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Kat Holmes: Rethink What Inclusive Design Means

About this talk

In her work at and Google, Kat Holmes is helping other designers to rethink inclusive design not as a remedy for “personal health conditions” but as solves for “mismatches”—moments where human interactions are hindered by an absence of appropriate design solutions. Her 99U talk takes us through her journey to this approach, and how it can help us all recognize and combat everyday mismatches in the world.

Kat Holmes, Director, UX Design at Google

About Kat Holmes: Kat Holmes, named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business in 2017, is founder of, a firm dedicated to inclusive design resources and education. She served as the Principal Director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft from 2014 to 2017, leading the company’s executive program for inclusive product innovation.

Her award-winning toolkit was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. In 2018, she joined Google and continues to advance inclusive development for some of the most influential technologies in the world.

Kat is the author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.

Full Transcript

Well, I thought today would be a good opportunity to share a little bit about my own journey in learning about inclusive design, and along the way, describing a little bit how it has changed me as a designer, kind of bridging off of the last conversation that who we are and the conversations we have really do shape the things that we make.

I grew up in Oakland, California. This is a picture before the Salesforce Tower was up. Okay. And it was a place where we really valued diversity. It was very present in my education and the world around me. And for all the conversations we had about diversity, not once did I learn about the fundamentals of accessibility as a designer, as a student. We rarely had conversations about disability in an environmental, sorry, in an educational context and much, much later in my career, when I did really take a deeper study at disability studies and also accessibility, it transformed how I saw myself and how I saw the work that I was doing.

My path to design might reflect the path that many of us took. It was more about the combining of arts and sciences. This was me in the fourth grade using my science project. I was trying to use a sculpture to communicate how earthquakes work. And that led me down a path to orthopedic biomechanics. I wanted to create and design prosthetic limbs for a living. That was my dream.

Eventually that led me to Microsoft, where I had the great fortune of leading a team that went to great depth on inclusive design and really thinking about the practices as we are evolving into this AI-led digital-first kind of world for design. I quit my job outright about three years ago and started my own company and in that, had an opportunity to meet with a very large number of organizations, companies, cities to have a conversation about what does inclusion mean to us?

And I get to continue that work in my role at Google today. So here’s some snapshots from my Instagram feed of places and people I’ve met along the way and what I’ve found is that there’s many different meanings to the word inclusion. It means many different things to many different people.

And so in writing the book, I took a closer look at the root word, which is claudere, which is to shut. It’s Latin. So exclusion is literally to shut out and inclusion is literally to shut in. And I started to wonder if there’s something about this mental model of shutting in and shutting out that was shaping not only the way we thought about the problem in this space but the solutions. And if we think about a circle where there is shut in and shut out, what is the goal of inclusion in this model? Is it to break into this circle and get access to resources and power and things that we think are gonna be really good inside there? Is it to open up the circle if you happen to be inside and magnanimously invite people in to share in those opportunities? Or is it to get rid of the circle altogether and mix it together in kind of a utopian state?

And so I started to wonder about the design of this circle itself and maybe the way that how that comes into our world and how we could start to address that. These kind of barriers between shut in and shut out show up in many different areas of our society.

Some quick examples, this is a snapshot of the Long Island Parkway. These kinds of barriers can be challenging to recognize sometimes. An everyday object, that we drive underneath, but when this was created by Robert Moses who was the city parks commissioner in the 1930s and the 1960s, he designed it so that the underside of this overpass was seven feet seven inches high, which was just low enough to prevent a public bus from traveling underneath it. And public transit in the 1940s and ’50s being a primary mode of transportation for African American working class families or for families of low income, it literally became a physical barrier to traveling to the parks and the beaches on the other side.

