I started in design when human-computer interaction (HCI) and user-centered design (UCD) were the focal topics. At the time, the term user experience (UX) was known only at Apple where it was used by Don Norman and his colleagues.
About a decade later (mid-late 2000s), UX became increasingly popular in the design and engineering fields and I figured the U in UX referred to all users.
The U in UX
I think it’s commonly assumed that UX is about designing for all users, but if that were the case — if the U in UX referred all users — then why do we have these design processes?
Creates great experiences that account for users with disabilities.
Creates great experiences that account for all users, including those who are typically overlooked due to their race/ethnicity, language, age, gender, class, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.
Traditionally, UX courses, books, and articles teach very little, if anything, about designing for human diversity. As a result, teams can follow all UX design guidance and still deliver products in which many users experience barriers and feel disregarded because the design failed to account for:
- 10% of the world’s population who identifies on the LGBTQIA spectrum yet products and content are often gender-binary and heteronormative.
- 15% of the world's population with permanent disabilities, but products and services are designed with limited accessibility.
- 80% of the world population that is Black, Asian, Brown, dual-heritage, or indigenous to the global south, creating the global majority. Nonetheless, products are designed for a White default and alienate people of color.
So, who are the users in UX design?
The users that UX has centered has been those that mirror the identities of the UX pioneers. UX design, by default, is focused on designing experiences for the needs and expectations of white, cisgender, non-disabled males.
I point this out not to lay blame, but simply to level set expectations for new UXers and broadly draw attention to this shortcoming.
UX needs interest convergence
I had a Twitter conversation with a fellow designer, a white male who admitted, “It wasn’t until health issues cropped up in my own family that I began to empathize with those situations when designing.”
What my fellow designer described is an excellent example of interest convergence, a term coined by law professor Derrick Bell, which essentially states that the interests of marginalized groups will only be addressed when they converge with the interests of the dominating group.
Perhaps lack of interest convergence explains why the most popular online UX resource was relatively silent about inclusive design for the past 24 years. In 1998, Nielsen Norman Group, the “world leaders in research-based UX,” published their first article. In 2022, over 1200 articles later, they finally published their first article about inclusive design.
Although I was pleased to finally see NN/g’s inclusive design article, I was underwhelmed that they didn’t take a bolder stance about the importance of inclusive user experiences for all product-relevant social identities. Instead, they state that inclusive design “can positively impact the user experience,” which feels very optional. I feel the better-late-than-never article was a missed opportunity to re-define the U in UX to be inclusive of everyone and convey that inclusive design plays a critical role in user experiences, a UX heuristic even. Perhaps interests will converge soon.
The users that UX has centered has been those that mirror the identities of UX pioneers — white, cisgender, non-disabled males.
I point out the exclusive U in UX so aspiring UX professionals won’t be surprised when UX articles, books and bootcamps gloss over accessibility and likely skip the broader topic of inclusion altogether. I want it to be clear that these oversights in no way negate the topic’s significance.
It also bears mentioning that while you may see accessible design and inclusive design used interchangeably, they are not the same. Accessible design accounts for disabilities — permanent, temporary and situational — while inclusive design accounts for all overlooked identities and therefore includes accessible design.
Recently, I was talking with a friend who was an instructor for one of the popular UX bootcamps. They said that the curriculum that was provided only had one slide on accessibility, one. Thankfully my friend prioritizes inclusive design, so they significantly expounded on the topic for their students.
Senior Accessibility Designer, Anna E. Cook polled designers on Twitter to gauge the prevalence of this problem. Of the 1311 people who responded, 8% said they learned “a lot” about accessibility during their design education, 34% learned a little and 58% learned nothing.
When I asked numerous UX bootcamp students about their experience, most of them shared that the bulk of what they learned about accessible and inclusive design came from a list of online resources the instructor provided them to learn on their own.
Since inclusion is not fundamental to UX design, and apparently a low priority for most UX design educators, I highly recommend new UXers intentionally seek out accessibility and inclusive design education to learn how to design inclusive experiences. My article A beginner’s guide to inclusive UX design should help you get started.
The U in UX should refer to all users and, by default, should provide great experiences for a diverse range of users, but unfortunately it does not. Instead accessible design and inclusive design are treated like special interest topics.
I hope interests converge sooner than later and the UX pioneers and design educators reinvigorate UX to fundamentally include all users; UX 2.0 if you will.
Meanwhile, here is a list of inclusive UX design resources, A beginner’s guide to inclusive UX design
Image description: Anna Cook’s tweet
Anna Cook tweeted in 2021, “Looking to gather some data for the book I’m working on. Designers: how much did you learn about accessibility when you went through education (university boot camp, self-taught, etc.)?”
1311 people responded:
- 8% said “A lot”
- 34% said “A little”
- 58% said “None”
Image description: White default graphic
- Products: 1. Most “nude” products such as Bandaids, etc. are for white skin tones and 2. Some automatic soap dispensers are unable to detect dark skin.
- Experiences: 1. Facial recognition software have a history of mistaking Black people for each other and 2. Until recently, emojis did not come in diverse skin tones/hair textures.
- Services: 1. Train/bus routes designed to omit certain areas, which decreases BIPOC access and 2. School curriculums are designed to teach students from a white lens.
Image description: UX bootcamper’s tweet
“I’m in a UX bootcamp rn. I used to be a teacher for students with special needs so I was really excited to get to the lessons on accessibility. Imagine my surprise when I find that accessibility doesn’t get its own dedicated lesson/chapter and was actually just two readings.”
Thanks for reading. If you know anyone who would find this useful, please share. If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to contact me.