Designing for Diversity


6 min read
18 Aug

David told me, ‘I'm Irish, originally from Dublin. I'm a product designer, I've spent most of my life designing things for other people. I live between Bristol in the South West of the UK and Amsterdam, where I  have spent the entire duration of this current pandemic. It’s important to say that I classify myself as an extrovert. I can't sit still.  I am also highly empathic and very emotional. I crave a balanced life with a mix of some high-octane urban engagement, but with rural recharge. I seek out the green and the blues of the mountains and the lakes of the world.

Nook came about due to frustration, as many things do. I feel like that we're still kind of stuck in an Industrial Revolution mindset, only now our factories are white-collar, with rows of workers at desks and we call them open offices. And I feel like baked into this format is mistrust and an unfortunate tendency towards designing to prevent the small percentage of advantage-taking that goes on. It stifles the most important, and to be brutally honest, the most expensive asset in an organisation, its people.

I think that the open office was designed by extroverts for extroverts. I know that because I'm one of them. I also know that there's a better way. So one of my philosophies is to design for the extremes to benefit the mean average groups. I genuinely believe that when you design inclusively, you benefit everybody. And so Nook is my attempt. I'm no Google, and I don't have the power of a global organisation behind me, so I wanted to create something that could work very much in the middle market.

I’m mindful that the majority of the workforce sits in the middle of the market. They’re in smaller companies that don't necessarily have a head of employee engagement or a diversity and inclusion lead. They’ll have a business owner or an office manager.

I wanted to help people find a withdrawal space from the open office so that they can reflect, recharge and connect better with colleagues. I also wanted to help organisations take tangible steps forward that are affordable, sustainable, adaptable and add value.

The Nook Look

Nook looks like a little house and that's absolutely a play on our need for shelter and protection, which we don't get in big open spaces and open offices. In its most common form, it's for two people to sit opposite each other, work separately together, or to collaborate. It's soundproof and it's got enough shelter to feel protected and to stop you from feeling like you're in the spotlight, which I think is a real problem in the workspace, but not too much that it isolates you and disconnects you from the environment. You still feel very much part of everything that's going on around you and you're reachable, but it's put you in this kind of invisible bubble without excommunicating you.

There’s lighting that you can control, which is an important aspect of allowing people an element of autonomy over their environment. It's got the right acoustics. It's got power for your laptop and your mobile phone. It's got a generous workspace on two levels. I very much subscribe to the notion that a clear workspace is a clear mind, but not everybody subscribes to the same thing. What I wanted to do was make it possible for you to put your coffee, your wallet, your bottle of water, anything that might clutter up your space up on a separate shelf, and that keeps the space there free for you. There's also some space underneath the seats for storage, and then one critical component is that it's mobile. It's on heavy-duty lockable casters, so it can move around really easily. It helps your space to adapt in the long-term or even over the course of a day. Co-working spaces tend to move them around quite a lot compared to a small office environment where it might go against the wall and be used as a break out space or somewhere for meetings when you have people come in.’

The Nook Experience

I told David I had recently spoken to somebody who has used a Nook. They described it as one of those things that you just have to experience. I asked David whether he agreed that when people step inside the Nook they have a visible physiological response.

‘Oh yes. We started this in 2016 and after 4 years it still shocks the hell out of me. It shouldn't anymore, but it does. There's this kind of two-stage experience effect that it has on people. The first is very much a “What? How? I was just out there and everything sounded tinny and high frequency, and a little disturbing for my brain and noisy. Now I just sit in here and it's still open and yet everything just got quieter and all the high-frequency irritating stuff went away. Everything feels so much calmer.” The best way for me to talk about what it does is around the response to it. So I try not to describe it too much and not to be too scientific about it and stick to the responses to it.

The responses are also emotional. Personal stories from Nook users are phenomenal to me. They're surprising. They're moving. People open up when they are asked about their experience in the Nook. We ask, "Why do you come here? What do you enjoy about it?" They talk about their difficulties with noise and distraction, but they also talk about their ADHD, or if there's autism involved, dyslexia. People talk about how Nook helps them to settle and to feel calm, therefore more able to focus, engage and connect with people in a better way. That's fundamental and it's joyful to hear.’

Accessibility Inclusion

When I heard about Nook, I just loved the look of it. I emailed David and asked if it’s wheelchair accessible. As a wheelchair user,  I've worked in offices where you have these booths where you can go to concentrate and work and I often have accessibility challenges. The doors might open inwards, so you can't get your wheelchair in and then close the door behind you. There might be a step up into the booth, so you can't get a wheelchair in. The booths might not be big enough to get a wheelchair in.

I was immediately impressed because David said, "Actually, we have been experimenting with wheelchair accessible versions of the Nook." So I asked him to tell me a bit more about the accessibility and why inclusive design was so important in the product creation.

‘I remember our original communication because we were struggling with it. We were falling down because we didn't have anybody in the organisation who would need to use the Nook from a physical accessibility point of view. So we reached out to work with organisations like AmbiSpace who build sensory environments, The Well Trust, the charity Mind and the Wales Ability Network to talk about these things.

