People won't always say this aloud, but there's a lurking assumption that making learning content more accessible is going to mean making it less beautiful. Obviously, you want to make your content work for the widest and most diverse audience of learners. But does that necessarily mean a compromise on aesthetics?
I say no. And, luckily for me, all the best authorities on design agree. Here's why.
Let's start with "What is good design?" Good design is not only about the look and feel of a thing, it's also about fitness to purpose. And that's true whether the thing in question is something functional like a potato peeler, or something innovative and slightly abstract like a virtual reality experience. It's there to get the job done, whether the job in question is to peel your spuds or blow your mind.
And the same theory holds true when it comes to designing good learning content, which also needs to be aligned to development needs and performance outcomes. Good and inclusive design, at its core, puts the learner's needs first, which means learning leaders and creators need a solid grasp of the principles of good design.
The 10 principles of good – and inclusive – design
Almost 50 years ago, design pioneer Dieter Rams, a German industrial designer responsible for Braun's consumer products, asked himself, "Is my design good design?" In response to his own question, he created 10 principles of good design (sometimes known as the "10 Commandments").
According to Rams, good design:
- Is innovative: Designs and technology are forever intertwined, and develop in tandem.
- Makes a product useful: Good product design emphasizes its usefulness while omitting anything that could distract users from its purpose.
- Is aesthetic: Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
- Makes a product understandable: At its best, a product is self-explanatory.
- Is unobtrusive: Neutral and restrained design leaves room for the user's self-expression.
- Is honest: It doesn't pretend to be something it's not; it keeps its promises to the consumer.
- Is long lasting: Opting for a classic, timeless design means the content will resonate far beyond the expiration date of this season's new trend.
- Is thorough down to the last detail: Good design sweats the small stuff – it shows respect toward the user.
- Is environmentally friendly: Conserve resources and reduce pollution throughout the product lifecycle.
- Involves as little design as possible: Less is always more.
Although consumer products, technology and learning in the workplace have changed drastically over the past 50 years, Rams's principles still provide valuable guidelines when designing digital interfaces today. It's also interesting to note that, while the focus on inclusion and accessibility for the design of everyday objects and interfaces is a recent development, Rams infused inclusion into his design principles when he created them back in the 1960s.
Achieving an inclusive environment isn't one-size-fits-all
Rams isn't the only authority supporting the view that good design has to be inclusive. According to the UK Design Council's guide, The Principles of Inclusive Design:
"Good design is inclusive design. Design should always be judged by whether or not it achieves an inclusive environment. Design which does not do this is not good enough. Good design should reflect the diversity of people who use it and not impose barriers of any kind."
Inclusive design – also known as Design for All (Europe) or Universal Design (USA) – doesn't assume a "one-size-fits-all" user experience (UX). It's design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to gender, age, language and ability. It also isn't about creating a new design genre or a separate specialization, but about a general approach to good design and designing products, services and learning activities that address the needs of the widest possible audience.
Defining inclusive design for a learning environment
In case you haven't picked up on the nuances by now, inclusive design is defined as, "The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible [...] without the need for special adaptation or specialized design," according to the British Standards Institute.
Inclusive design, especially in a learning environment, doesn't suggest that it's always possible (or appropriate) to design one product to address the needs of your entire learner population. Instead, inclusive design guides an appropriate design response to diversity in the learner population through:
- Developing a family of products, derivatives, learning activities and courses to provide the best possible coverage to the learner population
- Ensuring that each individual product has clear and distinct target users
- Reducing the level of ability required to use each product, in order to improve the user experience for a broad range of customers, in a variety of situations
These considerations are fundamental if your goal is to transform your learning culture into an inclusive, personalized experience with a focus on employee development linked to performance outcomes.
So what's the difference between accessibility and inclusive design?
Traditionally, "accessibility" means making special considerations for people with disabilities. Accessibility typically refers to the design of products, devices, services or environments for people who experience disabilities. Accessible design and practice of accessible development ensure both direct and indirect access. This means that a person can access and/or use the product, device, service or environment unassisted and it's compatible with a person's assistive technology (such as computer screen readers).
The key to inclusive design is that from the very beginning we consider creating something that is easily accessible, useful and enjoyable for as many people as possible. Inclusive design doesn't specifically target people with disabilities (unlike assistive devices).
"While assistive devices fill in the gaps left by exclusionary design practices, inclusive design aims to evolve products beyond their conventional definitions, changing our standards for products. Assistive devices aim to remove a barrier for people with disabilities. Inclusive design strives to fundamentally redesign a product so that the barrier does not exist in the first place. Assistive technology is reactive. Inclusive design is proactive."
How to approach accessible and inclusive design
To unlock your employees' performance and growth potential, good, inclusive design is a foundational element of creating and curating an inclusive and accessible workplace and learning environment. It's a great start, but you can always do more. Here are some ideas we've implemented that you might also find helpful:
- Appoint a company champion for diversity and inclusion (D&I)
- Regularly develop D&I-focused learning activities
- As standard, create accessible scripts and accessible PDFs
- Develop accessible learning training courses for internal learning designers
- Carry out internal accessibility testing/QA
- Partner with the non-profit Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) and other independent consultants to deliver best practice in all our products and services
- Run regular features on D&I themes in internal and external communications
- Develop XD wireframe templates for your Learning Designers to create wireframe builds for your clients/internal teams and modify them to have an inclusive/accessible component version
Put diversity and inclusion at the heart of your learning environment and design an experience that works like your people do. Design an experience that works to their strengths. Now, I'm sure we can all agree that proactive, inclusive design is both a beautiful learning experience and good design.