Inclusive design starts with representation

Picture of pink, green, yellow and blue post-it notes with looks of writing on them
Ellen Fruijtier
30 Jun 2022

RiDC’s Senior Researcher Ellen Fruijtier on why the effective representation of disabled people in the design process improves products and services for everyone. 

Design research: what is it? 

A picture of Ellen, one of our senior researchers
Ellen, a senior researcher at RiDC

The design of all products and services is based on assumptions about what customers want and need, as well as how those needs can best be met. Every single design has a little theory programmed into it, about how customers should interact with a product or service in order to gain the most benefit from it – or to be able to use it in the first place. Unfortunately, theories are not reality. 

Design research is a research approach that can help developers of products and services to address real needs, develop hypotheses about how to meet them and to test and challenge those assumptions throughout the design process. Ideally this happens before they solidify their designs, but it can also be applied afterwards to understand how existing products and services can be improved.   

It is important that design research engages with a wide range of people to ensure that the end products and services are inclusive and work for everyone.   

At RiDC we provide solid research in order to uncover the needs, desires and challenges of older people and people with a disability. As well as asking how accessible products and services are, we also look at ways to improve, and solutions to how they can be made more accessible.   

We are often asked by organisations to involve disabled people and older people in the audit of their services or products, so they can find out how accessible they are. And we are glad that they ask because involving disabled people in the audit is essential.  

However, it is also the bare minimum that organisations should be doing. And the bare minimum consumers should expect.

"Services and products should not just be designed so that people with a disability can use them. They should be designed so they actually meet their needs. But how often does this happen?"

What else can be done?  

Many organisations have learned to put the user at the heart of their design processes, and there is a growing awareness of the need to design for a diverse range of customers – which is a great start. However, the representation of disabled people in design research has not enjoyed the same level of attention. The infrastructure to properly engage people with a diverse range of needs is often lacking.   

We see this reflected in the research requests we receive. Often, they start by looking at whether or not disabled customers’ minimum needs are met so they can use products and services, rather than asking how they can be developed so that their lives can be made easier.    

Asking the right questions, in the right order 

This first question, to find out how accessible a product is, is often the starting point in our discussion with clients. After uncovering challenging aspects about service design as a result of asking ‘how inclusive are our products and services?’, some companies then go on to ask: ‘so how can we make our design processes more inclusive?’ 

"At RiDC we are delighted to see the focus of our clients’ shift from an interest in audits to an interest in design processes from the outset - as a result of the work that we undertake together. Involving disabled people in design research processes early on is a crucial first step, and engaging them in the auditing of services and products once they are released into society, is second."

A growing awareness that users should be front and centre of designs is a perfect basis from which to talk about designing for all. At RiDC, we marry the tools and processes developed to place users at the heart of product design cycles with a deep understanding of what disabled customers want and need.  

By doing so, we hope it will help organisations ask ‘how can we design for inclusivity?’  and ‘how inclusive are our designs?’ first. Secondly, we hope it will help organisations mainstream accessible design considerations so they intersect with other key design considerations.   

Developing better products and services for everyone  

Disabled consumers have many of the same needs and desires as any other consumers and researching their needs means creating better products and services for everyone. Sometimes organisations are even surprised to discover disabled customers use their products – well, of course they do! 

Improving their accessibility for disabled customers means that businesses not only benefit from the spending power of disabled people and their households (estimated to be £274 billion a year), but enhanced functionality for all customers. In an ideal world, design research with people with disabilities becomes design research – full stop - and organisations perceive disabled customers simply as customers.  

Pushing boundaries 

Perhaps the biggest advantage of conducting design research with disabled customers is that it goes further than usability and accessibility alone. We see this in the way our research panel of disabled consumers is constantly encouraging us to push the boundaries and take on complex challenges. For example, our panel members tell us they want us to use our insights to design in ways that are more accessible AND sustainable. And they are absolutely right, why should they have to chose? 

"As an organisation, if you want to stay ahead of the curve - collaborate with disabled people to find innovative solutions to messy real-world problems. Innovative solutions which come from a necessity to overcome barriers encountered in every day challenges."

If you'd like to find out more about design research, inclusive design and how RiDC can help your business or organisation, get in touch with Gordon, our CEO on

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