Inclusivity in the Design Process: An interview with Sandra Camacho

Are you a designer interested in making a systematic change? Do you feel as though your voice isn’t heard in your industry?

I recently interviewed Sandra Camacho, also known as Sandra by Design, the creator of the Inclusive Design Jam community. Our conversation covered the importance of bringing diverse perspectives into the design process, expanding the definition of what it means to be a designer and the consequences of poor cohesion between teams.

What is the ‘Inclusive Design Jam’ and why would it be useful for anyone to attend?

The Inclusive Design Jam is a global learning community of changemakers who envision a future that is more just and equal. The goal is to bring a collective of people together who are committed to making the use and access of products, services and environments equal to all. If you want to help drive cultural and systemic change in how products and services are designed, we’d love to have you join us.

You’ve launched the Inclusive Design Jam and did the first initiation event a month ago. What inspired you to take the lead and run forward with this particular programme?

It’s all tied back to my experiences at Google, where I worked for eight years. I was relentlessly on this journey towards designing for social impact but couldn’t really find a way to make this happen within the company. I decided to leave and go off on my own to create an inclusive design practice as an independent practitioner.

Over the years, I had the chance to be welcomed into many wonderful communities tied to diversity, equity, inclusion and design. But a common pattern that I kept coming across was the fact that these communities were very North America centric. There wasn’t really a space I found that was truly decentralised, from a time-zone, geographic or even cultural perspective. Working in inclusive and equitable design, I found that there was something lacking in the space — something that could center a more global perspective and involve all continents.

That’s what motivated me to create the community. As an independent practitioner, there’s only so much you can do on your own. I found that community is really one of the greatest ways to drive more systemic change, especially from an industry level. It’s about getting people involved who aren’t just designers. Rather, anyone who’s involved in imagining and building solutions that real people will use, from engineers to marketers, copywriters, product managers and beyond.

I think that one of the key challenges related to diversity, equity and inclusion work is taking a critical look at yourself and considering how you may be unintentionally complicit in reinforcing patterns of oppression. The Inclusive Design Jam is the space to do that; it’s inclusive and intentionally decentralised and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a designer or not. In fact, we’re expanding and challenging the very definition of what it means to be a designer.

As someone who has worked in the corporate field, what do you see as the barriers and hurdles for brands that are not embracing an inclusive approach to design?

There’s a lot to unpack here. I tend to work with smaller organisations - anywhere from 10 to 1,000 people. I’ve noticed that for a lot of companies, when they think of inclusive design, they think first and foremost of diversity, equity and  inclusion. They’re really at the beginning stages of the journey of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and see it as purely a people-related topic. For instance, they’re asking questions about hiring a more diverse workforce, ensuring that staff feel included, looking at pay equity from a gender perspective and debiasing the recruitment and interview process.

A lot of the questions tend to unfortunately fall under an umbrella of HR, which is a missed opportunity to see DEI as something strategic that cuts across the entire business. It’s not necessarily a cost or problem to be tackled purely from a people perspective, but an opportunity that can be streamlined and integrated across all units of the business.

On top of this, I think that there also isn’t really a clear understanding of what inclusive design actually is. I think this is tied to the history of other related design approaches, such as universal design or designing for accessibility. I would say that the pressure to design for accessibility comes from a legal standpoint. When we do see inclusive design from organisations, it’s usually through a lens of compliance where they’re forced to create applications or websites that meet a certain set of accessibility guidelines to avoid lawsuits.

But the thinking isn’t always intersectional in nature. While compliance leads to more accessible experiences for people with disabilities, organisations aren’t necessarily critically assessing how they are potentially excluding people from across multiple identity groups. The lines are really blurred between accessibility and inclusive design. 

My definition of inclusive design is designing for the full range of human diversity. This means that we're not only just designing for ability and trying to remove the challenges or the barriers that people with different levels of ability may face when using a product or service. We’re also looking at identity from a multifaceted perspective and understanding how patterns of oppression, such as racism, sexism, transphobia, classism and homophobia, show up when we design products and services. We need to question how we can better meet a broader range of needs, especially those of marginalised users, and also consider where we can reduce harm and the perpetuation of stereotypes and bias.

We face a big barrier in shifting the mindset beyond compliance and toward seeing inclusive design as a strategic lever for business impact and ultimately human impact. Inclusive design opens up tremendous opportunities to do good in the world, where organisations can truly start to forge a balance between purpose and profit.

However, in this world of capitalism where organisations need to see an immediate return on investment, it’s very difficult for them to see inclusive design as something that can transform the business and society.

You spoke earlier about the breadth of identity that could join the Inclusive Design Jam. If somebody was feeling apprehensive about coming along to your event, how would you help them feel at ease?

