Shifting the Future Through Inclusive Design

Futurist Alisha Bhagat, developer Kaya Thomas and Public Co-CEO Leif Abraham talk about their work with inclusive design and provide actionable advice to make the future—on and offline—more inclusive.

 photos of Futurist Alisha Bhagat, iOS developer Kaya Thomas, and Public Co-CEO Leif Abraham against a pastel green background

original image for Worklife Now, New, Next

In October 2020, we launched our first annual meeting: Now, New, Next. Through this virtual series, we worked through the growing complexities of a shifting world with musicians, founders, authors, and game-changers in all fields. Didn’t have a chance to attend? No problem. We’re rolling out the info here just for you. Today we’re talking about shifting the future through inclusive design. 

We’re living in an age where anyone—avid gamers to casual gardeners—can find a community online. The potential for connection is astronomical, but still largely untapped. Cultural fault lines that play out in the real world are reproduced online, and it's no secret that social algorithms prioritize polarizing, click-generating content over its more temperate counterparts. 

It can be pretty bleak.

But, other tech futures are possible. Developers, designers, founders, and everyone involved in building new tech can use inclusive design principles to re envision how people interact with and through technology.

In this piece, futurist Alisha Bhagat, iOS developer Kaya Thomas, and Public Co-CEO Leif Abraham talk about their work with inclusive design and provide actionable advice to make the future—on and offline—more inclusive.

Can the Future be Inclusive by Design?

Alisha Bhagat, a Futurist and Senior Strategist at Forum for the Future, spends a lot of time thinking about “who we envision and create the future for and how we might rethink the way that we design for the future.” A good entry point to answering these questions is investigating today’s dominant narratives of the future: techno-utopia, dystopian nightmare, and the vast expanse in between.

“We're thinking about the future all the time,” Bhagat said. “It's in the media we consume. It's often very anxiety provoking to think about the future.” Media like Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Bladerunner come to mind. 

Bhagat explained that anxiety about a dystopian hellscape can effectively block productive imagination. However, the other end of the spectrum poses challenges to the collective imagination as well. 

“Unfortunately we get stuck in this narrative a lot that there's going to be some sort of tech utopia that will save us, especially in the startup space.” Bhagat said. “And this future portrayed by companies and media shows kind of a high tech Silicon valley…And it's usually… inhabited by kind of a young able-bodied cis-gender white person.” In other words, far from a representative population.

Bhagat used images of past decades to illustrate what productive forward movement really looks like.

Black and white photograph. Three Black men sit at a lunch counter. No one has served them food. The man closest to the frame reads. The man in the middle fiddles with a camera. Man to the left looks out of frame. In the background the torsos of passersby are visible.File:Civil Rights protesters and Woolworth's Sit-In, Durham, NC, 10 February 1960. From the N&O Negative Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC. Photos taken by The News
Three Civil Rights activists protest segregation by sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in Durham, North Carolina, 1960. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Image of the frontlines of a march for marriage equality. Protesters walk down the middle of a street. Many hold simple white signs reading “we all deserve the freedom to marry” in blue letters. Protesters in the front hold a banner promoting On the right, someone holds the rainbow pride flag.
Protesters march for marriage equality in San Francisco, California, 2004. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At one point in time, what activists were working towards in the snapshots above seemed downright unattainable. The fight to legalize same-sex marriage took decades. Following states’ ratification of the 13th amendment, desegregating the U.S. was a century-long process. These two battles for civil rights not only required relentless efforts, but a persistent belief that something better was attainable. Both are examples of speculative futures.

“We needed to collectively think it was possible to then work towards and design solutions towards [those issues],” Bhagat said. 

The same is true today. To think big, innovators should first think small. What issues do we take for granted?  What’s been so ingrained in the culture that it feels impossible to overcome? Homelessness, for example, is not the natural order of things. “We can envision a future kind of without these problems and then design products and services to make that future a reality,” Bhagat said.

“If you're investing in startups or businesses, you're inherently a futurist,” Bhagat said. “You're trying to see and believe in the vision of the world, that's inherently different than the world that we currently have in our current reality.”

And it starts with incorporating inclusive design at the core of any future-minded endeavor. 

As a creator, founder, or someone who starts things, you have a unique opportunity to rework the way people live life. Whether you make software or outerwear, ask yourself:

  • Who are you designing for?
  • How can your product reflect this audience?
  • How can you leverage the era of hybrid work to rethink your industry’s standard?

