Inclusive design is a widely-used concept in the design world. The idea is that when you create products, you actively choose to design that product for everyone.
This is particularly important for technology companies like Microsoft. As more and more of our lives become digital, we rely on tech for our livelihoods, our social lives, keeping in touch with our families… everything.
But unlike in the physical world, where buildings with stairs instead of elevators might pre-date our current understanding of inclusivity, new technology has no excuse. And that’s the choice we’re talking about today. The choice to widen your world, and design from a perspective that allows everyone to participate.
You can check-out Angela Glover Blackwell’s piece on The Curb-Cut Effect here: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_curb_cut_effect
This episode features:
Dan Formosa — Designer and Consultant
Angela Glover Blackwell — Founder of PolicyLink
Jenny Lay-Flurrie — Chief Accessibility officer at Microsoft
Sean Marihugh — Escalation Engineer at Microsoft
Crystal Jones — Escalation Engineer at Microsoft
Erin Williams — Senior Supportability Program Manager at Microsoft
SOUND – APPLE PEELING
CRISTINA QUINN: So right now, I’m peeling a golden delicious apple with a peeler. It has a black peeler that has a nice thick black rubber handle, with ridges on the side, so it makes it really easy to grip. And the blade swivels and that makes the peeling very easy, very simple. In fact, it makes me feel like a competent peeler, like I can peel this with my eyes closed.
So, people love this peeler. If you have a friend who likes cooking, they probably have it in their drawer.
DRAMATIC READING: Best veggie slash fruit peeler I’ve found…..and I’ve bought and tried them all — including the pricey ones you buy at home parties. Have had one about 11 years and still going strong. Just bought one for the vacation home. Can’t go wrong with this gem.
CRISTINA QUINN: This gem is the OXO Good Grips peeler — millions have been sold. It is truly The People’s Peeler. But: This peeler wasn’t inspired by the people, it was inspired by one person.
THEME SONG ENTERS
CRISTINA QUINN: I’m Cristina Quinn and this is dot-future, a branded podcast from Microsoft and Gimlet Creative, about making the future happen. Because the future doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of a series of choices that we’re making right now. You can wait for the future to come to you or you can engage with it, and get ahead of the curve.
Welcome to dot-future.
CRISTINA QUINN: So what does a peeler have to do with the future? Well, today, we’re talking about inclusive design. It’s a widely-used concept in the design industry. And the idea is, that when you create products, you actively choose to design that product for everyone.
This is particularly important for technology companies like Microsoft. As more and more of our lives become digital, we rely on tech for our livelihoods, our social lives, keeping in touch with our families … everything. But unlike in the physical world, where buildings with stairs instead of elevators might pre-date our current understanding of inclusivity — new technology has no excuse. And that’s the choice we’re talking about today. The choice to widen your world, and design from a perspective that allows everyone to participate. But, back to that peeler. This is the guy who designed it.
DAN FORMOSA: My name is Dan Formosa. I am a designer.
CRISTINA QUINN: One day, Dan’s colleague got a call from a man named Sam Farber. Sam’s wife Betsey had arthritis and he’d noticed that it was really hard for her to use their metal vegetable peeler. But she loved to cook.
So, Sam and Betsey wanted to create a better peeler and they called in Dan’s team. Together, they created the OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler — inspired by Betsey’s arthritis, but useful for everyone.
DAN FORMOSA: I was at a party reception once, and someone came to me and said, ‘you know it’s really great that you design these kitchen items for expert chefs and for people with arthritis’ and I said, ‘you know an expert chef can have arthritis.’
CRISTINA QUINN: Right.
DAN FORMOSA: And the conversation went a little silent.
CRISTINA QUINN: [laughs]
CRISTINA QUINN: Dan’s point is that it doesn’t make sense from a consumer perspective to divide people based on their abilities. But when you fail to design inclusively, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Being inclusive isn’t just about holding hands and singing kumbaya — it’s also about the bottom line. Because in the digital age, consumers react. Especially in online reviews.
DAN FORMOSA: If you see 200 five star reviews and five one star reviews…you me and everyone else I speak to, read the one star reviews. So, people who are having trouble with the product have tremendous power.
