Turning the Inclusive Design Principles into the Exclusive Design Principles

The Exclusive Design Principles are at the basis of my research. In this blog post I’ll try to explain how this set of principles evolved out of a set of Inclusive Design Principles that the Paciello Group published.

Why flip?

Alla Kholmatova explains in her talk about design principles[1] that one way to test if design principles are powerful is to flip them. If you can imagine someone else using your flipped principle, then it’s a good one.

When the Paciello Group published their principles in September 2017 I was desperately looking for a direction in my Master research. Back then I explored all kinds of possible directions. As a simple exercise I decided to flip them. This turned out to be a valuable exercise.

How did I flip?

Initially I took each principle and flipped it as literally as possible.

Provide comparable experience versus Provide a unique experience

The idea of providing a comparable experience is that people consume the web with all kinds of input and output. You should make sure that everybody is able to use your site. So someone with a screenreader should have a comparable experience to someone with a screen.

On the other hand, providing a unique experience, without thinking about other possible ways to interact, means that a very specialised experience can be crafted. At the moment this is the state of things when it comes to web experiences for sighted people who use a screen and either a mouse or their fingers for most of their interactions. By providing only these kinds of experiences for the last 25 years we have become very, very good at them.

This principle passes the test.

Consider situation versus Ignore situation

The Paciello Group explains why you should consider situation: People use your interface in different situations. Make sure your interface delivers a valuable experience to people regardless of their circumstances.

There are websites that only work in tightly controlled environments. In these cases it’s debatable whether you should take other environments into consideration. For instance, a check-in kiosk on an airport only has to run in that particular environment.

This principle passes the test.

Be consistent versus Be inconsistent/innovative

This principle is all about using design patterns that people know. For instance, don’t put the main navigation on the bottom right corner of the screen, since people are used to finding it at the top of the page.

I can think of a few situations where someone might choose to ignore this principle. For instance, if you think that a current design pattern is not as good as it could be you could decide to innovate. Putting the navigation in the footer could be a much better pattern in certain situations.

This principle passes the test.

Give control versus Take control

In A Dao of Webdesign, published in 2000[2], John Allsopp explains that the best way to deal with the chaotic nature of the web is to let go of control as a designer and leave the user in control: there are so many different types of devices, different resolutions, different ways to interact, it’s impossible to control exactly how your websites looks and behaves. Instead it’s better to build your website in such a way that people are able change the way it looks and works according to their needs.

Taking control as a designer on the other hand can be a good idea in certain situations. For instance, when designing interfaces that are used in dangerous environments, where wrong usage is a matter of life and death, it’s important that flexibility is minimal.

This principle passes the test.

Offer choice versus Offer the best possible solution

The Paciello group explains this principle as follows: Consider providing different ways for people to complete tasks, especially those that are complex or non standard.

Again the opposite can be a good idea in certain situations: for instance, there are many possible ways to write code, and many developers have their personal preferences. If you work by yourself, coding preferences don’t matter all that much, but when you work in a team on a large scale software product it’s a good idea to follow a strict set of coding conventions.

This principle passes the test.

Prioritise content versus Prioritise identity

Help users focus on core tasks, features, and information by prioritising them within the content and layout.

I think this is a problematic principle. I can’t imagine any company working with a design principle that expects you to explicitly ignore the core tasks, features and information. So instead of flipping this principle literally into something like ignore content, I flipped it into prioritise identity: There are definitely design agencies that put branding first and foremost. It’s debatable whether this is a reversal though: content can be part of branding as well.

This principle doesn’t seem to pass the test without some trickery

Add value versus Add nonsense

Literally it doesn’t make sense to flip this principle. Nobody will work according to the remove value principle. The Paciello Group seems to use this princple in a technical way: use technical features of the browser to make it easier for people to use your application.