Building in the wake of the Great Resignation and covid-era trends provides a unique opportunity to reject inaccessibility and exclusivity in the tech space. 

Bridging the Gap between Accessibility and Inclusion

It’s critical to note that a team disconnected from their user base is unlikely to move the needle forward in terms of accessibility and inclusion. Where there’s a homogeneous team, there are sure to be examples of non inclusive design aplenty. To produce inclusive output, you need to inclusively gather input.  

In an interview with MIT Sloan Management Review, professor and researcher Evan Apfelbaum shared that the extra effort it takes to work on a racially diverse team pays off in better decision-making. Research with jurors and student groups showed that diverse teams can cover more bases than their homogenous counterparts. This is partly because homogenous groups are more likely to succumb to conformity, leading to weaker decisions and less out-of-the-box thinking. 

Apfelbaum’s take is that building an inclusive company culture can make it easier for workers to level on a diverse team—even when it’s hard—and thus reap the rewards. If team members each have a unique field of vision, they will find more opportunities for engagement that can grow a strong customer base.

The first step to building a diverse team is access (who applies for jobs at your company?) but another, often overlooked step is building an inclusive culture. The concepts are intertwined, but unique.

Kaya Thomas, creator of the book resource app We Read Too and formerly a senior iOS Manager at the Calm App, explained the difference between accessibility and inclusivity with a handy gym metaphor. 

Say a gym owner realizes that many neighbors can’t enter the space because there is no ramp, only stairs. The owner then installs this feature in an effort to remedy the problem. However, Thomas explained, this will not guarantee an increase in membership. People can get in the door now, but the gym experience has not changed. To truly open the circle of clientele and welcome in disabled members, a gym owner would need to:

  • Provide accessible equipment
  • Diversify class offerings and hire differently-abled instructors
  • Run programming specifically for disabled gym members
  • Reevaluate training plans to consider health outside of the current paradigm

Taking those steps would comprise a shift in gym inclusivity, rather than just accessibility. Thomas also explained that another way to think about inclusivity is as a process of welcoming. 

The unfortunate truth is that many companies still struggle with building diverse teams, and even more so with retaining many employees on these teams. For example, Black employees are 30% more likely to want to leave their current positions than White employees. How can founders and CEOs fix this and create an inclusive, welcoming culture? 

According to a survey of over 19,000 Harvard Business Review readers, building a learning-oriented culture is a great place to start. Business admin profs J. Yo-Jud Cheng and Boris Groysberg wrote that this is likely because cultures that promote learning also value:

  • Flexibility
  • Open-mindedness
  • Exploration

All values in stark contrast to the emphasis on authority and safety more prevalent at companies with little diversity. Leaders can avoid creating a culture founded on the status-quo by being open to new ideas, innovation, and even risk. 

If you’re a leader at a startup, you’re poised for success here. Thinking outside the box is your M.O. and you can use this creativity to build an inclusive culture that people actually want to join. A solid team will create a solid product, leading to a solid customer base and solid revenue. A win all around.

Inclusive Design Principles Make Real-life Impact

So what is inclusive design in practice? One of our portfolio companies at Worklife is a great example. Public is an app that makes investing (a notoriously exclusive endeavor) straightforward and approachable. The company’s Co-CEO Leif Abraham explained that “the market seems scary because the culture is scary…And so one big thing that we are always saying is that in order to truly democratize the stock market, we have to change its culture.”

To do this, Public’s team has been mindful about acquiring a user-base that falls outside of investing apps’ normal niche. This means people who come from industries less focused on the numbers. 

Public’s inclusive design is turning out results reflected in the diversity of their user base:

  • 40% of Public’s users are women
  • 45% of Public’s users are BIPOC

While the stats above don’t reflect full parity, they are a far cry from the average investing demographics. One snapshot of investing in the U.S. found that:

  • 73% of respondents who owned taxable investment accounts were White
  • 11% of respondents who owned taxable investment accounts were Hispanic
  • 8% of respondents who owned taxable investment accounts were Black
  • 7% of respondents who owned taxable investment accounts were Asian
  • 1% of respondents who owned taxable investment accounts were Native American

Because investing in stocks is a huge wealth builder, the lack of diversity in this space can continue to widen pre-existing wealth gaps that fall along racial and ethnic lines. These gaps are wide; a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve found that the average wealth of Black families is equivalent to less than 15% of the wealth of White families. Other racial and ethnic groups have a bit more wealth, but are still not reaching the same level as White Americans. 

