XXVIII.3 May - June 2021
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Refactoring design to reframe (dis)ability

Elizabeth Churchill

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In 2014, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum had an exhibition focused on "designing for people," a phrase inspired by Henry Dreyfus, the post—World War II pioneering designer [1]. The exhibition, entitled "Beautiful Users," featured the work of Thomas Carpentier [2]. An architect by training, Carpentier has several projects focused on designing for bodies that challenge notions of normal or ideal bodies, such as Protagoras's "man, measure of all things," Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, or Le Corbusier's 1948 Modulor Man, which embodies "a range of harmonious measures to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and mechanical things." Le Corbusier's normative/normalized body drove many of his own architectural designs—designs that therefore favored some bodies and some physical movements and motions over others. For example, it may be hard for a caregiver with a baby stroller, a visually impaired person walking with a guide, or a person in a wheelchair to turn around in some of his hallways. In favoring certain bodies and motions over others, Le Corbusier's designs embody systems of power, accommodating those who fit the "norm" and othering those who do not; specifically, the designs prioritize maleness and reinforce normative and restricted notions of able-bodiedness.

Carpentier's work challenges these kinds of restricted bodily "ideals" [3]. He depicts bodies that are extended, augmented, deformed, perfect, transformed, and moving, shapes that are intended to challenge what he calls out as modern society seeking to "rationalize, classify, and standardize goods and services of every kind." He states:

Architecture cannot escape from this agenda: spaces, programs, uses, dimensions, individuals, values, and thinking tend to conform to standards rather than explore the possible. Human bodies, as the basis of the larger system, are also subject to standardization…The body is not standard…This project imagines architectural forms and spaces for extraordinary bodies.

In a related project, Carpentier reworks the Bauhaus architect Ernst Neufert's Architects' Data, a classic standard of modernism originally published in 1936. The reworking showcases the diversity of human bodies, and the inspiration that architects can get from designing from these "non-normate" [4] bodies. Deviation from the standard in order to accommodate different bodies highlights the ways in which diversity and equity of experience can be designed for. Examples include: Borg Queen, who has only a head and a chest, the rest of her body being an accessory; Arnold, a bodybuilder with prominent shoulders who needs extra-wide door openings at shoulder height; David, a legless dancer who lives at a different altitude and whose home has furniture installations that allow him to move in the same plane as his partner; and Genie, who lives inside a lamp. While somewhat whimsical, these pieces are certainly provocative.

Too often accessibility is an afterthought, with check boxes and legal guidelines or standards grudgingly adhered to in the most minimal of ways.

This brings me to critical disability studies (CDS), the topic of this issue of Interactions. CDS analyzes disability as a cultural, historical, relative, social, and political phenomenon. Coming from a very different standpoint from Carpentier, CDS nevertheless intends to challenge our thinking about the notion of the normal when it comes to thinking about bodies and minds. Scholars in this area look to social norms whereby particular mental, bodily, and behavioral attributes are considered to be impairments, and where abilities that do not conform to the norm are seen as "dis"abilities. Social conditions surrounding and driving stigmatization and inclusion/exclusion are addressed head on and unpacked, with a view to introducing new, more inclusive perspectives.

In our world of HCI and UX, I have been considering how products we design are created, and how we can create the conditions under which our products accommodate more diverse ways of being, where inclusion and equity are central considerations.

There are of course a number of approaches to design that have consciously engaged with the question: For whom are we designing? Usable design is perhaps the most specifically focused on a particular set of users (often too little examined and referred to as the user), addressing whether those users can achieve a specified set of tasks in a particular environment. Universal design attempts to expand the concept of usability to all people, inviting designs that need no adaptation for specific ability profiles. Inclusive design, another area of practice, critically engages the notion of benefit and harm—who benefits and who is potentially or actually harmed. From such an analysis, scholars and practitioners of inclusive design outline risks, look for contingency measures, seek potential appropriations (good and bad), and identify opportunities for improvement. Most common in the product and service design, though, is an engagement with accessible design. In most contexts, accessible design is explicitly focused on accommodations—"accommodating" people who have disabilities. While clearly an important design sensibility with clear approaches for evaluating the extent to which products, platforms, and services are accessible, too often accessible design takes a checklist and minimum-bar approach, and is often about minimal fixes long after the product, platform, or service has been designed, engineered, and sometimes launched. That is, too often accessibility is an afterthought, with check boxes and legal guidelines or standards grudgingly adhered to in the most minimal of ways. This afterthought tendency is baked into how we learn about software engineering, computer science, and interaction design; in too many courses and curricula around computer and engineering sciences, accessibility as a design focus is often an elective taken late in a course, not a foundational principle from the very beginning. In speaking to experts, it seems that this is a remnant of waterfall methodology, even though the technology industry has largely embraced agile methodologies. In response, some in the accessibility community have been recommending the concept of "shift left" testing [5], where testing is performed early in the product design and development lifecycle, following the maxim "test early and often."

Inspired by the ideas of inclusive design and my recent reading in CDS—an area in which I am decidedly not an expert but am an eager learner—I have been reflecting that, in order to bring about any real change in design to more fully design for a diversity of people (that is, a diversity of bodies, minds, and ways of being) and to create more inclusive and equitable arenas of experience, we need to take a holistic and systems view of our design processes and practices. I see four areas to work on for shifting design culture in industry.

