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The Awkward Ally


Wunderman Thompson UK's Head of Experience, Conrad Rasmussen on why the power of design can make things better for people and why fighting for true digital inclusion is even more important post-pandemic

The Awkward Ally

Before we get started, I want to check in for a second. I want to let you know how I’m feeling as I write this. 

I am feeling slightly nervous and a little uncomfortable. I feel that I am failing as an ally most days. I’m afraid of getting something wrong. Even writing those things down, I find it hard to admit and a little embarrassing. My natural instinct is to want to dismiss them and move on to bold, clear statements about allyship in design. 

These feelings are the honest response to working alongside people with a lived experience I do not share. They are the honest response to the fear that I will express myself poorly – and even offend. They are an honest response to feeling that I am not doing enough.

But there’s too much at stake not to get involved. 

Here’s what I believe: I believe in the power of design to make things better for people. 

It’s an incredible privilege to be able to design digital products and services that are used by people all over the world. When we design these things for the largest number of people, we make it possible for more people to experience them – including those living with disabilities. 

And that starts with having the right people involved. Our best work reflects the diversity of people who use the products and services we create, always placing people at the heart of what we make. It sounds obvious, writing it down like that, but it’s surprisingly tough – and surprisingly rare.

We all hear the excuses, like “we just need to get this done” and “I’ve done all I can here”. I understand how hard it is to hire well, test properly and build the new. But there’s too much at stake not to get started. 

As experience designers, we mostly design for screens at the moment, so we obsess about making things accessible – like choosing the right colour contrast or establishing a logical tab order or designing a visible focus state. We always test things to make sure they really work, working with a broad range of users right from the start – not just the ‘ideal’ ones. 

As we design for changing technology and changing expectations, there’s a real opportunity to create things for everyone. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the electric vehicle infrastructure, and I’m struck by how poorly public charging points seems to have been thought through. I wonder if we have been asking the right questions, right from the start, to make this important service accessible.

So here’s what I know:

Great design requires diverse teams. 

Homogeneity narrows perspectives, so we must do everything we can to make sure our teams are reflective of the world we live in and design for.

Great design gives us options.

One size doesn’t fit all, so we must create more ways to get things done. 

Great design opens doors. 

Designing specialist products or services can help us uncover the new, giving us better ways to solve problems we’ve all been living with or making it possible for people who have been ignored. 

Great design requires a posture of humility.

Inclusive design demands better questions, more collaboration and rapid iteration. We must stay curious because what we design today could make all the difference tomorrow. It’s no secret that the last two-three years widened the digital divide, so fighting for true digital inclusion is even more important post pandemic. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Are you a designer? What is one question you could ask today that might help make the thing you are designing be more inclusive?

So, finally, what are the actions we can consider to create better, more inclusive work?

Listen. Really listen.

Assemble diverse teams.

Get started making things together – and keep making them better.

And one action in particular for me is the realisation that this isn’t about managing how I feel – I’m going to check those awkward feelings at the door. It’s time to make things and make them better. It’s time to lean in, for everyone. Because, at the end of the day, there’s too much at stake.  


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Wunderman Thompson London, Wed, 25 Jan 2023 10:07:19 GMT