Now, recognizing these kind of barriers today, in digital environments is also sometimes a challenge. A high number of websites do not meet basic accessibility criteria, in essence, a barrier in the same way as that overpass to accessing the information that many of us enjoy, but a barrier to participation if we do not have that access open to all. And so, a moment that helped me unlock the shut in, shut out model and start to reshape my thinking was the World Health Organization’s definition of disability, which was redefined in 2001 as a mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live. And this is also known as the social model of disability.

And this dramatically shifted, for me, and those who I was working with, this conversation from thinking about disability as a personal health condition to it being something that was squarely a matter of responsibility and choice as designers, as engineers, as business leaders, that every decision we were making was either increasing or decreasing those mismatches between people and the world around them. And I started to wonder, “How do those mismatches build up over time?” We all experience exclusion in different ways. We may encounter mismatches in many moments in our days, but there are people, there are communities that experience a high degree of mismatches and a high degree of exclusion as they encounter these mismatches.

So I started to wonder how these came into practice and one of the biggest culprits, in my opinion, is what I have come to call ability biases, which is when we design something that we ourselves can see or hear, or it matches how we learn or think or communicate. It ends up working well for people who have similar abilities or preferences, but it can end up excluding a much broader group of people. And so one example of this, I travel a lot, I spend a lot of time in airports and I spend a lot of time in airport bathrooms.

So here’s the snapshot of a public toilet with a sensor on the back, where you wave your hand over the back. And there’s a nice, helpful sign, which is a good indicator of a poor design, to wave your hand over the sensor to activate. Now, we think about who might experience a mismatch in interacting with this design? Maybe somebody who is unable to see the features of the toilet. Maybe someone who’s blind or has low vision. Maybe somebody who doesn’t have a hand available to wave or a hand. Maybe somebody who doesn’t read English. And so when you start to think about, you start to question who is this really designed for? And how many people are left out?

So mismatches can also be the origin of beautiful, inclusive designs and one of my favorite examples is the typewriter. Pellegrino Turri and the Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano in the mid-1830s were very close friends, some rumored lovers. And when they were apart, they wanted to communicate by writing. The countess was blind and in the mid-1800s, if you were blind, to write a letter, you often had to dictate to another person who would write it down for you, which is not an awesome solution if you want private communication. And so they worked together to invent, it was known as the first prototype, the typewriter, so that the countess could author her own letters. A design that has many iterations in many generations, but in some way, many people have benefited from. And the thing that I love about this as a distinction between universal design and inclusive design is not everyone has access to a keyboard. Maybe somebody has limited use of their hands. But it was designed with that starting mismatch and with the participation of someone who had experienced that exclusion to come up with a solution that met the needs for many more people.

Another quick example: automated captioning, YouTube, a deaf engineer named Ken Harrenstein, was one of the first creators of a automated system for captioning, that then went on, of course, to benefit the deaf and the hard of hearing community, but many, many more people, as you’re learning a new language or maybe watching a video with the sound off, also benefit from this design. So there’s many inclusive designs like this that started with a mismatch and a recognition of that mismatch but also the participation and the design came from people who’d experienced that mismatch and developed a solution that benefited many more people.

And so here’s just a few snapshots of some other designs that have started, so flexible straws, curb cuts. There’s quite a few that are quietly working in our everyday world that started with designing for a mismatch. And I wanted to understand, can we make this a repeatable practice? Can we make this something that we do with intention? Starting by recognizing who experiences the highest degree of exclusion, the highest degree of mismatch, and designing a solution that works well, let’s say, for someone who’s born with one arm, might then go on to benefit somebody who, on a temporary basis, because of maybe an arm injury, would also benefit from that design or somebody in a situational basis, maybe holding a newborn infant or a bag of groceries might also benefit from that design, so it extends to many more people, and how can we make that a practice?

