May 22, 2024

Digital Inclusion is Not Just an Add-on for Tech Policy and Development

The tech world is abuzz about the possibilities that Web3 and the metaverse can offer. Yet, approximately 2.2 billion people living with visual impairments stand to face barriers in perceiving these virtual worlds. The exclusionary nature of the internet and technology is not new, as users globally are excluded from reaping its full benefits based on factors such as gender, age, disability status, sexuality etc.

For years, the internet and technology has been criticized for being inaccessible to millions of users, and amplifying existing inequality in society. In addition, technology tools designed for the most innocuous of functions often end up being reappropriated for malign purposes.

For instance, Apple Airtags, which were designed to help people find their keys, are being used as a tracking tool by abusers. As a result, there is an increased focus on design as a tool against inequality, and as a stage in product development where potential harms and points of exclusion could be identified and mitigated.

5 Digital Inclusion Frameworks

In a bid to aid technologists in designing more equitable products and policies, Policy, an award winning civic tech organization based in Uganda, has developed a handy guide “Inclusion, Not Just an Add-On”. This guide introduces designers to a range of frameworks that they can rely on to flesh out the possible risks that their creations could pose to different sets of users. The frameworks are as follows;

1. Safety-by-Design

This framework calls for the embedding of safeguards for technology users in the initial stages of design processes, and not as a measure to mitigate emerging risks. It requires that users know how to navigate and use safety controls, and that content policies are understandable to all and fairly enforced. It also demands that technology service providers take responsibility for any safety risks that emerge from their products.

2. Privacy-by-Design

PBD is an approach that calls for the integration of key privacy safeguards in all stages of the development of a technology product. It emphasizes that privacy is determined by context, and that different safeguards should be embedded to protect diverse sets of users. This approach is also one that is legally required in the European Union (EU) by the GDPR.

3. Gender-by-Design

This framework requires that technology products reduce the possibility of the gendered exclusion of users by having considerations around areas such as content policies, accessibility, affordability, privacy, and security. It also emphasizes the responsibility of designers to subvert gender norms and biases that technology helps to perpetuate.

4. Accessibility-by-Design

This framework addresses the exclusion and restriction of user experience for people with disabilities(PWDs). It requires that technical foundations as well as user interaction and visual design aspects are built to enhance accessibility of products by PWDs.

Inclusion Persona Stories

digital inclusion persona

To illustrate how these frameworks can be applied to practical situations, the Inclusion, Not Just an Add-On guide uses an array of persona stories that introduce designers to different contexts.

  • Jemima, a middle-aged woman from rural Uganda, paints a picture world of users from low-internet access regions and the unique issues they face such as low digital literacy, high internet cost, and poor connectivity.
  • Through Adnan, a queer refugee living in a European country, we see the experience of vulnerable populations with online harassment, digital surveillance, and high internet cost.
  • Lastly, Luca, a 13 year old Romanian boy with visual impairment, introduces us to the world of users with disabilities. Through his story we see challenges such as inaccessible interfaces, high cost of assistive devices, and ableist language.

With persona stories that illustrate the complex lives and contexts of people globally, the guide makes a case for why intersectionality is an important principle that designers should embed in their policies and products. Due to user’s multiple contexts, identities and standpoints, it is important that technologists understand why it is no longer effective to use a universal persona in  design because people are complex.

This approach to design flattens the way interactions between people and technology look like in the real world, and completely misses out on the nuances of how diverse audiences appropriate technology’s affordances. As a result, the tech industry spends so much time fighting fires and putting in place inclusive measures and safeguards for different users and geographical markets as a way of mitigating bad press or as a shiny “add-on”. With intersectionality, designers can have this diversity in mind from the start.

5 Recommendations for Inclusion

As connectivity grows, it is important to consider the needs of all users to create platforms that are truly digitally inclusive and responsive to the needs and safety of everyone. For designers to effectively do this, the guide concludes with a set of principles that designers can center in their work to guide development of equitable policies and products.

  1. Accessibility: Consider that different users perceive and encounter different barriers and constraints when using technology, and design systems that match their needs.
  2. Inclusion: Consider that your users are diverse, and embrace design choices that appreciate the full range of human diversity.
  3. Localization: Consider that users from different parts of the world feel valued when products mirror their realities and are culturally adaptive.
  4. Non-discrimination: Ensure that you offer fair and unprejudiced treatment of your diverse users, and that benefits are evenly and equally distributed
  5. Collaboration: Acknowledge that your users are experts over their lived experiences, and that partnering with them enriches their experiences on platforms.

Authors: Clive Tatenda Makumbe, Digital Marketing Researcher, and Neema Iyer, Founder at Policy