Just like it’s common to hang out with people who look like us or have a similar background, it’s common, when designing and creating products, to assume that the people who use them will look like us, behave like us, and use them the same way we do.
In reality, with over eight billion people on the planet, we are of different ages, races, ethnicities, religions, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds; we have different cognitive and physical abilities—in short, there’s no single human “norm.”
As product designers and creators, that’s a reminder that a wide range of people will be using our products and that we should design them to serve different types of people with different backgrounds and abilities.
What is inclusion?
Inclusion in the context of products—and the practice of inclusive design and inclusive writing—refers to creating products that can be used by more people—not just one specific segment of the population, but rather people with different abilities, backgrounds, and more. The idea of inclusion is to include people and to make products available to more of them.
Inclusion isn’t just a buzzword. Here’s why it matters:
- Reach: When you make efforts to include different types of people, you have a better chance of reaching more people. Small tweaks, such as using simple language, which can be understood by people of different ages and with varying command of the language, can help more people understand and use the product successfully.
- Representation: Choices such as using gender-neutral language and diverse examples or avoiding phrases that are racially based (e.g., choosing “allowlist” and “blocklist” instead of “whitelist” and “blacklist,” respectively) helps people feel represented and understood by a product.
- Connection: Inclusive design and UX writing shows that you care about the people using your products and can help you establish a more authentic and meaningful connection with them because they feel that the brand is taking steps to include them.
- Legal requirements: More and more countries and states have passed laws about inclusion and accessibility in digital products, just as they’ve done with public infrastructure, such as adding ramps, handicapped parking spots, and tactile paving for people with limited vision. (Accessibility refers to designing systems so that people with disabilities can access them. Some examples are making it possible to interact by voice or adding captions.)
"More and more countries and states have passed laws about inclusion and accessibility in digital products, just as they’ve done with public infrastructure..."
Inclusion is good for everyone
It’s easy to think about inclusion and accessibility as catering only to people with the disabilities we’re most familiar with, such as a person in a wheelchair or someone who is blind. But inclusion is about much more than that.
For one thing, many of us can benefit from inclusive design at different points in our lives. Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit offers three different categories regarding users who need inclusive design:
- Permanent: These are users who always need to rely on inclusive design, such as a person who was born with one arm.
- Temporary: These are users who may need to rely on inclusive design for a short period of time, such as a person who broke their arm.
- Situational: These are users who may find themselves in situations where they need to rely on inclusive design, such as a new parent who is often holding a baby in one arm and doing everything else with the other.
All of these people might turn to product features that don’t require two hands, such as voice-to-text typing or recordings.
What is inclusive language in UX writing?
Inclusive UX writing helps people of all different perspectives, backgrounds, and abilities feel included and understood by the product.
- Doesn’t limit users to just the male or female genders – It may give a list of many genders to choose from or ask users for their pronouns or, especially in the case of gendered languages, ask users how they’d like to be addressed. In places where the user’s physical sex is needed, such as medical or governmental forms, inclusive writing indicates this and is sensitive about the way it asks. For example, the Israeli money-transfer app Bit simply asks, “What does it say on your ID? Male/Female,” without getting into how the user identifies themselves.
- Avoids slang that will only be understood by a particular age group, race, or population.
- Uses simple language, which is more inclusive for people of different ages, people who may not be native speakers of the language in question, or people with cognitive disabilities.
- Avoids stereotypes about certain populations.
- Avoids ethnic slurs or words and phrases with historical significance – For example, in 2020, GitHub replaced the terms “master” and “slave” with “main/default/primary” and “secondary,” respectively, due to their racial backgrounds. Likewise, Adobe’s style guide, Spectrum, notes that the company avoids terms like “dark patterns.” (“Deceptive patterns” is an alternative that doesn’t have racial connotations.)
- Chooses language that recognizes that users may be using devices and interfaces in different ways, such as “Display” instead of “See” for a user with limited vision who is using a screen reader, or “Enter” instead of “Type” for a user who is using voice-to-text typing.
"Inclusive UX writing helps people of all different perspectives, backgrounds, and abilities feel included and understood by the product."
Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re writing
As a UX writer, you can ask yourself the following questions while you’re writing to keep inclusion and inclusive language at the top of your mind:
- Will users of different ages understand this phrasing?
- Does this make assumptions about users that we shouldn’t be making?
- Have we included alt-text, captions, and more to optimize our text for screen readers?
- Are we using an ethnic slur or making a joke or stereotype about a certain population?
- Will a non-native speaker of this language understand what we’re trying to say?
- Can we choose simpler words?
- Can we break up the text into shorter sections with clear titles, so it’s easier to scan?
Inclusion is a work in progress
While we’re constantly learning more about the wide range of users out there in the world and how to cater to them best, there’s still so much to learn. Inclusion has to be a collaborative effort between the whole product team, since only so much can be resolved with inclusive copy. It’s extremely difficult and highly unlikely that most products will ever be fully inclusive and accessible, but every step gets us closer and brings more potential users into the fold, so they can have a better user experience—and that’s worth a lot.