I’ve tried to create an onboarding journey that introduces new people to the community and walks them through the first steps of their learning journey with us. When people sign up to join, they receive a series of emails with the basics — I start with defining diversity, equity and inclusion and exploring how we can redefine what it means to design and who can be a designer. My goal is to expand these definitions. Being a designer isn’t contingent on having gone to design school or having a degree to “do” design. In fact, anything can be designed. In that sense, anyone can be a designer.

That’s one of the biggest points I try to make – it's not just about digital products and services, which is what a lot of people default to when they think of design (for instance, thinking of the work of a UX or UI designer). But really, design is about decision making, and what we’re doing here is trying to rethink and be much more intentional about how we make these decisions. What we decide ends up having an impact on what is imagined, built and deployed to people.

I think, a lot of the time, people who are entering this space can get intimidated by the jargon. They don’t understand what you’re talking about, and language can be a bit overwhelming – even terms like power and privilege, like what does that mean? For me, the start of the journey is just getting people on the same page on what these terms actually mean and demystifying some of the concepts. The next step is to get them to connect with other people because I think one of the most important things is to feel that you’re not alone in this work. There are many people who are at different parts of the journey and that’s where the community element kicks in — making genuine connections and having real conversations with people at all sorts of levels of experience within the group.

Let’s say you’ve got a product designer or software engineer who feels inspired to create that internal movement. How would you suggest that they take that initial first step to creating change, in the face of any systemic challenges and corporate barriers?

What I’d like to suggest is focusing on three fundamental questions tied to inclusive design: “Who are we?” “Who are we designing for?” and “How are we designing?”.

The first is about questioning what type of people, in terms of identity and lived experience, and what perspectives are being represented within a team. When I say team, this could be the actual team members, any contractors that you’re working with, or your business partners. It could even be any external advisors who are outside of your team working on a specific project. You can start by doing a positionality exercise, which means looking at all the different dimensions of identity that are over and under represented within your extended team. This is everything from race, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, geography, ability, neurodiversity and so on.

The second question, “Who are we designing for?”, is all about thinking about which people your solutions are meant to serve. It means rethinking terms like ‘average’ or ‘target’ customers, which tend to privilege certain groups of people over others. You want to ask yourself, how have different customer segments been defined in the past? How may your biases and privilege show up in the assumptions being made about your users? If you are doing user research and testing, what types of people are being represented in your panels and what perspectives are missing? team. There usually tends to be a correlation between the types of people you’re designing forband the representation of identity and lived experiences that you have in your team. So if your team is predominantly white male and heterosexual, the unique needs and challenges of users who don’t share these identities will likely be overlooked and not considered.

For the third question, I would recommend having a discussion with your team about how they are designing, with an emphasis on trying to make some of the imperceptible parts of culture and workflow perceptible. What I mean by this is starting to break down the processes that we follow when we design new products or services, or even building new features. We need to consider how we make decisions, who is involved in the process and whose voices have the most influence. This is where we start to explore power dynamics and the criteria that is used to determine what gets built and prioritised. Through these critical discussions, you can start to reflect as a team on the ways that bias shows up and what incentives and OKRs need to be put into place so that inclusion and accessibility are prioritised from the beginning rather than getting deprioritised and pushed aside at the end.

Are there any brands that you believe are nailing inclusive design?

It’s tough to say whether there are brands that are completely nailing inclusive design, because it's an ongoing learning journey. But I would say that I do consider Microsoft as a pioneer in this space because I think that they’ve done a fantastic job of building products that are inclusive and accessible. The first product that comes to mind is the Xbox Adaptive Controller that they created a few years back. You could see through their award-winning marketing campaign that this was truly a holistic effort to work with people with disabilities across all phases of the product development process, such as identifying their needs through direct research and co-creating the product with them. The clear messaging in their marketing campaign was really successful in reaching a wider audience of both the general public and fellow industry players to educate and inspire them to follow their lead and start thinking about accessibility. They showed that accessibility and inclusion are not just moral imperatives but also open up new market opportunities. So, for me, I would say that Microsoft has done fantastic work in this area and set the model for other tech players to follow.

A second brand would be my former employer – Google. They have done really great work in the space too, though their approach has been more intersectional in nature and with a lot more emphasis on equity. It’s important to be able to distinguish between inclusion and equity; inclusion being designing for the widest range of human diversity and ensuring that people from those communities are included in the design process. Equity, on the other hand, refers to breaking down structural barriers. It means creating products that drive systemic change within an industry by making sure that all people have access to such products, even from an economic standpoint.

I’ve been following Annie Jean-Baptiste who heads the Product Equity efforts there, and I think they’ve done great work on the education front, and I think that’s where the future lies. It’s about first doing the work internally (building products that are equitable and inclusive and trying to transform internal processes) and secondly, being able to share their learnings with the world.

