Kat Holmes is a leading authority on inclusive design. She led the development of Microsoft’s award-winning Inclusive Design toolkit, which landed her on the list of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business. She left the company last year to launch her own consultancy, KATA, with the aim of advancing inclusion in technology and product development. Now she focuses on building great customer experiences for the greatest number of people, whether that’s mobile, artificial intelligence, voice interfaces, operating systems, or the Internet of Things.

We asked her how designers can avoid excluding people, how we can make our experiences more inclusive, and how she advises teams to design and develop solutions with inclusivity in mind from the get-go.

How do we balance the need for user groups & targeting with inclusion?

Inclusion means a lot of different things to different people. Exclusion, conversely, is consistently clear. It’s when you’re left out. Exclusion isn’t inherently good or bad. Focused constraints are essential to good design. So, in a way, exclusion is inherent to design.

However, exclusionary designs are often the result of ignorance and neglect, rather than intentional choices. What assumptions underlie our definition of a target user? Problems arise when we design for a mythical average human being. The false assumption that there are majority and minority users. Todd Rose’s book, The End of Average, explores this topic in depth.

We have a responsibility to know how our designs raise and lower the barriers between people and society. It’s constant work and someone might always be left out. Perhaps all we can do is recognize one area after another where we’re excluding people and involve them in the process of building better solutions.

 Kat Holmes headshot
Kat Holmes

How are our products and services affected if we don’t design with inclusivity in mind?

The things we make reflect our own biases. One of the sneakiest kinds of bias is our ability biases. When we design things that we ourselves can see, hear, or touch, these solutions can work well for people with similar circumstances, but often end up excluding many more people. Ability bias can lead to designs that don’t work for people with disabilities. Or anyone who is temporarily injured. Or anyone who moves into an environment that affects their abilities, like trying to hear in a loud airport or speaking on a quiet train ride. Ability-biased designs affect all of us at some point in our lives.

What’s the first step in making experiences inclusive?

Learning how to recognize exclusion. We all know how it feels to be left out. Yet, we have a much harder time recognizing when other people are excluded. One way to start is by asking ‘who’s missing and why?’ Then, seeking out people who are systematically excluded from our designs and asking them what works and what doesn’t. When we let these new perspectives supersede our own, we shift toward more inclusive solutions. It’s a skill that we can develop with practice.

How did Microsoft’s Inclusive Design toolkit come about and what was your role in creating it?

The story often surprises people. It started with AI, not accessibility. In 2013, we were working on the inaugural design of Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant. We faced a number of new challenges in that project: conversational design, working with the limitations of speech technology, and understanding the boundaries of trust that people are willing to place in computers.

I realized there are a lot of people who were already experts in navigating these challenges. People who are blind, or have low vision, use speech synthesis software, like screen readers. People who use speech-commands to control their computer, rather than a keyboard or mouse. Anyone who places their trust in personal assistants to help them complete essential aspects of their daily lives. What would be possible if the design of technology was led by people who already had deep expertise in these areas?

My team started hosting design sprints to match product teams with ‘inclusion experts,’ people with disabilities who participated as designers. After working with hundreds of people, themes started to emerge. We wanted a simple way to share what we were learning, so a few of us crafted the toolkit and made it publicly available.

The industry response to the toolkit has been overwhelmingly positive for three reasons: 1) our approach is based on pragmatic experience with real products, 2) we focus on creative opportunities rather than legal compliance, and 3) it helps make accessibility accessible to designers.

 Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit explains who we design for and who gets excluded
Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit explains who we design for and who gets excluded

How do you apply the methods you developed at Microsoft to the companies you advise now?

My work with teams is always rooted in these three inclusive design principles for how to design and develop any solution:

  1. Recognize exclusion. Exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases. Seek out exclusions as opportunities to create new ideas and inclusive designs.
  2. Learn from human diversity. Human beings are the real experts in adapting to diversity. Inclusive design puts people at the center from the very start of the process, and those fresh, diverse perspectives are the key to true insight.
  3. Solve for one, extend to many. Everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities. Designing for people with disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people, universally. Constraints are a beautiful thing.

Most of us have heard of design sprints by now. But what does an inclusive design sprint look like?

The most important aspect of an inclusive design sprint is the inclusion of people who have historically been excluded by a solution. It’s how we put the ‘inclusive’ in inclusive design. There are many ways to involve people in a sprint and it takes thoughtful facilitation.

 The Persona Spectrum is a quick tool to help foster empathy and to show how a solution scales to a broader audience
The Persona Spectrum is a quick tool to help foster empathy and to show how a solution scales to a broader audience

What other tools and techniques do you recommend for inclusive design?

Here are five things that make a difference for the teams I work with:

  • Build a basic understanding of accessibility requirements, assistive technologies, and disability history. I keep a recommended reading list on Pinterest.
  • Learn about the small, but growing, set of design tools that can help you mitigate exclusion. Accessibility checkers are a great start. Ideally, one day, it would be impossible to build an inaccessible product.
  • Hire designers with disabilities.
  • Make sure your user research and testing consistently involve excluded communities, especially people with disabilities.
  • Make connections with people who will challenge your ability biases. Spend time with local disability communities. Attend an ASL-only event. Volunteer at a school for students who are blind.

We hear you have a book about inclusive design coming out? What can we expect from it?

Yes! It will be published in Fall 2018, by MIT Press. I’m excited to share this book. It’s for anyone who’s interested in creating great solutions for the greatest number of people. It builds on the toolkit with a deep dive into the economic case for inclusive design and examples from a range of industries. It features stories and insights from inclusive design leaders who have experienced great degrees of exclusion. Their stories give all of us a peek into how design can be the source of exclusion, but also its remedy.