Towards the end of September, the new NHS COVID-19 app launched across England and Wales. All of us need it to be used by the majority of the population and work efficiently for the sake of ourselves, our friends and loved ones. But when you look at it through the lens of inclusive design and how many people it will actually reach, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

On the plus side – and it’s a big plus – it’s available in 10 languages spoken within the UK including Bengali, Romanian and simplified Mandarin Chinese, with two more to follow. On the minus side, thousands of people with an iPhone 6 or older – that’s 21.2% of the UK’s iPhone users – can’t download it. Then when users who had installed the app tried to upload their COVID test results they found that if they’d had a ‘Pillar One’ COVID test – provided by the NHS – they couldn’t – an embarrassing failure that made people suspicious of the government’s motives.

So, a significant number of potential users have been shut out from the new app, and it’s likely that many of them are older and or have lower incomes – the very people most likely to suffer serious consequences from COVID. Another kind of exclusion has also been reported; pubs and restaurants allegedly turning away customers, telling them that they can’t be served if they don’t have the app.

Keeping inclusivity front of mind

It’s perhaps not surprising that a new, complex, rapidly built and large-scale app has issues with reaching a very large number of people. It should be mentioned that the developers responded quickly to the Pillar One problem and have now at least partially solved it. But it also shows us how important it is that no matter how big the project or the budget, every single member of the team should keep inclusivity front of mind or risk criticism come launch day. Ironically the rule for inclusive design is the same as for COVID – test, test and test again.

Words can make a difference

And there is always more work to be done. Moving away from the COVID app, another fundamental aspect of inclusive design is language. The BBC recently released guidance to help sports presenters avoid racial bias, explaining for instance that phrases like ‘sold down the river’ originate in slavery. The fact that an organisation many of us assume to be the height of political correctness needed to do this just shows how far we all still have to go to be truly inclusive in our words.

Rather than becoming defensive if we’re picked up on language or expressions that we did not realise could cause offense, we should see it as an opportunity to grow and become more aware of diverse cultures and the issues people face every day. Welcoming people in with words, rather than making them feel like they don’t belong – what could be more hopeful at a time when we see divisions all around us?

Recognise disability diversity

15% of the world’s population have some form of disability. There are such a large number of us who experience mild to moderate difficulties with particular things that we shouldn’t think of ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ as being opposite ends of a spectrum. Struggling with something – be it a visual impairment necessitating a screen reader, using a keyboard with a broken arm, missing an audible notification – these are all everyday human problems for many of us.

We may design specific solutions for some users who face very significant barriers in using technology. But in general, making digital products easy to use, in tandem with some options for usage so an individual can choose what works for them, means we can embrace the broadest possible audience of potential users.

Inclusive design is something we can all strive for

2020 has been such a stressful and sad year for all of us. The huge inequalities in our society have been sharpened by COVID 19. Prejudices faced by black and ethnic minority people in America and elsewhere have come sharply into focus.

Faced with such monumental problems it’s up to all of us to keep questioning ourselves, learning together, sharing our knowledge to create digital products that remove barriers and allow people to participate equally. By doing our very best to reach our goals of inclusive design, we can strive to make things better, pixel by pixel, day by day.

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