CRISTINA QUINN: Online reviews are a small way that people can use the digital world to critique the physical world, and demand that designers be more inclusive. And in a weird way, one-star Amazon reviews are part of this long heritage in the battle for inclusivity. A battle that began with curb-cuts.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: The curb cut actually started for the very first time in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In Kalamazoo in 1945. They installed a curb-cut but it didn’t catch on.
CRISTINA QUINN: This is Angela Glover Blackwell. And she’s talking about the part in the curb that slopes down so that you can wheel something up and down it. The one you stand on when you’re waiting to cross the street. That’s a curb-cut.
Angela is the founder of Policy Link, an organization that fights for a more inclusive society. And she knows that curb cuts may seem like a no brainer now. But, like a lot a lot of great ideas, it took a while for them to catch on. Until a group of students at UC Berkley got fed up.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: For people in wheelchairs, getting around Berkeley, California or anyplace else in America was virtually impossible. People had to run an obstacle course in order to be able to get to one place to another. Finding a driveway, coming down, going up the next driveway just to try to get around. Before the curb-cut, students had to plan their classes whether or not they were going to be downhill or uphill. Literally it was mapping out a course and going through an obstacle course to be able to get where you wanted to be.
CRISTINA QUINN: This is the late 1960s, early 1970s. The story goes that one day, a group of students who used wheelchairs, who called themselves the Rolling Quads, decided to take matters into their own hands. They were led by Michael Pachovas, an activist and quadriplegic.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Michael Pachovas and his colleagues in Berkeley, California rolled up to a street corner, poured out concrete and created a very crude slab.
CRISTINA QUINN: It was a slab of concrete that smoothed out the curb — creating a concrete ramp. It was a twofold act of protest. The ramp said, we demand to be seen, and to be allowed to participate in the world. But it also said, come on guys! This is so easy! Just pour some concrete. Angela refers to it as:
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: The slab that was heard around the world. And while it was crude, it made the point that if you can smooth out the, the way across a curb, you have created greater access for people with disabilities for sure, but the impact goes way beyond that.
CRISTINA QUINN: The curb cut action helped put the rights of wheelchair users on the map. Within a few years of the so-called Slab Heard Around the World, curb cuts started showing up all over the country. And it turned out that a lot of people were benefitting. Angela calls it “the curb-cut effect.”
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Not only do the curb cuts enable people in wheelchairs who are the most vulnerable trying to get around cities to be able to do so, but you help people push strollers. You help workers pulling carts.
CRISTINA QUINN: Curb cuts also make life easier for everyone…for cyclists, and for people who use canes. Not to mention skateboarders, rollerbladers or kids on scooters.
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I use curb cut effect to mean that solving problems for people who are vulnerable often has an impact on others. Inclusion is not a zero sum game that helping one group does not take away from the whole. To help one group enhances the possibility for the whole to be able to look at someone else and to feel that we all have an obligation to make sure that we can all participate.
CRISTINA QUINN: Angela says there’s a rallying cry among activists with disabilities:
ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Nothing about me without me. That I have to be there as a person with disabilities. If you are planning something about people with disabilities, and anything that you do is actually going to be about me whether it’s designing a city whether it’s designing a building, whether it’s designing software…whatever it is, it’s going to be about me because I am one of the people in the world that needs to access opportunity. So, nothing about me without me.
CRISTINA QUINN: And the thing is, disability is broad. It’s not something that just a few people experience.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: All of us at some point are going to be temporarily disabled.
CRISTINA QUINN: This is Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Whether it’s a broken arm or an ear infection. You’ll want your product to still work for you. Let alone being in your car or trying to open a door when your hands are full as a parent, or just like me with a coffee and a laptop and I’ve got no hands left. Those are the situational opportunities by inclusive design.
CRISTINA QUINN: Jenny’s been at Microsoft for 13 years. But at one point, early on in her career, when she was at a different company — she almost gave it all up. Jenny’s deaf and when she was just starting out, she wanted to hide the extent of her deafness.
The company wanted to promote Jenny, to put her in charge of employees spread all across Europe. But she felt like she couldn’t take the job — a big way that she communicated with her employees was by reading lips, and she wouldn’t be able to do that remotely.
