Designing for difference is the engine of innovation

Embracing difference is the biggest opportunity we have to design a diverse and inclusive world. And that benefits everyone.

We know poor design outcomes can be a result of a lack of diversity in design. It is literally dangerous for us. Well, it’s dangerous for women or the people who were not considered in the design. It is what happens when biases influence decisions in the design making process.

As an engineer I understand that it is difficult, expensive and time consuming to design for every possible outcome. In fact, I’d say it’s impossible.

Instead of designing for every single outcome what if we designed for difference?

What would happen if we focused on including just one thing that was at the ‘extreme’ use case for one user that was different? How would that change design, engineering and the world around us?

Could our differences spark design innovations and shine a light on previously hidden design genius?

Design examples from the past show this isn’t a bad idea. There are everyday inventions that exist because they were designed for someone that was ‘different’.

It is because of a blind woman that we have the typewriter, a deaf woman that we have email and a passionate man in a wheelchair that we have curb cuts (or kerb ramps) that make our cities accessible.

Italian inventor, Pellegrino Turri was writing letters in the early 1800s to Countess Caroline Fantoni da Fivizzano. Pellegrino invented the first working typewriter to help communicate with the Countess and enable her to write more legible letters, as she was blind.

The father of the internet, Vint Cerf, wrote the first protocols for the internet and led the engineering of the first commercial email service. Why was he so passionate? Electronic mail was the most direct and clearest way to communicate with his wife, Sigrid, while they were at work as they both had hearing impairments. Cerf advocates, for obvious reasons, that designing for difference should be included at the beginning of the design process.

"It can't be a pixie dust that you sprinkle on top of the program and suddenly make it accessible, which is the behavior pattern in the past," he said. Accessibility should be a design choice that is rewarded, "something a lot of companies have not stepped up to," .

Kerb ramps are an example of design that was overlooked in the original design of footpaths.

Ed Roberts, a polio survivor and the first student with severe disabilities to attend the University of Berkley, advocated for their installation after finding it difficult to travel around the university and the city in his wheelchair. While his advocacy began in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1990 that  design for disability was brought into legislation in the USA. It was brought nationally into Australia in 1992 with the Disability Discrimination Act. Kerb ramps not only help people in wheelchairs navigate the city, they also make our cities more accessible for parents with prams.

Designing for difference is an opportunity. It sparks innovation and, like diversity, benefits everyone.

So how can we design for difference?

There are many differences to design for - culture, age, gender, identity, ability, access to technology.

Firstly, we must accept that the way we have designed things in the past may not have included a range of users. Then we must discover the difference, bring in a different perspective and include this in our design and our decision-making process.

Have a think about your team, your workplace, your network and your environment. How much diversity can you see? What unseen differences are there? Have you engaged with the people around you to understand what makes them the same as you, or not the same?

How often do you ask people who are different from you their perspective and incorporate this into your meeting, decision or design?

If you find that you are not getting (even just one) different perspective, or you are not getting a variety of views, or you might be the one person that is different and it’s hard to speak up about it, here are two tools you can use.

Perspective cards bring in new user perspectives. The cards challenge your perspectives and thinking like imagining your user is agender or Hindu or colour blind. Why not start your next meeting by bringing in a new perspective? See how it changes your thinking and the conversation.

Microsoft is incorporating difference in their inclusive design methodology. Although it originates from the digital world, it is applicable for other design environments; even beyond the design process. The methodology “enables and draws on the full range of human diversity” which means “including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.” Take a look at their inclusive toolkit 101 which is “for those who want to make great products for the greatest number of people”.

Designing for difference is one way to create a diverse and inclusive world. Not only will it benefit people who are different, it benefits everyone.

Necessity might be the mother of invention, but designing for difference is the engine of innovation.

Felicity Furey