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What is inclusive design?

Every design decision has the potential to include or exclude customers. Inclusive design emphasizes the contribution that understanding user diversity makes to informing these decisions. User diversity covers variation in capabilities, needs, and aspirations.

It is important to understand the terms design and inclusive design, the ethos behind inclusive design, and the way inclusive design contributes to product success. A number of case studies demonstrate how inclusive design can foster innovation and better design.

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The "What is inclusive design" section was authored by Roger Coleman, John Clarkson, Ian Hosking and Sam Waller


Definitions of design

The process of design may be described as:

"Design ... to form or conceive in the mind, invent ..."

- Oxford English Dictionary (2005)

"Design is a structured creative process ... All products and services are, in effect, ‘designed’, even if not by a professional designer."

- Department of Trade and Industry (2005)

"Design is the purposive application of creativity to all the activities necessary to bring ideas into use either as product (service) or process innovations"

- Bessant (2005)

"The configuration of materials, elements and components that give a product its particular attributes of performance, appearance, ease of use, method of manufacture"

- Walsh (1992)

"Design is the process of converting an idea or market need into the detailed information from which a product or system can be made"

- Royal Academy of Engineering (2005)


Oxford English Dictionary (2005) Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK

Department of Trade and Industry (2005) Economics paper 15: Creativity, design and business performance. Available from www.dti.gov.uk

Bessant J, Whyte J, Neely A (2005) Management of creativity and design within the firm. Advanced Institute for Management and Imperial College, UK

Walsh V, Roy R, Bruce M, Potter S (1992) Winning by design. Blackwell Business, Oxford, UK

Royal Academy of Engineering (2005) Educating engineers in design. Available from wwww.raeng.org.uk

The Millennium Bridge in London.

"Design ... to form or conceive in the mind, invent ..." (Oxford English Dictionary, 2005)

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Definitions of inclusive design

The British Standards Institute (2005) defines inclusive design as "The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible ... without the need for special adaptation or specialised design."

By meeting the needs of those who are excluded from product use, inclusive design improves product experience across a broad range of users. Put simply inclusive design is better design.

Inclusive design is not:

  • Simply a stage that can be added in the design process
  • Adequately covered by a requirement that the product should be easy to use
  • Solely about designing products for a particular capability loss
  • Naively implying that it is always possible (or appropriate) to design one product to address the needs of the entire population

Inclusive design should be embedded within the design and development process, resulting in better designed mainstream products that are desirable to own and satisfying to use.

An introductory video on inclusive design is available on the About us section of the Designing with people website.


British Standards Institute (2005) British Standard 7000-6:2005. Design management systems - Managing inclusive design - Guide

Philips (2004) The Philips Index: Calibrating the Convergence of Healthcare, Lifestyle and Technology. A web-based survey of 1500 internet users aged 18-75, www.usa.philips.com

Graph showing that although a relatively small number of people are excluded, far more have difficulty or are frustrated with technological products.

Philips (2004) found that about two thirds of the population as a whole have difficulties with technological products

This photo shows someone struggling to open a welded plastic toothbrush packet by hand and then resorting to the use of a bandsaw.

Attempting to open this plastic welded packaging proved to be impossible by hand, so this user tried more drastic measures

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Ethos of inclusive design

User centred

People within the population have a range of different capabilities and skills, past experiences, wants and opinions. Many organisations already carry out market and user research. Commissioning such research at the right time, with the right focus and within an appropriate design framework enables valuable insight at little, if any, additional cost.

Population aware

A typical misguided viewpoint is that someone is either disabled or fully able, yet a wide spectrum of capabilities is clearly apparent within any population. An understanding of quantitative population statistics can also inform design decisions.

Business focused

Every decision made during the design cycle can affect design inclusion and user satisfaction. Failure to correctly understand the users can result in products that exclude people unnecessarily and leave many more frustrated, leading to downstream problems, such as increased customer support requirements that can ultimately reduce commercial success. Conversely, successful implementation of inclusive design can result in a product that is functional, usable, desirable, and ultimately profitable.


