How can technology be made to work for everybody? Katie Haylor spoke to Colin Clark from the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto...
Colin - One of the problems in conventional design today, is that users are often generalised and stereotyped, and that means that if you're on the margins for, perhaps you have a disability that means you interact with the computer in a different way, you're often seen as an outlier, an edge case, and often left out of the design process. So often designers they say “well just design for the 80 percent who could use that feature.” And so that other 20 percent of people who might be left out by a design decision or a user interface. But what we often see is that it's people with disabilities and people who interact with technology in a different way who end up being the ones excluded from that prioritisation process, and thus unable to use the technologies we have today. So for me inclusive design is really about finding ways for people who have been marginalised by technology to actually participate in the creation of new alternatives to that technology.
Katie - Can you give us a few practical examples of what kinds of work you guys do in your lab?
Colin - Sure. One example is called UI Options, and that's a browser plugin that you can include in any website. And what UI Options does, is it gives users a way to change the user interface in various forms to be able to suit them better. So it lets them make things bigger, change the contrast and the font of a page, but more deeply also gives them different ways to navigate and perceive the page. So it has built in text-to-speech, it can generate a table of contents so you can see a page at a glance, for many people who are using assistive technologies, it's very slow and cumbersome to be able to navigate the Web. And with our UI Options plugin, the idea is to experiment with, and look at different ways of creating software that was built from the beginning, right inside it, to be accessible and adaptable, whereas today's assistive technology is often tacked on from the outside, separate from the software and thus able to do less in terms of giving users the power to change and adapt their software.
Katie - Why isn't design inclusive at the moment by default?
Colin - It's a good question. Probably the reason designers struggle with inclusion is, we don't have the methods and the techniques as designers, to engage deeply with our users and to treat them as more than just consumers, but actually participants in the process. So we need new ways to design. And we also need new technologies. Right now, a lot of software development is about boxing and hiding away the internals of the software. But if you're someone who needs a different presentation, or a different view on the software, opening it up more and providing different kinds of ways of accessing the inside of software would enable a much more flexible and personalisable applications to be created. And of course everyone benefits from the ability to have some control over how their software works, to make themselves feel at home or you know, customise it to suit them.
Katie - There is such a vast range of accessibility requirements depending on your personal circumstances. How difficult can inclusive design be when we're looking at technology? Because I imagine there's a whole spectrum of complexities in terms of need.
Colin - There are. I think inclusive design can be very difficult, but also it's a challenge to make software better and more flexible. So I think one of the ways to balance the complexity is not to take all the responsibility on yourself as a designer, or as a technologist, but instead to bring in people with diverse backgrounds and lived experience of disability into the design process, so they can help make those decisions with you.
Katie - How mainstream and widespread is the concept of inclusive design? How integrated is it into mass technologies, and what do you think are the barriers to improvement?
Colin - It's becoming more widespread, and you know 20 years ago nobody had heard of the term. Now increasingly we're seeing large companies, for example Microsoft, who has adopted our inclusive design framework. That said there is a long way to go. We're still very much in a model where expert designers lead, and users simply use. So I think it involves changing the way we design and make decisions, changing the way technology gets developed. That might even mean different programming languages to support this more open and participatory model. And then of course I think it also involves us questioning the dependencies and the relationships we have on big technology platforms, and starting to look at what options are available in open source, and in other collaborative and cooperative models, to build technology that fits us better than just what large companies and platforms think we need.