To me, those two brands are doing such a good job because they’re putting things into practice internally, but they’re also making that concerted effort to educate and inspire others in their industry.

At your initiation jam event, you share a fascinating case study on the power of inclusive design at a product level, but show where great work can become undone when the product moves into a marketing cycle. Why do you think that disconnect happens?

If you look at things historically ,where inclusion and diversity has really come into the picture within organisations — at least outside of people and talent — is in marketing. We’ve seen many brands make an effort to include people from diverse backgrounds and identity groups within their marketing campaigns, their website, their TV commercials and social media. This is the world of multicultural marketing, where the focus is to promote diversity in terms of what the customer actually sees, which has existed for a very long time. 

Inclusive design has emerged after these efforts. We can see that some marketing teams have already been doing inclusion work (to varying degrees) although it’s never been tied to an end-to-end process around inclusion. Many product teams, on the other hand, haven’t really been doing any inclusion or equity work from an intentional standpoint. The challenge in embedding inclusion across product design and marketing lies in the fact that there are many organisations where cross-functional work doesn’t really happen in a very smooth way, meaning there are gaps in communication. This is not specific to inclusion and equity work, but it’s tied to how teams work in the first place. 

Great inclusion work coming undone in the marketing cycle is then just a symptom of dysfunction that already exists within the organisation or that disconnect between the teams. This usually indicates that there isn’t really a set of unified principles and processes around inclusion and equity that cuts across multiple teams. It could also be tied to the fact that inclusive design can sometimes be owned by one specific team, such as the design team, rather than being integrated across multiple teams. You could have a product or design team doing inclusion, but there's not necessarily any cohesion with other teams, such as marketing. 

What role do you think recruitment plays in the progressiveness of inclusive design?

I think it plays a huge role. There is a division that exists between DEI, from a traditional perspective of “Human Resources”, and inclusive design, meaning the methodology used to create products and services. To me, they go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other. You can’t design more inclusively without diversifying the perspectives that are represented in your  team. And recruitment is the key to that. However, simply hiring a diverse group of people is not enough to build products and services more inclusive. It’s vital that contributors from marginalised groups are given the ability to fully participate in decision making, internal conversations, ideation and problem solving. Otherwise, you end up with diversity without inclusion. And it’s the combination of both that truly unlocks business value and social impact.

We also have to look at how leadership is recruited and hired. This is something that often gets overlooked when it comes to recruitment. It’s not just about diversifying contributors at the bottom of the organisation. Companies need to hire leaders who stem from underrepresented groups. But they also need to look for candidates who, regardless of their identities, have cultivated skills of inclusive leadership, such as active listening, empathy and compassion. These are characteristics that aren’t usually seen as valuable or as must-haves in leaders but that are critical for doing this equity and inclusion work.

This is because leadership can either be a fantastic lever for change or a difficult barrier that serves as a ceiling for the potential impact that a product and design team can have. Teams need room for experimentation and a budget to diversify their user panels, through hiring contractors or designers that come from different backgrounds. And leadership can make or break their ability to change how they work. 

What is your ultimate goal for Inclusive Design Jam?

My future vision is a world where inclusion, equity and justice are built into products and services by default. We’re far from this world, as much as I aspire to work towards it in the community and in partnership with purpose-driven organisations that care about social impact. My goal in the long run is to transform design education, to redefine what it means to be a designer and to open up design to many more people.

There is an elitism that exists in the design world; certain people are deemed to be designers, whilst others are not. We need to expand this definition and critically examine how aspiring designers, marketers and product managers, for example, are learning things like design thinking and innovation. We need to ensure that we integrate layers of equity and inclusion into the heart of these disciplines so that we don’t end up in the same boat as we are today — meaning that equity and inclusion are afterthoughts or add-ons to existing processes.

This is why some of community work is tied to advocacy and figuring out how we can establish partnerships with schools and corporate organisations that will ensure that aspiring professionals can learn about inclusion and equity as early as possible in their careers. Having a strong level of understanding of these terms, concepts and approaches from the beginning of their career will allow them to engage with this work more effectively once they get into the workforce. 

How do people get involved with Inclusive Design Jam?

Coming to an Initiation Jam session is really a fantastic place to get started. We run them every single month and you can sign up for this on our website at initiation jams are focused on getting to a sense of shared language, so that you don’t feel lost or confused about what it means to design for inclusion and equity.

Secondly, you can request to join the Slack community, because that’s really where the magic happens. Not only do we have great conversations, but you can also get access to our community jams. Community jams are improvised workshops where we engage in knowledge transfer and hands-on learning with fellow community members and with experienced practitioners from around the world.

You can find out more about the Inclusive Design Jam at

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Glen Duncan

31st August