In 2015, Microsoft published an inclusive design toolkit that has since become a bible for inclusive design. The toolkit has been downloaded more than 2 million times. Its underpinning principles—recognize exclusion; learn from diversity; solve for one, extend to many—have been taught across 60 universities. And about 80,000 employees at Microsoft alone have been trained on it. Companies and brands have leveraged it too, from Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive collection, to Microsoft’s very own Xbox adaptive controller, built by the company’s Inclusive Tech Lab, which opened in May 2022.
Influential as it was, the original toolkit only focused on physical and sensory disabilities, leaving out an entire field that had to do with designing for the brain. Known as cognition, this includes a range of mental processes that help us acquire, store, manipulate, and retrieve information—like focusing, learning, memorizing, but also communicating and making decisions.
During its Ability Summit tomorrow,Microsoft is launching the second installment of its inclusive design toolkit, which has a specific focus on designing inclusive experiences for people with different cognitive abilities. “As cognitive science becomes something that more people know about, people are starting to focus on it and trying to be more inclusive of cognitive disabilities,” says Christina Mallon, a neurodivergent designer with dual arm paralysis, who joined Microsoft as the head of inclusive design after the new toolkit was already underway.
In development since shortly after the first inclusive design toolkit launched in 2015, this version reflects the company’s bigger ambitions to make inclusive design the norm across industries. Accordingly, the toolkit takes a broader approach to cognitive exclusion, which Mallon describes as a mismatch between cognitive load and cognitive demands (in other words, when the cognitive load required to complete a task is larger than one’s ability to complete that task). The new toolkit lays out three new primary principles for approaching inclusive design for cognition:
Understand the user’s motivation, and the goals and tasks they are trying to complete.
Discern the cognitive load required to reduce that mismatch.
Co-create the final product with a diverse community of people across the spectrum.
It’s important to note that the new toolkit isn’t written as a how-to guide for designing for specific conditions. It doesn’t mention autism once. It also only references ADHD a few times, mostly as a means to reframe the conversation around people’s motivations and goals. Mallon says the toolkit shies away from labels because they’re simply not always representative of a person’s condition. “It’s not just for people with diagnosed disabilities, because even if you have the same diagnosis, the symptom of that disease is very different within that one diagnosis,” she says. “That’s why we don’t start with naming a specific disability. It’s [about] collaborating with people who might have that disability or those symptoms.”
At its core, inclusive design is a methodology, and getting that methodology wrong could have devastating consequences on entire groups of people who can feel irritated, marginalized, or entirely excluded. Mallon herself is all too familiar with those ramifications. “As someone with ADHD and not being able to complete certain tasks because I could not focus or comprehend what was going on in different educational videos, I felt like I was stupid,” she says. “It wasn’t really until I learned about inclusive design [that I] understood that people are strategically leaving me out of products; that it wasn’t me, it was the design of the experience.”
According to Mallon, the toolkit might benefit the tech industry most, but she says it applies to anyone designing experiences, whether those experiences occur in front of a screen, in a playground, or in a classroom. That’s why the guidebook doesn’t include specific industries, but instead focuses on broad scenarios, like the way people learn when cooking a new dish (options include trial and error, following a self-guided recipe, or taking a class); or how they make decisions when planning a trip (some only need the price information then play it by ear, while others favor a detailed itinerary from the start.)
To build the toolkit, the team worked with hundreds of leading psychologists and cognition experts, then laid out the three principles described above. They put those principles to the test with their own products, including Focus Sessions, which launched in Microsoft 11 and lets you customize your workflow by setting timers, blocking off parts of your calendar, or turning off notifications to help you focus better.
The toolkit caters to various types of learning styles, as well, and includes case studies for people who learn by example, a structured worksheet that lets people reflect on a readymade template, and a recruitment guidebook to help teams bring in the right people to ensure the final product is designed inclusively. “At the core, co-creation with the communities is the key and doing it in a way that provides equity to those co-creators,” says Mallon, emphasizing the importance of iterative design so people can test it out and provide regular feedback. “Some of these concepts are hard to people to understand,” she says, “but when you put it in a physical product or experience, then people can provide feedback and ideate on.”
This toolkit is just the next step in Microsoft’s larger plan to create inclusive design resources. Mallon is interested in expanding her research around cognition to explore the ways that mood or environment can change cognition. For now, there’s plenty of work to be done on this version of the toolkit. “There’s definitely going to be additional versions of this,” she says, adding that she and her team are asking for the people who use it to provide feedback (Mallon’s own email is included in the document). “We’re here to serve the world and empower people, and we need help with that,” she says.
The end goal? “It’s that inclusive design becomes the only way to design, so that my job as an inclusive designer is just a designer,” says Mallon. “I want my job to go away.”
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