Who Are You Designing Your Learning For?

Remember the swings on your playground from childhood? Remember how they’re built? There’s a wooden or hard rubber seat and two long chains hanging from a metal bar. That design inherently either invites someone to run to it and play, or not. The swing requires people with two arms and legs, a certain degree of strength, a minimum height to get on it, the ability to create momentum, and also overcome that slightly nauseating feeling when you drop from up high.

The swing is a signal of invitation, but only if you fit a particular profile. It naturally excludes quite a lot of people. Personally, I get dizzy.

What if the playground designer asked a different question – a question about the intended outcome of the experience. Maybe the question would be, “How do I make exercising enjoyable for more types of people?” That’s a very different question and would suggest to the designer they build something entirely different, depending on who they were trying to invite. How something is designed is a gesture of invitation to some, and not others.

To use another example, my wife is left-handed and constantly points out how she is excluded from even the most simple products. Pick up the pen on your desk. Hold it in your left hand. See? The writing is upside down. Right-handed bias is everywhere. Scissors, can-openers, mugs, some knives are serrated on only one side, the list goes on.

Ask people to define exclusion and they will have many different answers, I wasn’t invited to the meeting…everyone was speaking German at the reception…I didn’t know to wear a tie…my wheelchair didn’t fit through their doorway…. But ask anyone what inclusion means and they will all say it means to feel welcome and comfortable.

According to the World Health Organization, a disability is “a mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live.” Designer Kat Holmes has similar thoughts about the design of product and experiences. While she admits it’s near impossible to achieve complete inclusion, you can design for the audience you are trying to reach.

Sometimes efforts of inclusion intended for one audience, help other groups in surprising ways. Automatic sliding doors first appeared at grocery stores in 1954 when the customer stepped on the mat in front of the door. It was intended to help people pushing carts or with armloads of groceries. But it quickly caught on, and installed elsewhere, to help people pushing strollers, or in wheelchairs.

In a wonderful example from Kat Holmes’ book Mismatch, she tells the origin story of the typewriter. The Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri and his lover, the Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, were trying to figure out how to continue to send love letters to one another. The Countess was losing her sight and was definitely unwilling to dictate her steamy love letters to someone else to write down. So Pellegrino devised the first typewriter so she could continue to write her own messages by knowing the location of the letters on the keyboard.

A surprising benefit about inclusive design stories is that the original innovation often later gets coopted for another purpose. But the original design is focused on a particular, often niche, audience.

The same is true in learning experiences for your company. When the experience is learner-centric for your audience, your culture, and your objectives, the content is stickier and people are more likely to act on the ideas presented. The result will be specifically, elegantly, and purposefully yours. Let us help.

We’re in the middle of a website design overhaul ourselves, to make our message more specific to the type of custom work we thrive at. We’ll let you know when the new site is read in late August! Subscribe below and we’ll let you know.


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