Closing these gaps is a multi dimensional task, but investing is one pathway to a more equitable wealth distribution. By leading with inclusivity and welcoming the non-traditional investor, Public is a key player in this space.

Public’s dedication to inclusive design is reflected in their staff. For example, Co-CEO Abraham didn’t get his start investing until he was 30. “Every morning, I kick myself in the butt that I didn't start earlier,” he said. 

On Public, Abraham is not alone and getting a late start:

  • 24% of surveyed Public users didn’t start investing until after their 30th birthday
  • 55% of surveyed Public users say they are self-taught investors 
  • Only 18% of surveyed Public users said they learned to invest in school

On Public, those stats don’t hinder people from building their first portfolio. In the app, learning is encouraged and  knowledge is shared. This process of welcoming is what makes Public a unique hallmark of inclusive design. 

“One thing we're pretty proud of,” said Abraham, “is that if you come in as a very new investor, as someone who hasn't really invested much in the stock market yet. And you get started, then you ask something that might seem like a dumb question to someone who is a little bit more experienced, chances are that in our community you would actually get answer.” 

Judgment-free trading with a learning-oriented culture? An inclusive design dream.

Building an Inclusive Design Process 

While a supportive community is a key piece of inclusive design, an even more basic step is making sure the building blocks of these communities are also inclusive and accessible. 

For SaaS companies looking to up their inclusivity game, Kaya Thomas has some tips:

  1. Understand the accessibility guidelines, review the inclusivity resources
  2. Build conversations about accessibility and inclusion into your team’s design process
  3. Audit your platform (manually or with a third-party accessibility consultant)

The first step is the most basic. For a team to create a high-quality, accessible, inclusive offering, they need to understand what accessibility looks like and be able to define inclusive design. Thomas recommends reading the Web Accessibility Initiative’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Americans with Disabilities Act Design Guidelines. These tools cover the basic requirements for your team to build from, and ideally far surpass and exceed.

Thomas also recommends checking out the following resources to learn more about accessibility and inclusion:

  • Haben Girma’s talk at Apple’s worldwide developer conference
  • Disability Visibility by Alice Wong
  • Haben, the memoir of Haben Girma, first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School
  • Apple’s accessibility documentations and guidelines for developers

Once your team understands what they’re working toward, conversations about accessibility and inclusion can flow naturally throughout the design process. 

“This means when you're talking about feature development and you're building your user stories, you really want to make sure that you're capturing all sorts of customers, not just one customer type or segment,” Thomas said. “So think about how this feature can really affect the life experience of someone who is very different from yourself, or very different than your team.”

During the product process, Thomas encourages companies to ask the following questions:

  • What are ways we can improve this feature for folks who experience it differently from ourselves? 
  • Could this new feature potentially alienate a subset of our customers?
  • How can we ensure that accessibility is a requirement and blocker for launch? 
  • How can we automate a part of this process to ensure it's not forgotten?

Beyond making conversations around inclusion the team norm, Thomas emphasized that teams should also look for input from users by running “usability and focus groups with customers of varying abilities and backgrounds.”

Keep in mind that having a diverse group of developers (across all dimensions—from ability to gender to race) will also greatly improve your inclusive design capabilities. Plus, being intentional about your team can help counteract the diversity crisis in software development.

Once your app or site is ready, audit, audit, audit! Thomas suggests doing a manual audit with a screen reader to see if your platform makes sense without any visual input. Another tip is to check color contrast so that apps and sites are intelligible for individuals who can’t differentiate between colors. Thomas also encourages all companies to take internet access into account and QA their products with low connectivity. The goal is for all users to have a quality experience on your platform, whether or not they have a consistent 5G internet connection. Some companies may find it easiest for them to hire an accessibility consultant for audits or to otherwise automate the QA process.

“I want to leave you with remembering that accessibility is the first step, not the last,” Thomas said. “So it’s incredibly important for you to bake in that accessibility, but don't forget to be intentional with making inclusive experiences.”

Companies Built on Inclusive Design

As humanity continues to make technological leaps and get excited by everything from the metaverse to NFTs, founders, startups, and innovative companies can play a crucial role in making these offerings accessible and inclusive. The keys are:

  • Researching accessibility and inclusion best practices
  • Creating welcoming a company culture and digital community 
  • Envisioning a future that far exceeds current possibilities
  • Valuing input from a wide range of sources and stakeholders

“Ultimately,” Bhaghat said, “the future…will be about people and how we think and act together.”

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