Designing an inclusive user experience

Graffiti - two arms and hands forming the word "us"


There is a global shift happening in the way we communicate; it’s not a recent shift, it’s been happening over the past few decades, but it’s finally getting the attention and reaction it deserves. That shift is the realization that we as a population need to be mindful of the language we use so that we do not exclude or alienate others. As designers, we are responsible for creating communications, solutions, and products that are viewed and used by our peers, by the rest of the world, and so we are in a position of great influence to make that shift happen through the design of inclusive experiences.

To accomplish this we need to remove our own biases, to think objectively, and to make inclusiveness and accessibility the norm in all of our work—it can’t just be an afterthought, or a box to check during QA. By creating inclusive experiences through the language and functions implemented in our work we can lead by example and influence a culture of inclusivity for all; a culture which does not exclude anyone from accessing, enjoying, and benefitting from our work because of their gender, language, culture, religion, race, ability, family structure, marital status, sexuality, origin, etc.

Inclusiveness and accessibility are closely related. There are already a lot of great blog posts, resources, and guidelines covering accessibility. This article will focus on some often overlooked aspects of inclusiveness.

Inclusive vs. exclusive language

To understand how we can create inclusive experiences we first need to understand inclusive vs. exclusive language and how it applies to design.

  • The word “inclusive” means to include; inclusive language makes people feel they are valued and accepted.

  • The word “exclusive” means to exclude; exclusive language makes people feel rejected, unvalued, unconfident, and even insulted.

Sounds simple enough in theory but we all have biases which subconsciously inform our decisions and the words or phrases we use, so even those who consider themselves “woke” or even “#wokeAF” may still use exclusive language without realizing it.

Consider The US General Services Administration (, a site where US citizens go to find important information about public services and which is used by the entire population—an incredibly diverse population. It is necessary for their products to be accessible and inclusive so they wanted to make sure their employees were mindful of the language they use in the workplace every day. They published an article on 18F about how they created a Slackbot to correct employees who use the word “guys.” The Slackbot watched for the use of the word “guys” and would ask the user if they meant something else like “team, all, pals, gang, crew, people, or y’all.” It didn’t police their use of the word, but rather offered suggestions in a conversational way and sparked the idea in their minds that this seemingly harmless and casual word may actually alienate or insult their fellow coworkers.

Why is it important to use inclusive language in our work?

Using exclusive language may unintentionally create a negative experience for some users by alienating or insulting them because of a poor choice of words or unnecessary form field. The whole point of UX research, usability testing, and UX design is to thoughtfully create positive experiences for all users, not just for a perceived majority of users. When a user is frustrated because of a bad experience they move on, they leave bad reviews, they tell their friends, they do not come back, and it sticks with them.

One prominent study evaluated counsellors practicing under the American Psychological Association who used exclusive or inclusive gender pronouns throughout their interviews (using generic pronouns to describe both genders as opposed to using more encompassing terminology such as “she or he”). The study found that participants expressed less willingness to see the counsellors who used exclusive language, and considered them to be more sexist—this was especially true for female and feminist participants. The researchers concluded that counsellors should make changes to the language they use to lessen the possibility of negatively affecting their clients.

So how do we think more empathetically?

How do we push beyond our own bias? We ask questions. We seek new and conflicting viewpoints. We expand our views to think outside the box. We reflect inward. We need to first understand our own bias to push beyond it. Airbnb teamed up with NewsDeeply to create an empathy enabling tool called Another Lens “a research tool for conscientious designers” which helps creative-thinkers remove bias and assumptions from the design process through a series of contemplation-provoking questions.

Applying inclusive design

A common area in web and app design that could use an upgrade in inclusiveness are forms used in the collection of personal information. At work, we recently tried to register online for an event which required our gender to be selected from a dropdown menu. There were a few problems with this form:

  • There was no explanation as to why they needed the information and how it would benefit users to share their gender identity.
  • Gender selection was mandatory in order to register for the event.
  • There were only 2 options to choose from.
  • There was no option for users to select “prefer not to say” or to enter a custom answer.
  • Gender information is sensitive and private for many people. Gender is also complex and can be difficult for people to select from a limited list of pre-populated options.

UX professionals need to be empathetic and flexible when it comes to collecting gender information. If gender information is mandatory explain why and how the information will benefit the user. Provide a diverse range of answer options or allow the user the freedom to type their answer. If gender information (or any other personal details) will not benefit the user experience then leave it out completely.

Facebook does a great job of collecting gender information for the purpose of self-expression and creating a better user experience. Users are able to use a type-ahead search that doesn’t imply a hierarchy of genders, enter up to 10 different labels, edit privacy controls for who can view their information, and change the content whenever they want. The users can also select preferred pronouns which they are clearly informed will be public and offers examples of their use (“Wish them a happy birthday!”).

Facebook gender and preferred pronoun selection form

Another great example by One Medical Group on their patient registration form clearly explains why gender information is necessary, offers the user the ability to add more details if they want to, and reassures them that their privacy is valued.

One Medical Group patient registration form

Forms also lack sophistication when it comes to asking users to identify themselves as a specific race or ethnicity. The same advice applies here as it does with gender identities. Don’t ask if it does not benefit the user experience. If you have to ask, think about how you are phrasing the question and provide options! See the below example, a screenshot from an online registration form:

Ethnicity selections on insurance registration form

This is an instance where my own bias comes into play. I was born and raised in Canada, as were my parents, and my grandparents all emigrated from The Netherlands, we are Canadians of European descent, we are by all definitions “white.” Upon encountering the form above—despite its obviously flawed categories, how is “white” an ethnicity?!— I would still not think too much about selecting that option and moving on. For the author of The (frustrating) User Experience of defining your own ethnicity this form was incredibly, well, frustrating. Not only because of the inconsistent and obvious lack of suitable options, but also because it forced them to choose and offered zero flexibility when none of the above options actually spoke to the ethnicity the author identifies with. Race and ethnicity can be complicated and nuanced and is another area where we need to use empathetic thinking so that we can move outside our own boxes and make our users feel comfortable and included.

We as designers—as well as UX researchers, developers, content creators, and project managers—have great influence on the users who encounter our products, and with great influence comes great responsibility. We have the responsibility to challenge what may have been considered ‘normal’ in the past and to push ourselves outside of our own limitations, we must always employ empathy in our decision making, and we must do everything we can to understand our users—all of our users.


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