Mismatch Book Cover


How Inclusion Shapes Design

By Kat Holmes



Buy it from: Amazon MIT Press

Inclusion has become a borderline buzzword that many companies like to throw around but few know how to actually prioritize. Mismatch attempts to fix that by helping to provide a framework for how to design and build more inclusive experiences. At less than 200 pages, Mismatch is a brisk read and it’s not going to cover everything you need to know. It does, however, do a very good job of tearing down the blinders we wear and helping to expose designers to the impact of what we create.

Much of the concepts of the book will be familiar if you’ve already read much about the topic, but Holmes’ presentation of those concepts is often unique and, for me, made me consider familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways.

I absolutely loved her use of the term “mismatches” as a way to consider when an experience doesn’t align with the reality of how a person needs to interact with that experience. An example she gives is trying to order from a menu written in a language you can’t read. That’s a mismatched experience. I’ve already started experimenting with using the term in my own work when I’m helping clients to identify audiences who are getting a subpar, or even unusable, experience from their sites. So far, it seems to be getting the point across better than terminology I’ve used in the past.

Some mismatches may seem minor (like, perhaps, ordering from the menu) but as Holmes points out, they add up fast and can lead to a significant feeling of not belonging:

Mismatches are the building blocks of exclusion. They can feel like little moments of exasperation when a technology product doesn’t work the way we think it should. Or they can feel like running into a locked door marked with a big sign that says “keep out.” Both hurt.

The response to these mismatches may be emotional on the part of the person experiencing them, but Holmes is quick to point out that viewing “inclusion” as a “nice thing to do” does it a disservice.

Treating inclusion as a benevolent mission increases the separation between people. Believing that it should prevail simply because it’s the right thing to do is the fastest way to undermine its progress. To its own detriment, inclusion is often categorized as a feel-good activity.

So Holmes tries to be more concrete—both about how businesses benefit from building more inclusive experiences and about the first steps we can take to start improving the inclusivity of the things we create.

She does so with a practicality that is refreshing and encouraging. Trying to design more inclusively, or accessibly, can be intimidating. You want to do the right thing, but you’re worried about messing up what you don’t know. Given the nature of what it means to leave people out, when you do mess up the blowback can be difficult to bear. Holmes advice for building a more inclusive vocabulary applies just as well to starting to design more inclusively in general:

Building a better vocabulary for inclusion starts with improving on the limited one that exists today. Sometimes we will use words that hurt people. What matters most is what we do next.

What happens next is the right question. Mismatch is an entry point, not a conclusion. If you’re expecting something comprehensive, you will be disappointed—there’s a lot more work ahead of you. Holmes doesn’t set out to solve all the problems or give you some checklist to follow to suddenly be more inclusive (though she does give several tangible “to-do’s” at the end of each chapter).

What she does is more important. She gives us a gentle nudge towards thinking more inclusively about what we design and build. More than any checklist, it’s this way of thinking that stands to provide the most significant change in the way our experiences impact people. We’ll never build a perfectly inclusive experience, but we can make changes to the method we use to create to help us eliminate those mismatched experiences one by one, allowing more people to benefit from what we build, and for us to benefit from their participation in the process.

A few highlights:

Designing for simplicity tomorrow will be impossible unless we make the effort to understand the underlying complexities of how we design today. If we don’t, we’ll only create more mismatches. We’ll create experiences that are simple for people like ourselves, only.
Designing for inclusion starts with recognizing exclusion.
Treating inclusion as a benevolent mission increases the separation between people. Believing that it should prevail simply because it’s the right thing to do is the fastest way to undermine its progress. To its own detriment, inclusion is often categorized as a feel-good activity.
For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly. A cycle of exclusion permeates our society. It hinders economic growth and undermines business success. It harms our collective and individual well-being. Design shapes our ability to access, participate in, and contribute to the world.
There’s a strange irony when a group of people who are passionate about inclusion ostracize a person for saying the wrong thing. This is common across different languages and cultures.
When we create new ways for people to contribute their talents, their contributions influence everyone.
Whether by lack of awareness, siloed decisions, or simple neglect, it can be difficult for organizations to drive toward inclusion if they don’t have a full picture of how their existing culture perpetuates exclusion. As a result, the default state for most organizations is a cycle of exclusion.
Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging.
By stretching our assumptions about the purpose of an object or environment, we can explore how that solution flexes to be whatever a person needs it to be. The signature trait of an inclusive solution is how it adapts to fit each unique person.
Ideally, every new product or project would consider inclusive design from the beginning, as a way to proactively save time and resources. There would be no retrofitting required. More feasibly, inclusive design needs to happen when and where it can, while always pushing to happen earlier in the development process.