Ethos of inclusive design

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What is needed?


The product must provide suitable features to satisfy the needs and desires of the intended users. A product with a large number of features is not guaranteed to be functional!


Easy to operate products are pleasurable and satisfying to use, while those that place unnecessarily high demands on the user will cause frustration for many people and exclude some altogether. Frustration with, or inability to use, a product can lead to a negative brand image. In the extreme, prolonged difficulties with poorly designed everyday products can even convince people that they are no longer able to lead an independent life.


A product may be desirable for many reasons, including being aesthetically striking or pleasant to touch, conferring social status, or providing a positive impact on quality of life.


The business success of a product can be measured by its profitability. This typically results from having a product that is functional, usable, and desirable, and which is delivered to the market at the right time and at the right cost.

Figure, indicating with arrows that a successful product must be functional, usable, desirable and viable.

Measures by which a product could be considered successful

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Case studies: B & Q Power to the people

DIY is a popular activity among those of retirement age, but domestic power tools are designed without taking into account the physical impairments resulting from the ageing process. Through a close partnership with the UK’s largest home improvement retailer B&Q and a user-centred research centre, the Royal College of Art, Helen Hamlyn Centre, the design researcher Matthew White was able to develop a series of easy-to-use DIY power tools.

With intensive input from older users, four new or improved power tools were developed. The prototypes received positive feedback from both users and the industry partner. The cordless screwdriver and the palm-sized sander - shown opposite - were taken to market. This case study demonstrates that retailers can drive consumer product development from within and a study of older users can help generate viable inclusive solutions.

A detailed report on this case study is available to download. Also, see the Activities section of the Designing with people website for many other inclusive design case studies, images, videos, and quotes associated with activities of daily living.

The Sandbug and Gofer, which are inclusively designed DIY tools

These commercially successful products were developed from the collaboration between B&Q and the RCA Helen Hamlyn Centre

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Case studies: OXO Good Grips

OXO began with a few simple questions - Why do ordinary kitchen tools hurt your hands? Why can’t there be wonderfully comfortable tools that are easy to use?

In 1990, the first group of 15 OXO Good Grips kitchen tools was introduced to the US market. These ergonomically- designed, transgenerational tools set a new standard for the industry and raised the bar of consumer expectation for comfort and performance.

The annual growth in sales was over 35% per year from 1991 to 2002, and the line now contains more than 500 innovative products covering many areas of the home. The OXO Good Grips line has been recognized by several national and international organizations for superior design. The company’s strategy is based on the primary goals of making products that are usable and desirable.

See www.oxo.com for more information

Photos of a pair of scissors and a potato peeler which have large, soft grip handles.

The handles on these products have innovative designs that make them comfortable to use, and the blades are functionally very effective

Photo of a salad spinner that is operated by pushing down on a large plunger.

This salad spinner requires minimal capability to use, while this jug has a diagonal measuring scale that can be read from above

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Case studies: Easy Living Home

Easy Living Home specialises in ‘the art of the possible’, creating inclusively designed homes that address clients’ physical and aspirational requirements beautifully! Whether it is a whole house, a bathroom or simply a tap.

Alison Wright, founder of Easy Living Home, has been working in partnership with occupational therapist Kate Sheehan and Graham Group (UK’s second largest plumbing supplier). Together, they have developed a new brand of ‘inclusively’ designed bathrooms called LivingWorks which was launched with the first showroom in Eastbourne in July 2007. 

Several of these designs appear in the recent Government document ‘Lifetime Homes & Lifetime Neighborhoods’ as examples of best practise. Alison was also delighted to receive two Kitchen & Bathroom Industry design awards for her ‘inclusive’ kitchen and bathroom designs in the prestigious Kbb Review Industry Awards 2007.

