Product Inclusion Leadership: Insights from Google UX Director Kat Holmes, author of "Mismatch"

By Reena Jana, Head of Product Inclusion, Google | Inclusive Design

“Designing for inclusion begins with recognizing exclusion,” writes Kat Homes at the start of her new book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design (MIT Press). Kat brings this point of view to her role as UX Director at Google, too.

She shared with us how she defines a mismatch. “It’s the experience of rejection by a designed object. This occurs when there's a misfit between the features of a person's body and the features of a product, device or a service.”

She adds, “The product is challenged. It was made in a way that creates exclusion. Mismatches can stem from ability, language, cultural factors, or even circumstances and environment.” Think of driving and not being able to use your hands to respond to an urgent text message. Or trying to understand information on a website in a language you don’t know, without adequate translation, while traveling. Or not being able to read small type on a screen as you age.

Rather than “edge cases,” mismatches can unlock efficient innovations that can save lives. Think of adjustable seat belts. Addressing mismatches can also grow audiences – consider shifting demographics in the U.S., or the fact that the next billion users online will be in India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Brazil.

Here, as the third installment of our ongoing Product Inclusion Leadership series, we summarize core points from Kat’s book, for leaders to explore with teams and practice immediately.

Learn from leaders who have experienced exclusion

Exclusion is a topic that has subject-matter experts. But remember: exclusion is truly understood when it is lived. By nature, exclusion may not be an experience familiar to those leaders who identify as members of the majority in your organization, your industry, or your community. Exclusion experts provide value as leaders because they “can acutely recognize it in the world...Their expertise stems from being familiar with exclusion and what makes it a universal human experience,” as Kat writes.

Reframe exclusion as a cycle and break habits

First, recognize and accept that exclusion occurs. Then, look at exclusion as cyclical, so your team can begin to understand that they make design choices within a process – and these choices can lead to mismatches between a design and user experience. Identify exclusion habits that recur, such as using your team’s abilities or using minimum legal criteria as baselines. Break these habits and make systemic change toward inclusion. “People’s touchpoints with each other and with society are full of mismatched interactions,” Kat writes. “Design is a source of these mismatches and can also be a remedy.”

Understand the history of your product as you plan to solve exclusion challenges in the future

If you’re working to improve a product or service, don’t just look to the future to make it more inclusive. Identifying the origin story of this product or service can help your team understand a specific exclusion problem to solve. What were the blind spots in the user research, and how can you address them? What voices were not at the table, and how do you involve them in the next iteration? Rather than focusing on a fresh new design for an existing project based on new sets of assumptions, intentionally include missing points of view. “Inclusion complements design as a way to align what a solution can be with what a person needs it to be,” Kat writes.

Apply emotion when pursuing inclusive design

Many of the world’s most enduring, and widely impactful inventions stem from hacks that excluded users made. Why? Because they passionately wanted to participate in a basic human activity, but couldn’t. In Mismatch, Kat cites examples such as the origin of the touchpad that went on to inform touch screens in mobile phones, tablets and computers. It was created by Wayne Westerman in part because he had severe carpal tunnel syndrome and was struggling to type. Or early protocols for email invented by Vint Cerf, who has hearing loss and wanted to efficiently communicate with his wife, who is deaf. “Seek out inclusive-design love stories that already exist in your business,” she writes. “How are people using and adapting your solutions as a way to connect with the people and the activities that they love?”

Create baselines for performance for excluded users as you design for inclusion

How do you know if your team is doing a good job of remedying known mismatches? Create and cultivate an extended community of exclusion experts for testing to help you establish baselines for effectiveness. Always remember that when you design feedback systems, though, these systems influence who will offer the feedback. Are these systems as inclusive as your product? For instance, is your format for feedback only online forms – and only in English? Work toward including the excluded not only in the design process, but also in the evaluation process.

Build a strong business case for inclusive design

There are robust rationales for pursuing inclusive design as a business strategy. The solutions to exclusion your company creates are ultimately solutions that help growing numbers of people engage with your products. Addressing mismatches can help you

  • Support increased customer interaction
  • Expand your customer base
  • Unlock new product innovations that can differentiate your brand
  • Avoid “retrofitting” products so they’re more inclusive, which can be expensive and burn cycles of engineering and design that could have been avoided by following the tips above

These are summaries we've drawn from Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design. For more, read a free sample or get the e-book on Google Play.

Inspired by Kat? Apply for a job at Google to create, code, design and build for everyone.

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