Instead of talking to her boss about it, she tried to quit. She actually went to a grocery store and picked up an application to become a cashier. Luckily, her boss intervened and convinced her to keep her job, but Jenny says the way she reacted isn’t uncommon.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Now, it does seem kind of nuts doesn’t it? But there’s been many moments like that for me and many others.
CRISTINA QUINN: Jenny’s mission at Microsoft is to apply the principles of inclusive design to the company’s products. To make them work better for more consumers. And one of the ways she does that is by ensuring that Microsoft as a company is inclusive. Because even Jenny — the Chief Accessibility Officer — still comes across face-palm situations — where people just didn’t think something through. Take a training session she went to recently.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: It was a day training and I was being asked to sit back to back to someone and you know figure out how to do an origami session by talking to one another, in a very small, crowded room
CRISTINA QUINN: Most of the people in the training room could hear with their back turned to their partner — but Jenny couldn’t.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: And there were a series of those kind of exercises and I found myself getting incredibly frustrated and walking home going dammit. And you know, that’s a minor blip where you just have to get over the personal frustration because it hits you, you know it hits you as a human you suddenly feel excluded and you don’t feel part of the cool gang.
CRISTINA QUINN: It’s moments like that, that drive Jenny in her pursuit of an even larger goal: Ending unemployment for people with disabilities. Because the numbers aren’t great. According to the U.S. Labor Department, among disabled people, the “labor participation rate” — that is, the percentage of people who are working or looking for a job — is pretty low.
For people with disabilities it’s 20 percent or so. For people without disabilities, it’s 69 percent. Jenny hates the cycle that is caused by these statistics, because yes, work can give people meaning, it’s an important part of the human experience. When people with disabilities are unemployed…they’re missing out on the rewarding and practical aspects of employment — like a salary, peer relationships and health care.
And it means that companies are missing out on valuable talent. When people with disabilities aren’t on the job, that means they’re not there to chime in when a design or idea is disastrously bad. It’s easier to make products and services that work for everyone when people with a range of experiences are creating them. So, one of Jenny’s strategies is to hire more people with disabilities at Microsoft.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: You know if we get it right in a product that is relied on by so many people in a work environment or or at home, we can change their daily flow we can change their employment. So, it’s a no brainer for us. We need people with disabilities in the fabric of the company. Doesn’t matter what role, doesn’t matter where, but we need we need that diverse representation.
SCORING OUT/CROSSFADE TO MEETING
CRISTINA QUINN: This is a triage meeting for the team that runs the Microsoft Disability Answer desk. The disability answer desk — basically, a tech support team — is one of the solutions that Jenny is most proud of. When a product isn’t working well for people with disabilities, the desk informs the product teams, and they look for a fix.
At today’s triage meeting, the support team is chatting through a problem that they’ve been grappling with for awhile.
SOUND – TRIAGE MEETING
CRYSTAL JONES: so, within outlook messages, within emails, you can zoom in and out manually.
ERIN WILLIAMS: It doesn’t persist
CRYSTAL JONES: Exactly.
CRISTINA QUINN: This is Crystal Jones. She works on the answer desk. She’s reading a complaint from a customer about Microsoft Outlook….specifically the zoom bar. The zoom helps people get a close-up view of messages in their inbox. But, for this customer, the zoom bar is more of a headache than a help.
CRYSTAL JONES: They want to be able to slide the zoom bar over and magnify it to maybe 200% and they can read that email and go to the email and when they open that up, it’s reset to 100%.
CRISTINA QUINN: Every email the customer opens has the zoom set too small to read, until they change it manually. It’s a huge waste of time. Imagine if every time you returned to your desk chair, you had to adjust its height. It would be super annoying. Crystal doesn’t have to imagine what the zoom problem looks like, because she’s blind. So, she can relate to the customers writing in with complaints like this.
SOUND – TRIAGE MEETING
ERIN WILLIAMS: I would love to see, whatever zoom you want to set persist. Whether it’s 90% or 200% because I like mine at 90 and it’s a pain because you have to reset it every single time.
CRISTINA QUINN: The team agrees that the zoom shouldn’t be doing this. So they decide to keep bringing it up to their colleagues at Outlook, asking for a solution. Erin Williams works on the answer desk.