Please see www.easylivinghome.co.uk for more detail.

 an integrated cupboard at the end of the bath has a flat platform that is at the same height as the lip of the bath

This stylish bath storage facility helps to prevent slipping by keeping towels close at hand, while also providing a seat to help the transfer into and out of the bath

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Case studies: BT Freestyle

The BT Freestyle 7xx series was BT’s first opportunity to test its new embedded inclusive design process. BT commissioned The Alloy to carry out initial research and develop concepts which, along with consumer consultation came up with the criteria for the phone in 7 ‘easy’ categories:

  • Easy to dial - Large comfortable keys
  • Easy to read - High contrast and large characters
  • Easy to hear - Comfortable ear bowl, easy volume adjustment and inductive coupler for digital hearing aids
  • Easy to hear phone ringing - Lower frequency ringer and increased size of the call indicator light
  • Easy to understand - No icons, no abbreviations, keys with single functionality, intelligent function hierarchy
  • Easy to answer and end calls - Large, separate keys to start and end calls
  • Easy to see who is calling - 2 line dot matrix display, large characters

Since its launch in July 08 sales have increased 20%. The inclusive design has also minimised product returns thereby improving profitability, despite higher manufacturing costs. Packed with features without compromising on style, the result is BT’s new flagship accessible phone which has proven very popular amongst consumers. See BT's inclusive communications website for more detail.

 photo of the freestyle phone, which demonstrates its simple layout, large keys and contemporary style

Packed with features without compromising on style, BT’s new flagship accessible phone has proven very popular

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Case studies: Triton Safeguard T100 Care Electric Shower

RNIB Access Consultancy Services worked with Triton Showers to produce an inclusively designed shower product for the care market. The product was the first to be awarded the new RNIB Reference approval, which recognises accessible and inclusive design in mainstream and care products.

RNIB's assessment process included a consultation with Triton's designers, a full assessment and user testing. Improvements were made to the following elements:

  • Operating instructions
  • Overall finish and colour contrast
  • Font size and text design
  • Tactile and audible feedback
  • Shower head lever design

The shower is now very easy to use by all, with only two operable parts, clear labelling and accessible user instructions. The simplicity of the design makes it easy to use, especially for those using it for the first time.

The strong colour contrast helps people with sight loss to identify the controls and temperature settings. The tactile markings are also helpful to people with sight loss and the controls are easy to operate for people with reduced strength or manual dexterity.

See the Triton showers website for more information

 photo of a shower unit, which demonstrates a large handle, high contrast text and controls, and embossed symbols for tactile feedback

The Triton Safeguard T100 Care

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Case studies: Factory Wares saucepan

Factory Design won the 2003 DBA Inclusive Design Challenge with their concept 'Factory Wares: an inclusive saucepan', which is shown opposite. The brief for this challenge was to:

"Design a mainstream product, service, environment, print, on-line or other communication which deliberately includes the needs and aspirations of currently excluded groups of people."

The ability to live independently is the key to quality of life for many disabled people. The users with severe arthritis who advised Factory Design all loved cooking but their moment of truth came once the dish was ready and had to be lifted from the heat. It was then that the weight and design of the saucepan increased the pain of their condition and led to accidents.

According to the leading arthritis charity, Arthritis Care, nine million people of all ages in the UK are affected by arthritis and every one of them needs to eat. Visually-impaired cooks have a different set of issues, which relate more to safety and hygiene. Factory Design’s challenge was to create a saucepan that would transform the pain of their cooking experience to one where pleasure is uppermost and where safety and hygiene are assured.

A detailed report on this case study is available to download. Also, see the Activities section of the Designing with people website for many other inclusive design case studies, images, videos, and quotes associated with activities of daily living.

A stylish frying pan with two ergonomically designed handles

Factory design's concept for an inclusive saucepan has two handles that are contoured to fit the shape of the hand, thereby drastically reducing the strain on the wrists.

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