Inclusive design isn’t just a buzzy topic—it’s what we should be thinking about when we start creating anything in the real or digital world. And that’s why we aimed to highlight inclusive design at a work session we ran at the 2018 Interior Designers of Canada Symposium. We held a mini DesignMeets session and took participants through our design process in order to demonstrate how we can solve real-world problems through an inclusive lens.

The IDC Symposium Work Session

Our DesignMeets-light opened with a talk from Vickie and Mike Micallef. Vickie, who is Mike’s caregiver, spoke candidly about Mike’s experience with Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain condition. She shared what it’s like to live with a disability and the steps she and Mike have taken to reduce hazards in their home.

The remainder of the session involved a group exercise. For their first task, participants drew on their professional experiences to define a number of design problems in public and private spaces.  They honed in on one problem, brainstormed solutions together and then presented them to the room.

This short, but impactful activity helped to illustrate how diverse groups of people use spaces differently and stressed the importance of inclusive design—designing solutions that work for all people (regardless of their mobility, age, gender, socio-economic status etc.) in all contexts.

What’s the difference between inclusivity, accessibility, and usability?

As UX designers, we’re already trained to consider accessibility and usability. So where does inclusive design fit in? It’s important to understand the differences (and inherent similarities) between these three principles.


According to the Web Accessibility Initiative website, accessibility refers to the user-experience for those with disabilities and/or age-related impairments.


The ISO defines usability as, “the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” More simply, does a product or service work for the people who need to use it?


Inclusion is much broader than accessibility and usability. As the Web Accessibility Initiative writes, products, services and spaces should be “usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation.” The WAI continues, “Inclusion addresses a broad range of issues including access to and quality of hardware, software, and Internet connectivity; computer literacy and skills; economic situation; education; geographic location; and language — as well as age and disability.”

“Let’s make cities vibrant and livable for both eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds.”

—Gil Peñalosa, Director of the 8 80 Cities Project


Instead of thinking of disability as a binary (disabled vs. non-disabled) the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University frames disability as “a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the design of the product, system or service. With this framing, disability can be experienced by anyone excluded by the design.” Similarly, the goal of the IDC exercise was to emphasize that we shouldn’t need to re-design spaces for those with explicit disabilities—we should be designing inclusively at the get-go.

Why should we start thinking of inclusive design now?

“Inclusive design is a method for designing products that consider the full range of human diversity,” said Google’s director of UX design to the publication GeekWire. “The most important aspect is including people in the design process who have been excluded from using a particular category of products for a very long time,” she continued.

One of our driving principles as user-centered designers is empathy. So if we are to be truly empathetic, how can we create products that exclude large chunks of the population? In Canada alone, one in seven people are differently abled, and with an increasingly aging population, it’s pertinent to start thinking about the future now to keep people moving in public and private spaces. Designers must be aware of what the Government of Ontario calls invisible diversity, too—such as individuals with autism or colour-blindness. And in a time of increasing climate volatility, principles of inclusivity can also help remind designers to mitigate risks to the environment and local ecosystem when implementing design solutions.

“Inclusive design is a process, not a result.”

An Inclusive Design-oriented approach is often considered challenging as it takes more time and resources. However, once you actually begin to work through these processes and realize the user insights, the benefits far outweigh the investment. “It’s a way of de-risking your design and improving the outcome for the intended audience—with a side benefit of reaching a new and untapped set of users,” says Pivot Design Group’s Ian Chalmers.

Empathy can only get designers so far. It’s imperative to challenge preconceived notions and to consider all contexts of use. In her March 2017 TED Talk, activist Sinéad Burke, who identifies as a little person, urged viewers to ask, “Who are we not designing for?” She continued, “How can we amplify their voices and their experiences? What is the next step? Design is an enormous privilege, but it is a bigger responsibility.”

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