An illustration by Thomas Carpentier presents a nonstandardized vision of the human body. The New Standard by Thomas Carpentier presents a nonstandardized vision of the human body.

First, we need to address: Who is doing the designing? What is the culture of production and who is participating? We need to create teams that are made up of a diverse group of people, teams that foreground, seek out, and celebrate diversity. This means: creating teams that reflect a diversity of experience and a diversity in thinking and communicating styles; foregrounding awareness training and reflection; instituting regular and cohesive programs of educational material and events for team members, available to all; ensuring we have workplaces that not only allow for, but actively encourage diverse ways of being; and insisting on leadership communications and positive incentives for teams who put diversity front and center.

Second, we need to consider: What are our tools and processes of production? We need to look carefully at how the products, platforms, and services we create are produced. Are our tools of production inclusive? That is, are the design and engineering tools we use truly accessible to a diversity of designers and developers? Are we excluding the very people who could help us reflect with the most knowledge from the production process? If a designer or engineer with a visual impairment cannot accomplish the same task in the same time frame as someone who does not have a visual impairment, that is not an inclusive and equitable tool. For a community that underscores the importance of empathy in research and design, we are often shockingly unaware of the experiences of people who deviate from ourselves or from "normate" bodies and minds—or, for that matter, people from diverse ethnicities and cultures. I strongly recommend that anyone who has not tried designing or developing with a screen reader get acquainted with that experience. Further, when thinking about our processes, do design brainstorms, design sprints, and design reviews focus on identifying gaps in our thinking or reflect on how narrow our assumptions are of who "the user" will be? Our design processes need to start with a focus on a diverse range of people and use cases, not assume there is an ideal user, with others at the margins. Let's bring diverse perspectives into product proposals and development early, and review the use cases, critical user journeys (CUJs), and personas with an eye toward recommending areas for consideration that are not present. Together, we can become a design culture of critical thinkers and focus on early research with a wide slate of potential users.

Third, we need careful reviews of products, platforms, and services that expressly address where designs are not, but could be, designed for more universality. We need to ask: How are the artifacts and experiences evaluated and iterated upon once created? Let's also ask: Do we have a diverse set of participants in our research studies? If we focus on researching behaviors rather than identifying assumed users, we may be able to shift our focus and create more inclusive products, as well as find areas for potential innovation for everyone. We need ongoing processes of evaluation and review. We need to be prepared to actively look for underserved populations and stress cases (rather than what have been called edge or margin cases, reframing this notion of the center and the edge), explicitly asking ourselves whether we are leaving a part of the population excluded. We need to evaluate for several facets of inclusive design across a wide range of areas (e.g., vision, hearing, motor, neurodiversity), acknowledging that some disabilities are not obvious or easily observable. We need to identify gaps and prioritize transparently.

If we focus on researching behaviors rather than identifying assumed users, we may be able to shift our focus and create more inclusive products.

Finally, it behooves us to explicitly look at products, platforms, and services in the world and see where products are not working for people. When and where are our artifacts and experiences taken up, and by whom? We need to find and acknowledge what workarounds and hacks there are in the world. How are designed-for experiences hacked and changed, and what are surprises to us in those hacks and appropriations? What workarounds exist? What workarounds are we completely surprised by? In a 2008 Interactions column by Don Norman, he explicitly calls for directed observation of workarounds and hacks [6]. He makes the point that we all create workarounds and hacks when we encounter hard-to-use tools. Anytime we do so, this highlights that we all embody variances in our needs and abilities. Such hacks are isolated innovations that may point to areas of potential innovation for everyone. Although I may not use the word extreme for innovative users who create workarounds, I do like Norman's reflection here:

Look to see how everyday people have modified and cobbled together some product with other stuff to try to meet their needs. Analyze how they use duct tape, and mashups, and workarounds. In other words, you do not have to invent; you can copy (and improve) what your clever, extreme users have had to do to accomplish their needs.

And, while we need to commit to telling the stories of inclusive products, of hacks and workarounds that inspire us to make more inclusive products, we also need to be on the alert for where our products and services may put others—non-normates—at risk, or where our products are being appropriated in ways that are harmful. We can conduct heuristic and speculative audits of possible areas of harm. We need to ensure we fund foundational and evaluative research in areas that have been underresearched, and surface areas for investigation. We can take a systems approach to local exclusions and inclusions, and trace back areas of design decision making where we can change our practices and turn toward more inclusive design.

In closing, my view is this: In changing our practices to be more reflective, more critical, and more holistic from inception to production to uptake, we can not only launch products that will be more inclusive, but we can also reveal use cases that open up new, potentially addressable, certainly exciting market(s). This kind of rethinking makes good business sense. Finally, and most lasting, we can also reveal potential for societal change around the very concepts of ability and disability.

back to top  Acknowledgments

Thank you to Szu Yu Huang for reading an early version of this column.

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3. Created for his 2011 degree project at the École Spéciale d'Architecture

4. Garland-Thomson, R. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia Univ. Press, 1997.


6. Norman, D. Workarounds and hacks: The leading edge of innovation. Interactions 15, 4 (Jul.–Aug. 2008).

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Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for over 20 years. Her research interests include designer and developer experiences, distributed collaboration, and ubiquitous/embedded computing applications. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.

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