CRISTINA QUINN: What kind of barriers do you guys face when you’re trying to get something fixed?
ERIN WILLIAMS: Return on investment. That’s a barrier no matter what the issue. If it was accessibility or design or putting a fix into a product that’s released and in-market, if you have to go back and change something, it’s always return on investment. Is it going to be worth opening up the code, changing it, retesting everything and re-releasing it to the public?
CRISTINA QUINN: ROI is just one factor the product teams think about when they’re trying to prioritize what to fix first.
SEAN MARIHUGH: Like, there’s just a lot of things that we can go after, around accessibility, there’s a lot of issues we can fix. But it’s a matter of prioritizing.
CRISTINA QUINN: This is Sean Marihugh, another member of the Disability Answer Desk team. He says it’s satisfying to be a part of breaking down barriers in the digital world.
SEAN MARIHUGH: As we make our products better, that can impact how successful someone is in their employment. How they use technology for enjoyment. So, I think there’s a lot of pieces of that
CRISTINA QUINN: Yeah.
SEAN MARIHUGH: That you don’t get with the physical space.
CRISTINA QUINN: Because the barriers in the physical world can still define how people with disabilities are seen. Sean knows this first hand because he has muscular dystrophy and gets around in a wheelchair…
SEAN MARIHUGH: This morning, I was on the way into work. I was behind someone on the sidewalk and there was a guy cleaning a wall on the building right by and he was talking to the person in front of me and he was like, ‘oh there’s a wheelchair behind you.’ What does that even mean?
CRISTINA QUINN: So, not a person in a wheelchair?
SEANMARIHUGH: Right. Right.
SEAN MARIHUGH: Honestly, that’s one of the things I notice the most. A lot of people just see me as a wheelchair, not a person.
CRISTINA QUINN: Dismissing Sean as a person means dismissing what he contributes — the experience he brings to the table.
SEAN MARIHUGH: I like to think that people with disabilities are inherently good at problem solving and troubleshooting. Just because I often need to troubleshoot or problem solve how I’m getting into a building, or how I’m going to go somewhere or do an activity. So, I think that does lend itself nicely to what I do. It’s helped me get a more logical way of puzzling through things.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: I pick up on other inputs, right. I’m very very visual as someone who’s deaf.
CRISTINA QUINN: Here’s Jenny Lay Flurrie again…
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: And I’ll often pick up on body language in a way that others don’t because I’m looking for it. It’s not a super power. We just use the talents we have in a different way.
CRISTINA QUINN: Talents that she hopes will one day, change the game entirely for people with disabilities — and for everyone else, too.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: I’m here to deliver on the promise that I made in this role, which is to change the unemployment rate and to drive the future of technology and be a role model as a company when it comes to hiring an inclusive workforce, that’s what I want to be known as, as well as the fact that I have a disability and I’m proud of it and I’m very proud of who I am. I would never change it.
CRISTINA QUINN: Dot-future is a co-production of Microsoft Story Labs and Gimlet Creative.
We were produced this week by Katelyn Bogucki, with help from Victoria Barner, Garrett Crowe, and Frances Harlow. Creative direction from Nazanin Rafsanjani. Production assistance from Thom Cote and Ben Kuebrich. We were edited by Rachel Ward and mixed by Andrew Dunn. Technical direction from Zac Schmidt. Our theme song was composed by The Album Leaf.
Coming up next time on dot-future … Work! We spend 40 plus hours a week at our full-time jobs. But “at work” doesn’t have to mean at the office.
CRISTINA QUINN: Do you ever feel like..maybe I’m, you know, I should tell my boss that I’m going to live in India for the next six months? *Laughs*
RAM DEVINENI: I mean technically the agreement was I had to work out of home. And the concept of home, and I’m quoting unquoting here, is very flexible. Home could be…home is where you make it.
CRISTINA QUINN: What the future of where and how we work might look like… That’s next time on dot-future. If you like dot-future, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts! And while you’re over there, tell us what you think of the show by leaving a review. We love reading your DOT feedback! I’m Cristina Quinn. Thanks so much for listening!