Kat Holmes became aware of inclusive design when working a few years back on Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated assistant.
She was part of a perfectly talented team of engineers and designers, but at some point they realized that there was a serious issue with their group. None had ever been a personal assistant and lacked needed insights for building an electronic version of one. They consulted folks with firsthand experience, but then hit another stumbling block. They were building a device that relied on voice interactions, but didn’t have anyone at the table who regularly used speech tools — perhaps due to limited vision or typing challenges — to understand how those users engaged with the technology.
“That ‘aha moment’ flipped the way I thought about expertise,” said Holmes.
This new awareness so captivated Holmes that she was principal director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft until last year, and recently took the role of director of UX Design at Google. Later this month she is releasing a book called “Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design,” which includes a plug from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Holmes is also speaking at the GeekWire Summit in October.
The concept of inclusive design is actually pretty straightforward, though it can get confused with universal design and accessibility; the issues are related but not the same. And in some ways, it’s also fairly straightforward to implement.
“Inclusive design is a method for designing products that considers the full range of human diversity,” Holmes said. “The most important aspect is including people in the design process who have been excluded from using a particular category of products for a very long time.”
That means if you’re a video game company, for example, begin your product development by first consulting with or hiring people who don’t use traditional controllers with joysticks and tiny buttons. Perhaps they use a modified controller or voice commands instead.
Embracing inclusive design not only grows a company’s customer base, but can result in a better product for a wide audience. It also extends beyond the hardware and into interfaces and the content of games to make sure they resonate and work for a broad profile of customers.
Part of what makes Holmes’ work rewarding is the positive response that she gets from engineers and designers when she points out issues with their products. Instead of people reacting defensively or dismissively, “what I have seen over and over again,” she said, “is the moment when someone recognizes that something has led to exclusion, they want to fix it.”
We caught up with Holmes for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: Officially, Kirkland, Wash., just east of Seattle. But I spend a lot of time on the “nerd bird” to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Computer types: IBM ThinkPad and MacBook
Mobile devices: iPhone 8, Google Pixel 3 and Microsoft Surface tablet
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Spotify
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I am 100-percent mobile. Wherever I am is my workspace. When I was writing my book, my workspace usually included my black hoodie and headphones, too.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? No one can do it alone. Have the right people around you at all times.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I use Twitter to connect with communities and get a sense of what conversations are happening in those communities.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Zero. #inboxzero
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? Well, I have 13 meetings just today. So, 65 in a week.
How do you run meetings? The teams I work with are all over the world, so the format has to be as inclusive as possible yet focused to make the most of face-to-face time.
Everyday work uniform? Usually dark denim and a comfy shirt — and heels if I’m feeling fancy.
How do you make time for family? Family is the starting point. I make time for everything else.
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Ax throwing
What are you listening to? JJ Cale, Awkwafina, Janelle Monáe
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? NPR is my go-to.
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan plus a bunch of nerdy tech books.
Night owl or early riser? Night owl
Where do you get your best ideas? On the plane, offline
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I love Tina Fey. “Bossypants” is one of my favorite books. I also love film director and producer Ava DuVernay and how she approaches creative collaborations.