Couple of kind of closer looks at this and kind of where this history came from. I love playgrounds, so I always have pictures of swings whenever I talk. This is the kind of swing I grew up with. It’s a flat seat with two chains and we ask ourselves, you know, who, and what kind of abilities, are required to interact with this design? So perhaps you need to be a certain height, have a certain degree of strength, two hands, probably two legs, a certain degree of balance, and, again, as we start to list those out, it becomes a very specific kind of human being that this swing is designed for. But then we also ask ourselves: if we filled a playground only with this kind of swing, the only people who would show up to play would be people who matched this design, and no one else, because, quite frankly, it sends a signal of who this playground is for and who it’s not for. And this happens all the time in the things that we design.

I was fascinated to learn a little bit more about the origins of how, again, in the roots of the Industrial Revolution and industrialized design. You know, one of the origins really is this myth that we have. This is a bell curve showing an average human being in the middle. This myth that we have about an average human being, and that designing for that average will satisfy the greatest possible population, the greatest possible market. This is an idea that started in the mid-1800s, again, it’s well detailed in a book called The End of Average by Todd Rose, which I highly recommend reading for a deeper dive into this topic.

And one of the real fathers of this idea was Adolphe Quetelet, who was a mathematician and astronomer who gathered massive amounts of data on human beings, measuring their bodily dimensions and using statistical regression to find patterns in that and he found, for the data he’d collected, which I imagine was probably pretty broad outside of Belgium, but was not actually a global sample in the 1800s, probably didn’t travel the world to examine many human beings. But found that that mapped to these bell curves and Quetelet made an assertion that that average, that middle, that average human being, must be the perfect human being and, that any deviation from that was a degree of abnormality. And that idea stuck really deeply in our thinking, both in society and in the way that we create products.

So, what if there was no such thing as an average human being? What if there was no such thing as normal? How would we proceed in our design? What are the kind of assumptions we would make about people? How would we understand people? And I started to wonder if maybe it started with reshaping this shut in, shut out model itself and instead of thinking as a fixed state that we need to achieve or work against, maybe it’s more of a cycle of choices that we’re constantly making each time we go through the process of making something new. And this relationship between who is making those products, what we’re making, the tools we use, and how we do that, who we believe we’re designing for and our assumptions about them, and then why are we making in the first place; what is that purpose that we aim to serve in the world?

So I wanted to take a quick walk through a couple of examples inside of these and how that shift from exclusion to inclusion can start to tip the scales and I believe in any moment, in any choice that we’re making in these areas.

So, one of the contributors to mismatch is John Porter. John has a wall in his home where he’s got mounted up, like on a pegboard, every video game console controller since the beginning of time. And he calls it his wall of exclusion. Because nearly every controller has required two hands to play by design and John doesn’t have two hands to play. He primarily uses speech commanding and different types of switches to fit the abilities of his body. And so if we think about the signal that this simple controller sends, so who gaming is for and who it’s not for, but also the worlds that it gates, the worlds that are imaginative and massive and many roles to be played, if it’s a requirement to have two hands to enter those worlds, that itself is sending a signal of who it’s for and not for. And so John is a designer at Microsoft. He’s one of the members of the team that worked on the Xbox Adaptive Controller and working closely with organizations like Warfighter Engaged and Able Gamers, evolving the techniques that are used in the design of that controller, which led them to the Adaptive Controller, this piece in the middle, with the two circles on it, which takes a variety of different types of input, so a gamer can fit and easily route any controller that fits their abilities to the game that they’re playing. Now you think about who makes the solutions.

So another contributor to Mismatch is a dear friend, Tiffany Brown, who grew up in Detroit, Michigan and I’ll never forget what Tiffany told me when I first met her. She told me that in the history of licensed architecture in the United States, only 400 architects have been female and African American. Which is 0.3% since the beginning of the profession. And this is Tiffany in front of the, her childhood home, which was Herman Gardens Housing Projects, which were razed to the ground when she was 15. And Detroit is a really important and interesting place to have this conversation because there’s a long history of public housing development that has occurred by tearing down entire neighborhoods and building and rebuilding back in their place. And so the picture on the left is a image of the Brewster-Douglas Housing Projects and you can see, even the difference between on the far left, there’s small, kind of town homes and the original homes that were built and how, over time, to the 1970s, these towers started to evolve as the federal government took control of the design of these public housing communities. But that tearing down and rebuilding is a function of who makes these choices and which neighborhood you choose to tear down. It’s a function of who is participating in the conversation on what to rebuild and where to rebuild. And, over time, is shaped the racial distribution of Detroit, which is the image on the right. The red dots, denoting the Caucasian and white American population of Detroit and the blue notes, dots, denoting the African American and black population of Detroit. And those lines between those communities are literally waterways, roadways, and physical structures and homes. So it shapes, again, kind of a shut in, shut out model in real practice.