While a literal reversal doesn’t work, again a more liberal flip does work: instead of adding value, adding nonsense could be a fine principle to work with. There are many examples of companies that go to great length to add all kinds of funny features. Again it’s debatable if this is a strict reversal: it’s possible to add value and nonsense at the same time. In an emotional sense they are opposites in a way though: adding value is a serious, stern principle. Adding nonsense seems to be funny and flexible.

This principle doesn’t seem to pass the test without some trickery

Why did I stay with the exclusive principles?

In the summer of 2017 I read the book Design Meets Disability by Graham Pullin. Among many other things in this book he argues that accessible design at the moment is mostly accessible engineering: a purely functional approach. If it works it’s good enough. Pullin shows examples of what happens when you start adding features like emotion, taste, and personality to accessible design. All of a sudden glasses are much more than a functional tool to help us see better, they become part of our identity and even strengthen it.

The exclusive design principles I created made me think of certain digital design agencies that produce incredible online experiences where all kinds of wonderful animations and transitions try to delight the user. More often than not these kinds of websites are the opposite of inclusive design, and instead seem to follow the exclusive design principles almost to the letter:

These experiences are optimised for the high end hardware that the design team uses, they are usually not tested with alternative ways of input and output, common conventions are often ignored in order to create something you’ve never seen before, there are many examples where the experience makes if hard to get to the content, and many engineers consider these kinds of sites to be nonsensical.

For these kinds of websites the exclusive design principles are used exclusively for the design team itself.

Now what if we start using these principles when we design for people with disabilities? What if we take exclusivity literally? Could this help elevate accessible design from the purely functional into the emotional? What if we design exclusively for one real person with a real disability instead of for a target group? What if we provide a unique experience for someone who can not use a mouse but needs their keyboard instead. What if instead of using existing conventions we observe how someone with a screenreader lives and uses the web to see if our visual conventions even make sense to someone who hears our website. And what if we as UX experts took control here to not just do what the person we’re designing for says, but to observe what they do as well and thus come up with tailor made solutions. And what if we used the identity of the single person we’re working for to make it more personal. And last but not least, what if we added a bit of nonsense to the mix. This can help to make things a bit lighter but it’s a useful tool to come up with innovative ideas.

How did the exclusive design principles evolve?

At first I used these principles as derivative of the original inclusive principles. But eventually the evolved into an independent set that can be considered on their own.

I used these principles in a few workshops I gave. At first I used the full set of seven principles. But soon I came to the conclusion that seven is simply too many. At the same time I thought that a few of these principles could easily be combined without losing any value. So I decided, after a few iterations to combine the similar principles Provide a unique experience, Ignore situation, Take control, and Offer the best possible solution into one single principle. First I called it be unique but this seemed to confuse some so instead I turned it into study situation.

At first I kept working with the principle Be inconsistent/innovative but I think it’s too long. It’s hard to remember. Recently, after observing several people struggling with our visual conventions I decided to turn it into the short but clear Ignore conventions.

Many people have pointed out that prioritising identity is not the opposite of prioritising content, and they’re right. Yet I did choose to keep this principle in my set. And the reason why I because it forces the designer to really focus on the single person they’re designing for. This is something that we never do on the web, and I observed that this is a very valuable thing to do.

And last but not least I also decided to keep the add nonsense principle. It’s fun. But there are serious sides to making nonsense a principle as well: some people find accessibility to be a very serious matter, which means that they will look only for very serious solutions. By explicitly asking them to add nonsense you force them to keep iterating when an idea has reached the functional level.

Conclusion

The Exclusive Design Principles grew out of a practical exercise to see if the Inclusive Design Principles were powerful enough to use. By using the initial literal reversals as a basis for workshops and design iterations with designers and real people with real disabilities they slowly evolved into a new set of principles that should probably be considered to be an independent set of tools that can be used in all kinds of accessible design projects, even inclusive ones.


  1. Alla Kholmatova, June 2018, From Purpose to Patterns, Talk presented at CSS Day in Amsterdam  ↩

  2. John Allsopp, 2000, A Dao of Webdesign, https://alistapart.com/article/dao  ↩

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