About exclusive design

Inclusive design is the common method used on the web to design interfaces that work for everybody, regardless of their abilities. One of the qualities of an inclusive interface is that it offers a comparable experience to people with different needs. On a basic level this could mean that an image needs a clear description, and that an audio file needs a transcript. On a more complex level it could also mean that if a visual interface is pleasurable, the non-visual equivalent should be pleasurable as well.

I asked a few blind people what a pleasurable user experience would be for them. They both told me that a user experience is pleasurable when they are able to get the task at hand done, even if it takes some effort. For sighted people in most situations this would be an unacceptable low level. They knew no examples of interfaces that are a true pleasure to use, that cover the complete pyramid of user’s needs.

Flipping the principles

One way to test if a design principle is strong enough to be effective is by reversing it.[1] As an experiment to check their validity I decided to flip the inclusive design principles that the Pacielo Group published.[2] This resulted in a list of seven exclusive design principles. After working with this list for a while, and after discussing them with a few colleagues[3] I came up with this list of four exclusive design principles:

Why do we need this?

In his book Emotional Design Don Norman explains that designers should observe their users in order to understand their needs. But, he writes, designers […] tend to keep to their desks, thinking up new ideas, testing them out on one another.[4] In other words: many designers tend to design for themselves. This could be one of the reasons why the level of design for screens and pointer devices is so high: these are exactly the tools that most designers work with every day.

In a sense we could say that designers use the exclusive design principles all the time to design things for themselves.

The theory I’m exploring with my research is that using these exclusive design principles explicitly for people with disabilities may help us in gaining expert knowledge about what would make a pleasurable use interface for them.

Provide a unique experience

This principle could be split in two. On the one hand it’s about studying the unique context of your client. Observe how they use interfaces, and how they would use your product, and talk to them about what they need. In the context of exclusive design this is very personal.
On the other hand this is about the designer as an expert. Oftentimes people don’t know that they have an issue. Don Norman calls this the unarticulated needs.[5] It’s the role of the designer to turn observations into new ideas.

Be innovative

It’s good practice to use common, well known patterns in user interface design. This way people don’t have to find out how an interface works: they recognise the pattern. This is good advice in the field of graphical user interface design since there is so much knowledge is this field. There are many patterns to choose from for different contexts, and they are well tested. Pick the one that’s best for you, and tweak it to fit your needs.

The patterns for user interfaces for assistive technology are not this plenty, and they are not tested to the same level of detail. There are some common patterns that can be used to reach a basic level of functionality, but there is no body of knowledge about making accessible interfaces pleasurable. Innovation is needed in this field.

Prioritise identity

Graham Pullin gives some wonderful examples in his book of what happens when identity starts playing a role in the design process.[6] For instance, it lifted glasses from merely functional objects that can enhance people’s eye sight to fashion items that can enhance people’s personality as well. But there are more kinds of personality that can play a role in making something pleasurable.

The identity of a brand, for instance Apple or Red Bull. Or the identity of a certain designers, like Vivienne Westwood or Philippe Starck. But other identities can play a role as well. The identity of the user of your product. And in one of the exclusive design challenges I organised one team came up with the idea of using the personality of the guide dog.[7] Identity and personality appeal to the visceral level of the brain,[8] the most primitive part that simply reacts to stimuli. When used well, this can play an important part in making an interface pleasurable.

Add nonsense

Of course this principle can be taken literally and be used to add jokes, or things like easter eggs. It can be used to take a more light hearted approach to designing. To add a wink to the design.

Or, if the subject matter is too serious for jokes it can still be used for the design process. Some people say that during the brainstorm phase of design there should be room for any idea.[9] Allowing for nonsensical ideas in this phase could result in surprising serious solutions.


There seems to be reason enough to assume that an exclusive design approach may help in coming up with innovative ideas for interfaces for people who need assistive technology. There is a need for innovation in this field, since it seriously lags behind regular user interface design. The exclusive design principles can help by providing more focus on real people, an urge for innovation, and an invitation for light-heartedness.

  1. Jeremy Keith, Design Principles, December 15th, 2016, https://adactio.com/journal/11620  ↩

  2. Henny Swan et al, 2017, Inclusive Design Principles, http://inclusivedesignprinciples.org/  ↩

  3. Vasilis van Gemert, A critical look at the inclusive design principles, 2017, https://vasilis.nl/research/2017/12/a-critical-look-at-the-exclusive-design-principles/  ↩

  4. Donald A. Norman, Emotional Design, Why we love (or hate) everyday things, Basic Books, Paperback edition, 2005, page 71  ↩

  5. Page 74, Donald A. Norman, Emotional Design  ↩

  6. Graham Pullin, Design meets disability, The MIT Press, 2009  ↩

  7. Vasilis van Gemert, The very first The Good, The Bad, and The Interesting Exclusive Design Challenge, 2017, section Team Larissa, https://vasilis.nl/gbi/exclusive-design-challenge/#teamlarissa  ↩

  8. Donald A. Norman, Emotional Design  ↩

  9. Page 27, Donald A. Norman, Emotional Design  ↩