Great design for all

Early April we immersed ourselves in Include 2009, the biannual conference at the Royal College of Art in London. Organised by the Helen Hamlyn Centre, Include is the leading cross-disciplinary conference on the inclusive approach to people-centered design and innovation. About 100 delegates from both business and academia engaged in 3 days of intensive debate, workshops and presentations.

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Overall, looking back on the conference today, my personal take away message is that the inclusive design community seems to be moving to a new and exciting stage. We now know what inclusive design is, we know how to do it, and we know how to explain to others how to do it, but we also realise that simply following ‘the maximum inclusivity route’ does not necessarily lead to the most interesting design. We certainly don’t want ‘bland design for all’, we want ‘great design for all’. On the one hand this design needs to offer everyone the respect and dignity they deserve, and on the other hand it needs to stimulate and challenge people to actively engage and explore the product, service or environment they are interacting with. Only then design will lead to experiences that really enrich our daily lifes.

The discussions on this topic during the conference reminded me of a concept I once picked up from  Stuart Hall, one of my heroes from the field of Cultural Studies. He made a plea for ‘risky stories’ in relation to culture and society, rather than ‘safe stories’. Risky stories  invite us to engage with and reflect on the complexities of daily life. They are far more interesting and challenging than safe stories. Risky stories don’t ignore the contradiction and tensions in daily life, they are engrained in it.  Maybe this is a concept that would be useful in the context of inclusive design as well? I think I would certainly prefer ‘risky inclusive design’ to ‘safe inclusive design’ any day.

Some of my personal highlights from the conference:

The keynote by Amar Latif, who kicked off day 2 of the conference, was very inspiring, refreshing and witty.  He is a remarkably vibrant, young and innovative entrepreneur, with a sharp vision and a deep personal understanding of inclusivity (being visually impaired himelf). Amar certainly seems to accept risks as part of normal daily life. He is all for inclusive design and the underlying quest for independence, dignity and respect, but he stressed that life’s solutions need to be practical and colourful too. He has no patience for people who see inequality as a big conspiracy, he rather addresses the ignorance and/or indifference that supports this inequality. In this respect Amar seems to be quite open for risky stories rather than safe ones.

One of the project-based presentations that stood out for me was given by Liesbeth Huybrechts and Sanne Jansen from the Media & Design Academie in Genk Belgium. They reported on an experience design project around the theme of ‘carefree living in elderly care’. They worked with students, residents of a local elderly home and also a theather group. The theather group immersed themselves for a few days in the daily life in the home, and then blended in during a lengthy visit by the students. Some actors performed roles as residents, others as carers and staff. The students did not know who of the people they interacted with were ‘real’ and who were acting. Based on this experience the students worked on design proposals that were later presented back to the residents in an in-house exhibition. I was pleasantly surprised by the playfulness and yet serious empathic and sensitive approach by the organisers. They seemed ready to take some considered risks in order to get better and more challenging results than just plain safe ones.

One of the more theoretical papers that stood out was by Graham Pullin from Dundee University. On the previous Include conference (in 2007) he had already made a strong plea for ‘good design’ (this may well have set us all in the right direction for this year’s conference). This year he presented a few glimpses of the contents of his new book ‘Design meets disability’. In the book he addresses some of the key issues in inclusive design (e.g. why can hearing aids not be as fashionable as eyewear?) and describes his conversations with leading designers about their views on these issues. I am very curious to read the book.

The workshop I appreciated most during the conference was the one on Design for Patient Safety. In this project an impressive line up of experts from various universities and the health care sector are collaborating on innovations for new mobile treatment solutions (smart pods) and the prevention of medical error. They were very open in sharing their experiences and learnings from developing this collaboration. They have all put in considerable effort to find common ground between their expertises, and did not hide that this is not always an easy ride. But they were keen to point out how much added value their collaboration has given to the project and to the results so far. Hearing this, and benefiting from their generously guided group exercises in the workshop, was very encouraging. In terms of safe and risky stories I would say that they were realistic in pointing out that the biggest barrier to innovation may be the implementation of the innovations within the large organisations.

Finally, a few last comments related to my personal interest in the area of (inclusive) design: the actual involvement of the people for whom the design is for in the development process. I am always curious for new insights on how to facilitate empathic conversations between designers and people, so I tend to keep my ears open for any interesting remarks on this subject. I was very surprised to hear one of the speakers say that although most design students are nowadays trained to do user research as part of the project preparations, they seldom use the outcomes of these studies to inform their designs. I was even more surprised to notice that several people around me nodded and said “that is so true”. Apparently the user research these students do is just to thick a box and then conveniently ignore the results. This is bad news for inclusive design education.

Another remark I noted during one of the morning debates was that studying market trends is not the same as doing research on user needs. This is indeed a confusion you sometimes hear from people in the industry. They may proudly announce that they are ‘studying users’, but if these studies are based on large scale market analysis rather than talking to and observing real people in their daily lifes, then it is questionable if you can really speak of user centered design. But, having said that, these were just some very minor afterthoughts on what was alltogether a very succesful and enjoyable conference.

The work in progress presentations by the research associates of the Helen Hamlyn Centre were quite impressive this year. I am already looking forward to the exhibition of their final results in September!

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