Kat Holmes on Microsoft’s human-led approach to tackling society’s challenges

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: Building bridges across disciplines, universal vs. inclusive design, and what playground design can teach us about inclusion.

By Mary Treseler
February 2, 2017
Playground in Patterson Park, Baltimore, Maryland. Playground in Patterson Park, Baltimore, Maryland. (source: Jeff Kubina on Flickr)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with Kat Holmes, principal design director, inclusive design at Microsoft. We talk about what she looks for in designers, working on the right problems to solve, and why both inclusive and universal design are important but not the same.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

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Thinking in systems, building bridges

Broadly across Microsoft, I’ll just say, there are so many different types of design challenges that we’re working on. One of the things that consistently is true is that people look to take on some of the biggest challenges facing our society. There’s a lot that comes across the plate of our designers at Microsoft. People who can meet those challenges with an open sense of collaboration and partnership, but also with a very human-led approach to those problems. Really being able to spend time with customers or even just observing people in environments. Not everybody needs to be a full-on researcher, but you do have to have the powers of observation. You have to have the power of human insight to some degree, or at least be able to develop that. Then, you need the ability to translate that into solutions that really, as I said earlier, address a sharp, pointed challenge that a person is having.

That’s broader across Microsoft. It’s pretty wide statement. There’s a lot of specialized skills. When it comes to inclusive design, one of the things that’s most important is being able to think about broader systems. Thinking about things that are interconnected—if you change one thing at this end of the operating system, what are the downstream consequences and impacts of that? Because there needs to be a heightened awareness of the kinds of obstacles that are being either raised or lowered with every design decision that we make. Inclusive designers need to be thinking about that barrier specifically and help illuminate that for our partners across all product teams that are really driving quickly, but may not always see every consequence or obstacle that comes and goes.

Another very important skill for a designer in this space is being able to build bridges across disciplines. To your question earlier about what does design look like at Microsoft, one of the things I’m most proud of and why I love working here is there’s a strong emphasis on designing as an act, as a verb, as something that happens only when you have multiple disciplines in one space. There’s designing as a way of working, unique and distinct from a designer with specific skills and a specific set of responsibilities. In a job here, when we hire, we’re looking for somebody who understands that kind of bridge building that’s required to bring people into understanding the design mindset, the design application, design thinking—ways of reframing and looking newly at maybe very traditional problems or systems. That ability to build a bridge and help other people see as well how that designing journey and process can lead to a better result together is an incredibly important skill.

Universal vs. inclusive

If you design for everyone, no one is satisfied. It’s one of the best and most common questions we get as we do inclusive design. There’s an important distinction, I believe, to draw between universal design and inclusive design. Universal design, in a nutshell, could be summed up as one size fits all. It’s taking a solution and finding many, many ways to adapt or ways to accommodate or add to to make that work for as many people as possible.

Think of the curb cut. It’s certainly a great access enhancement, but you also have to think about the texture that’s on the surface of the curb to make it distinguishable for people with low vision or who are blind, because curb cuts pose quite a serious safety risk for people who are unable to see them or notice the transition into the street. There’s the chirping of the streetlights that also indicates when it’s safe. There’s a lot around that, trying to make that one curb cut, which increases access, safe and also accessible for a lot more people.

When I think of universal design, it is incredibly important. There’s a long history and practice, especially in the built environment, but it is distinct from inclusive design. Inclusive design, in comparison, would consider one size fits one. The one-size-fits-one idea is really about how you adapt something that is plastic, that is flexible, that is malleable and adaptive, to fit not just an individual person’s abilities, but their contexts, their motivations for whatever they’re trying to complete in that moment.

One of my favorite examples is playgrounds. I worked with Susan Goltsman from MIG Consulting in San Francisco last year. One of the most important things I learned from Susan was that inclusive design is about creating a diversity of ways for people to participate in an experience so they have a sense of belonging in that place. When you think about a playground, you can look and observe and say ‘What’s this playground really great at? Is this all about digging? Is it about climbing? Is it about swinging?’ Then look at how many different ways a truly inclusive playground will give children of all ages, sizes, and abilities—how many ways it gets them to participate in that experience of digging or of climbing. Can you reach the highest point in the playground both by climbing the rope and on a graded path that is accessible to a child using a wheelchair?

That diversity of ways to participate really depends on understanding what you’re great at, and that distinction in there makes it possible to find things that give people a way of participating with equity, with dignity, but it’s not about that one solution having to be modified so that every possible contingency of human ability is considered. It’s thinking about multiple ways that people will come into that environment and how they will use that space.

“Designing for inclusion starts by recognizing exclusion”

One of the most fundamental types of bias is, are we designing something that we ourselves could see? Are we designing something that we ourselves could hear or reach with our hands? One of the most fundamental biases is using our own abilities to design products for other people.

Most of that design, at least in the years that I’ve worked in the industry, happens at a desk, in an office, under a certain type of lighting, in a certain type of environment—maybe not too loud, kind of quiet, or a by team that, for the most part, has pretty similar levels of vision or mobility. It is a real important thing to step back and think about not just how would this work for someone who is blind or has low vision or how would this work for someone doesn’t have the use of both of their arms, but to think about how will this experience be used in a noisy, crowded bus? Or in a quiet library? Or a classroom with students with many different learning styles?

Those kinds of biases really take a moment, we find with our teams, to just really sit and think about it for a moment. Then recognize who might be most excluded from using that experience. Who might have the greatest obstacles when using that product? We step back. We think about exclusion through, I’d say, three lenses of inclusion. The first lens would be physical ability. Is there something in terms of how we see, hear, touch, move that somebody would experience a barrier? The second one is cognitive—there’s a lot to explore and learn there. Have we made the learning process for this new feature work for people with different learning styles, or is it all biased toward one learning style? Then the third one is social inclusion. Where in the world is this product being used? It’s not just about language translation, but it’s about cultural understanding.

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