mainly by the needs of the client3 instead of the designers’ work routine. In the next sections, we analyze the process described by the designers that justifies these comments.

What Drives Design Activity

The interviewees among different design teams mentioned a similar process that happens at the initial stage of the design process. Usually, designers are guided by a brief—a document that provides information about the new product’s functionality, components, manufacturing, environment considerations, and potential user’s characteristics. Regarding the latter, participants emphasized that user’s data are restricted to market views, which means target market and commercial requirements. User’s information is normally general demographic information like age or social class.

“It [the brief] is pretty much sketching information in terms of detail. It will be more related to functionality, actually with commercial requirements, target market, 50 to 80 years old people. . . . The detailed user requirement beyond demographics is rarely passed on” (D12).

“About the user . . . how it is specified, it tends to be a target user group and that can be quite unsophisticated. . . . One [client] said when I asked about the target market, ‘It is for someone like you. . . .’ So, it needs some discussion to figure out what is like that. . . . But largely they [the client] would speak about the target market” (D7).

Accessibility, however, “is not something that always got designated time within the process” (D1). In fact, according to the designers, sometimes the brief is focused on a main issue or a key requirement that drives the design activity, which may compromise other requirements. For instance, some designers mentioned “design for manufacturing” or “emotional design.” The comments below describe types of key requirements frequently received from clients:

“The requirement of the project might be a simple aesthetics job. It might be the case where someone comes to us with a pack of components and they want a pretty box” (D3).

[The design] is also to solve problems like a bottle neck in production. So, [it] doesn’t change the product to the user, very much, but it is a massive change for the company and they can produce much more quickly” (D9).

Nevertheless, according to the designers, if it is part of the project requirement to consider accessibility, then they usually look for data in books, tables, the Internet, or specifications in guidelines.

How Designers Use Accessibility Tools

As user’s data is quite limited in the brief, designers have to manage their time and budget to get user’s information from other sources. The designers mentioned that often some research starts taking place earlier in the conceptual phase. The research can happen in different ways to provide different information, such as competitors’ data, technical specifications, and also user’s information.

We observed that the Internet was very useful in supplying one of the designers with technical data of components. Another designer found ergonomic data, and two other designers found information with technical data about materials on the Internet. The interviewees confirmed that the Internet is used to find out more about end-users, but designers outlined that in some cases they also follow specific guidelines while designing.

How guidelines are used at this stage

The responses indicate that designers mainly rely on guidelines, though their comments also highlighted that they find the information of these sources deficient and sometimes incompatible to their needs. They mentioned that they balance the deficiency of the guidelines by including some live assessments, such as self-evaluations and user trials, as highlighted in the comments below.

“A lot of it [the adequacy to user requirements] is based on common sense. We tend to tell to ourselves what is legible or not. . . . I think lots of it comes with experience. The way our minds work it becomes obvious if something is small and illegible. . . . There are standards which drive how large a piece of text should be. You can print things out in various sizes and get feedback from the user group” (D3).

“I think lots of time[s] that happen[s]—that stuff [accessibility considerations] comes from experience. . . .You are making subconscious decisions of what is good and bad accessibility. So, I think most of that [is] coming from trying and testing ways of doing things” (D6).

“My approach would be to print out or to create different variants of the design and then just test that with people. . .talking to people” (D1).

How user trials are used at this stage

Although the possibility of incorporating users in accessibility tests was mentioned, all interviewees stressed that user observation or user trials only take place in the process if the client considers it important and the funding is provide in the budget, which rarely happens. As a result, user’s involvement in the process scarcely occurs.

“…even when I worked in companies that project things specifically for the elderly, it was rare in the extreme anybody who was elderly would be involved in the process. . . . The users were not part of the process” (D2).

It is important to underline that the designers highlighted that the user’s needs, such as those related to accessibility and usability, are only one part of the requirements that the designer has to deal with. They emphasized that design is a compromise activity, where decisions are made all the time and costs are involved in every option taken. However, the observations did not highlight whether the process of searching for users’ data is rigorous.

“… the product is not only the users themselves, we have to consider who’s gonna assemble it by making assembly easier. How it is built. If it’s gonna need maintenance. . . . And at these days, going through the product [life cycle], at the end of its life and the need for being recycled” (D13).

“Historically in packaging I reckon that it can be sometimes [a] more cosmetic approach. The focus is on maybe the visual identity of the pack, the brand . . . because to be honest, in many stages there are simple costs and practicality costs, but all are the primary drivers before we get [to] things like accessibility” (D8).

