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Rory Preddy
Rory Preddy

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Making the digital world more inclusive

By Rory Preddy, Azure Audience Developer at Microsoft

For most of human history, we’ve put our innovative capacity into improving the quantity of life. Because we’re living longer, our focus is starting to shift toward improving our quality of life - Bill Gates.

In recent years, Diversity and Inclusion have become core principals of how we work at Microsoft. They have not only defined our internal culture but also shaped how we approach our mission to help every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more.

Accessibility is integral to meeting this goal.

Microsoft’s approach to diversity and inclusion has spread to programming and product design in order to increase accessibility to technology and the digital world.

Defining accessibility in a digital world:

But what is accessibility exactly? It’s when products and services—including electronic media—are designed in a way that everyone, including people with disabilities, can fully experience them.

Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives. Microsoft Design defines disability as mismatched human interactions.

In order to improve accessibility, we need to design products and solutions that are inclusive and allow for people’s differences.

Inclusive Design across the spectrum:

This is where the concept of Inclusive Design becomes so important. Inclusive Design is a methodology, born out of digital environments, that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.

There are three core principals to Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Process.

  1. Recognise exclusion: designing for inclusivity not only opens up our products and services to more people, it also reflects how people really are. All humans grow and adapt to the world around them and we want our designs to reflect that.
  2. Solve for one, extend to many: everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities. Designing for people with permanent disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people universally.
  3. Learn from diversity: human beings are the real experts in adapting to diversity. Inclusive Design puts people in the centre from the very start of the process, and those fresh, diverse perspectives are the key to true insight.

Inclusive Design says that if you design for a spectrum of personas rather than have a bolt-on solution to cater for accessibility, it will lead to innovation.

Persona spectrums make a good business case. By designing and catering for these personas, you increase your customer base and possible target audience.

Say you’re designing for someone with one arm and in your market, there are roughly 26,000 people with one arm as a permanent disability. By designing for these people, you also develop solutions for people with a temporary wrist injury or a broken arm, and folks with one free hand in a specific circumstance (like new parents lugging a baby around), giving you exponential opportunities to grow your client base. The total population for this spectrum – people who are only able to use one arm for a myriad of reasons - is 21 million people (Microsoft Inclusive Design toolkit).

The next step is to align your innovation to the user journey on your website, app or system. So, when someone with one arm is using your website they might need mobile access, landscape formatting and responsive design. And if they can’t type with their hand, you might have to give them a voice prompt.

When you do this, you include a variety of spectrums. For example, people with mobility issues battle to click fast but so do elderly people. Again, you are catering for more than one spectrum.

This is core to Microsoft’s approach to inclusive design. Defining those spectrums, and then looking at how we can innovate once we have those journeys and spectrums defined.

Some of Microsoft’s recent innovations include SeeingAI, a talking camera app for the visually impaired which narrates the world around you, the Xbox Adaptive Controller and the increased accessibility in Office.

Legislation driving standards:

Recent legislation is helping to standardise accessibility on the web. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are part of a series of web accessibility guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, the main international standards organisation for the Internet. It defines how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.

The codes shape how we at Microsoft program for accessibility. In March we announced the open sourcing of our Accessibility Insights for Windows and Accessibility Insights for Web, as part of our commitment to empowering developers to build more accessible online platforms and tools.

Fighting biases in AI to make it more accessible:

The next evolution in Inclusive Design is the world of Artificial Intelligence. AI is a powerful tool and, like all tools, can be used for good or ill. There are countless examples of biases being built into AI. Responsible AI, which is at the core to our approach, is about ensuring that AI functionality is accessible.

This is why Microsoft has an Accessible AI team, which strives to make products and services accessible for all customers.

When accessibility is part of the design of products and services, inclusion can be built-in versus be an bolt-on.

A more accessible future:

The majority of people in the world are touched by accessibility issues, whether personally or through a family member or friend. When societies and organisations are inclusive in their approach to accessibility, they design products and services that can be seamlessly used by everyone.

AI adds layers to personalise to each person’s individual needs. In today’s digital world, we have an incredible opportunity to explore its great potential and to answer difficult questions around how we create the next generation of accessible technology and the wave of innovation that comes with it.

Now, more than ever, accessibility is not only a human imperative but a business imperative for all organisations.

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