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Designers look to make better design decisions to include groups they usually forget.

PHOTO: TOMMY KORAD, R/GA - Designing for Inclusion took place at digital agency R/GA in the Pearl District, known for its work with Nike.  The building has a ramp and a lift for wheelchairs.

Humans have blind spots, and designers sometimes reflect them.

That was the message at digital design agency R/GA Portland last week when it hosted a panel on the subject of the changing design landscape and inclusive design.

R/GA focuses on human-centered design. The company is known for its product and services work for Nike such as Nike On Demand and Nike+ Fuelband, as well as activations like the Nike A/R Jordan experience.

"To use technology, you push the frontiers of design," said Tara Moss, R/GA Portland's managing Director.

Tim Allen, a partner at Microsoft who coordinates design across their many products, showed a 2009 video of an African American man at work showing how a camera that was supposed to track faces did not work on him. The man brought his female, white, middle-aged colleague into the frame and it tracked her perfectly. When he slid back in, nothing. Allen showed another video from 2017 which showed the problem hadn't changed.

He also showed a still of a man in a wheelchair looking up at a set of stairs and two escalators. "Who can tell me what this man's disability is?" he asked the room. The correct answer came from a young woman called Tatiana.

"I don't think it's his problem, I think it's the impassible structure that was created," said Tatiana.

Allen concurred.

"It's not his personal condition that makes him disabled, it's the design decision. The people that created the building, and they excluded this population, and there probably wasn't any intentional malice."

Designers should go with the World Health Organization's new definition of disabled, from a personal health condition to a mismatch between a person's abilities and the environment or society that person dwells in."

He said that artificial intelligence has crossed a line, where it is now solving problems once reserved for humans, with skills such as language and perception. In 2012 the error rate in conversational speech achieved parity with humans. That is Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and even Cortana are supposedly better listeners than humans now. But that's less the case if you are rural, non-white or a non-native English speaker. He then showed a funny YouTube video of a woman explaining how to "speak southern" by doubling syllables.

PHOTO: TOMMY KORAD, R/GA - (L-R) Sammi Needham Executive Creative Director, R/GA Portland; James Keller, Sr. Director of UX, Firefox; Tera Hatfield Design Director, Torch; and Tim Allen, Partner, Microsoft, talking about how design can include all sorts of people.

Telephone voice

"A functional challenge has become a social challenge," said Allen.

More and more people are reverting to their carefully enunciated "telephone voice" when dealing with phone menus and smart speakers. "What we reserved for strangers we now use at home."

Since such algorithms rely on data to improve, the less people use their real accents on them, the less these voice assistants learn, creating a "bias loop" or vicious cycle.

If you think of Microsoft as Windows, Office and Xbox, you might be surprised to hear Microsoft has a slogan: "to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more."

"That's 7.4 billion potential geniuses," he said, he said, using the term liberally.

Allen's prescription: 1. Recognize exclusion. 2. Learn from diversity. 3.Solve for one and extend to many.

As an example of the latter he showed a tear-jerking video about the Xbox Adaptive controller. Instead of usual handheld this looks more like a drum pad. Kids without fingers or hands talked about how they could now play games with their friends and really show off the reaction and social skills that able-bodied can more easily display. (The concept of the video was the popular "unboxing" format, with the subtext that video gaming is wholesome.)

Other examples were close captioning, which can help people learn to read, curb cuts and the bendable drinking straw, which was designed by an engineer Joseph Freedman for his short daughter.

The message was that privileges can be small and unnoticed by those who hold them, and technologists need to be aware of that.

Running back

Sammi Needham hosted the event. Needham is the Group Executive Creative Director at R/GA, and orchestrates the Nike creative group across the New York, Portland, and Los Angeles offices. He has worked on Nike, Samsung, Google, YouTube and Quirky.

"Every decision we make can raise or lower barriers to participation in society," said Needham. "It's our collective responsibility to lower these barriers though inclusive products, services, environments, and experiences."

Tera Hatfield, design director at Torch, said that much architecture and design centered around Le Corbusier's Modulor Man, who looks like a running back. "It's this hyper idealized human body, the healthy able-bodied male, which is problematic. Which is why climate control is geared to men in suits, which is why it's really cold."

Hatfield works in mixed reality, "where the understanding of physical environments and perception and differing abilities comes into play." She noted we're moving away from screens to smart glasses, and we should keep in mind designing for people who are blind or deaf as we design these technologies.

James Keller, senior director of UX at Firefox (Mozilla's browser) said their mission was to make the Internet safe for everyone, and that old mission was more relevant than ever. "That safe space is threatened because of security and the lack of discussion of ethics in that world." She manages a team that is trying to be mindful of just that.

"The browser world has a known paradigm where we have gone horribly, horribly wrong and are trying to make up for these problems."

Keller praised Mozilla's open source heritage and its strong community with contributors on every continent. "They hold us accountable to serving their needs."


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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