It seems to us that among the designers interviewed and observed there were two groups:

Both groups, however, highlighted that the views of the client regarding the end-user are mandatory in order to implement a more user-centered design process. According to this study, often the designers do not take into account the end-user capabilities unless it is required in the brief to conduct usability tests. During this study’s interview and observation process, our research group’s general impression was that the focus of the designers’ higher-education was on the aesthetics and functionality of new designs and that users’ capabilities were not considered a high priority, if considered at all. If designers were trained to consider the diversity of end-users’ capabilities as a design priority, they would incorporate time for inclusive design analysis (whether user trials or another accessibility/usability evaluation method) in their work routine in the same way that they incorporate time for creative work.

The Relevance of the Information About Inclusivity

Another aspect of the inclusive interactive tool that caught the designers’ attention was the percentage of the UK adult population excluded. For the designers there is always a target market that guides the design activity. Exclusion information based on a percentage of the entire population is generally not considered a significant factor in a product’s target market.

“In nearly all of the products we work on, the portion of the population might not be applicable. . . . We would assume that some people will be excluded, and that is acceptable for that product be successful. Still it is from client perspective . . . I’m not sure. When you get a result like 7.3% of the population will be excluded, the question is which part of the population is it talking about? Because if it is excluding 80% of people over 75 years old females from North East, so that is really important if the product is aiming that. . . . The detail of that is useful; that is what we need to know I guess” (D2).

According to half of the designers interviewed, noting the percentage of the population that could be excluded from using a product would be valuable if it could be divided into demographic groups—age, social class, etc. These groups are often associated with market requirements. The other half did not comment on this specific matter, they only highlighted that they work with a target market that is established by the client. Therefore, according to their responses, the exclusion percentage is irrelevant if the client is not targeting the group that is being excluded.

The Designers’ Responses Compared to Previous Studies

The designers’ responses to this study confirmed that direct involvement with users rarely happens in commercial projects, which is a problem already underlined in past literature (Dong, Clarkson, & Cassim, 2005; Sanford, Story, & Ringholz, 1998). Any extra information regarding user’s data should come from the designers own research. This research, however, is limited due to the project’s budget and timescale, as a result of which user’s requirements may be restricted to ergonomic tables available in books or on the Internet. However, these tables generally do not consider a wide range of people, including the elderly and the disabled.

In situations where accessibility is part of the design requirements, then the designers mentioned that they would use guidelines to comply with the users’ needs. However, in this study, the deficiencies of guidelines are confirmed by many of the participants’ interview responses. The broader the scope of guidelines the less it supports the design activity (Burns et al., 1997; Choi, Yi, Law, & Jacko, 2006; Law, Yi, Choi, & Jacko, 2008).

The Designers’ Responses to the Inclusive Design Advisor Tool

In the interviews, the designers gave their opinions about the practicalities on how the inclusive design advisor tool could be integrated into their current development process and the relevancy of the information that a tool, such as the inclusive design advisor, provides.

The inclusive design advisor tool

The idea of providing designers with an interactive tool built into the tools they use in their work routine was well accepted. However, there was a difference of opinion here. In the industry, product designers tend to design in 3 D modeling tools, such as CAD, and at some point all the information about the new concept, including graphic information, is integrated in this software to produce a photorealistic rendering. However, in other design domains, designers do not use 3 D modeling software. For instance, designers told us that packaging design does not necessarily use CAD software; it depends on the type of package being developed. For example, cardboard packaging design generally uses graphic programs, such as Corel Draw or Illustrator, to design the packages. There is no need to make a 3 D digital model because the package that is produced has to be opened or cut-out from flat cardboard. Moreover, it is unnecessary to use a 3-D CAD program to design all the graphic design elements that are featured on the package. Those design elements can be produced in Photoshop or Illustrator, which are both 2-D graphic software programs. Consequently, as professionals in accessibility and usability, we need to consider the variations across different design domains before proposing inclusivity interactive tools incorporated into design tools.

Although the product designers stressed that an interactive tool should be built into 3 D modeling tools, none of them were users of Google SketchUp. They mentioned that they use other software like ProEngineer, SolidWorks, Rhinoceros, and Alias. We chose SketchUp, however, based on its free availability and free access to the program language.

The information provided by the tool

From our interviews and observations, it seems that designers think about a target market within an entire population and that some people will naturally be excluded from this target market. As mentioned by Gill (2009), small- to medium-sized design consultancies tend to face the pressure of costs and tight deadlines from the client that constrain designers’ decisions. Therefore, unless clients request specific inclusive designs or designers can convey to their clients that the benefits of improving the design to be inclusive is to their advantage, our objective of providing more inclusive information using design tools will not succeed. Therefore, information on inclusion is not only a matter for designers and their consultancies, but a matter for clients to consider as well.

For future studies, we need to rethink our approach and explore other possibilities to show the lack of inclusivity in design concepts and products. The question is how can we help commercial industries accept the need to make products a little more inclusive and how can we develop tools or techniques to help industry achieve this?

3 Client in this paper is the person who represents the interests of the company that is hiring the service of the design agency. The client commissions the project to the designers, as well as takes part in meetings to discuss or select design proposals.


Previous | Next