And so, one of the ways that Tiffany leads her perspective forward in this is as a architectural designer working with young people to introduce them to the profession of architecture, through an initiative called 400 Forward, but then, also, as a architect herself, as an architectural designer. This is a snapshot from a neighborhood right outside of that empty lot where it’s from her grandmother’s front porch. And working with the community that she grew up with to design this neighborhood with the participation of people who once lived there long ago. And so, just a couple more quick examples, how we make, switching from exclusion to inclusion.

This is an image of Wanda Diaz-Merced, who is an astronomer and grew up in Puerto Rico. And Diaz-Merced progressively lost her eyesight as she was in university. And it’s a really big deal to lose your eyesight if you’re an astronomer because most of the data that’s processed and analyzed is analyzed visually. And so what Diaz-Merced did was apply sonification to that data, sounds, even instruments to different types of radiation that she was collecting from the stars. And in essence creating these star songs that would give her the ability to analyze and interact with that data and not just with her peers, but also in a way that was more nuanced and unique to the visual analysis. And so this solution has also gone on to benefit astronomers who use a combination of visual and auditory signals in ways of analyzing that data to get different kinds of nuances.

And the last part of the cycle I like to share is why we make. And this is an image of Morgan’s Inspiration Island, which is a waterpark in San Antonio, Texas. And Morgan Hartman and her parents, Gordon and Maggie, had a hard time finding places for Morgan to play when she was growing up. She has a combination of physical and sensory disabilities and they worked with a very large community of families and children with disabilities and playground designers to create a space that isn’t just an accessible playground. But it is a place where children can really explore independently, make new friends, the sense of adventure. It’s clearly a beautiful environment, but also things like the design of this wheelchair is powered by compressed air, as opposed to a battery. So making it, then, free to go anywhere inside the water features of the park.

And so when I think about inclusive design, the definition that has always been my favorite, and it doesn’t mean that we’re designing one thing for all people. It means we’re designing a diversity of ways for people to participate in a place with a sense of belonging. And that goal beyond access, access is absolutely the fundamental and the starting point, but that shared sense of contribution to one another in a place itself is an outcome of design that starts with recognizing mismatches.

So, this core, the cycle and the choices that we make, each tipping point, each opportunity we have, and we can start anywhere, really is about engaging with people who have experienced exclusion, have experienced a high degree of mismatch, and in any context. Really taking a moment to think about what kind of mismatches might exist? Whose voices are missing? And asking some simple kind of questions, as starting points. You know, maybe who has the most to lose if we tear down and rebuild this solution? If we remove this feature from this product? If we shift the payment system for this grocery store from a human being clerk to a digital point of sale computer, who stands to lose a degree of independence, engagement, participation in society? Whose voice is missing?

And so with that, I really enjoyed the process of sharing this and more in the book. And it’s a snapshot of the cover of “Mismatch”. The contributors and the conversations to this process have been transformative for me and my goal really is to bring our conversations around ability and disability to the top of our conversations around diversity and making that a starting point for how we can think about who’s missing and who we can engage in the process. And Mismatch, we also create content, stories, written by inclusive designers who’ve experienced exclusion. Invitation open to anybody if you think you have a perspective here that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear and share some of those with the broader community. They’re really dedicated to growing and learning this practice.

Thank you.

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