Why do we bake accessibility inclusion into our product? It goes back to that point in my introduction about empathy and about believing in a better world, and I believe that our true capability as a species is yet a long way off but to get there, we get there inclusively.

To be able to achieve a true sense of purpose and belonging in our workplaces and our learning environments and everywhere else too, I think we need to do so in such a way that we all feel togetherness.  That means catering for everybody, being inclusive, bringing everybody along on the journey. I think businesses leave so much opportunity, engagement, power, productivity, superpowers, capability on the floor by not being inclusive, by not truly engaging everybody. I think we need to move forward inclusively and I don't mean just designing for inclusivity, I mean designing inclusively. That means involving people who fall outside of typical, neurotypical, physical typical, however, forgive me if I'm using the wrong expressions, but I want to see an improved world. I want to see us be our best selves and I believe the path to doing that is inclusively. I want to work with people like yourself and I want to work with people who know more about these things than I do and I want them to tell me and tell us how we need to design more inclusively so we can hopefully take steps to make the world a better place.’

Inclusive Design

I also think that people working within diversity and inclusion need to have a user experience and design mindset. Before I got into diversity and inclusion, I used to work at the BBC in the design and engineering department. We would develop audience-facing products like the BBC iPlayer, which is video on demand in the UK, the BBC News website and things like that. My day-to-day job was working with creative directors. I learned a lot from them around human-centred design, inclusive design and I bring that into my work as a diversity and inclusion consultant. Many organisations design programmes and initiatives that try to fix individuals rather than organisations. So I was interested to hear more from David about how he goes about inclusive design.

‘One of the things that I set out to do early on was to be subtle by creating a product that has multiple functions where its inclusivity component is baked-in but it doesn't shout about it. That it's just something that everybody can use, but some people benefit from it more than others. There's merit in affecting the marketplace in a way that it doesn't necessarily understand what's happening. Yet somehow, in between the lines, there is a subconscious understanding of what's happening. So people say, "Oh yeah, these spaces are helping." and, "Oh look, our introverts, quieter people are enjoying it." or "Oh look, the loud people are enjoying it, having a quite a moment in there." It's recognising the different types of brains, I think that different types of people with different types of brains in different types of spaces, even working on different tasks. It's a three-dimensional four-dimensional matrix, that variety that we need from the space.

One size does not fit all in any way, shape or form. But in terms of how we go about designing inclusively, the approach is fully about honesty and about recognising where what we don't know, an element of the known unknowns, known knowns, unknown unknowns, the Donald Rumsfeld factor. It’s also about bringing people into the process. I'm a very strong advocate of the JFDI approach. I won't say what the 'F' is, but the Just Do It parts on either side, is just test and test and test and get feedback.

We got off the ground by partnering up with a wonderful co-working space in Bristol called The Engine Shed. We made our first couple of prototypes and we just threw it in there and we interviewed the hell out of it. We encouraged people to come and use it and try it in different ways, and we spoke to organisations and said, "Look, we're trying to do this, and we think it can help these people in these ways, please come and test it and try it out and be honest with it.

We're almost willing the critique and the negativity around it because through that we learn. It's this cliche of fail fast, fail forward, right? But our human sense is to try and avoid failure, isn't it? Let's be honest, we're trying to get it right all the time, and it makes us feel terrible when somebody criticises us. But if you can get over that, if you can almost do it to fail because of the learnings that come from it and you're willing and open that's when you can create some interesting, beautiful things that will respond to the needs of people. So perhaps not ironically the way to design inclusively is... inclusively. Sorry, that sounds like a cliche. But that's the way to do it for us.’

David’s point about failing fast or failing forwards is interesting to me. I've spoken to many businesses from a personal point of view. I've interacted with businesses or services that have not been very inclusive for wheelchair users like myself. The organisations I admire are the ones that call me back and go, "We're sorry about the experience that you've had, but we want to learn and we want to make things better. And we know that if we make this service better for wheelchair users, we're going to make the service better for everybody else." I've got so much time for those organisations.I've gone on to work with some of those organisations to help them create more inclusive products and services. It's a great way of doing things.

David agreed. ‘That's one part of it. The other part of it is if you're making a physical product at some point you have to put your stake in the ground and launch. You have to get a product out there. You know that it's going to need to iterate and improve and change because, with the humblest of approaches, you appreciate that nothing is ever perfect and that it can always improve. This is our approach, and this is the way Nook has always been designed. How about creating something modular and built to evolve? How about building it in such a way the parts can be changed easily? When we built the product first, whilst it had this element of neuroinclusivity, it was built around introverts and people on the autistic spectrum and wanting to help with that. It wasn't physically inclusive. But we had designed it modularly in such a way that we could eventually take away the floor, so there was no ramp. Take away the table and chairs and put in freestanding, height-adjustable table and chairs, ergonomic chairs that could be taken out where a wheelchair could wheel in instead so that it's as good an experience for somebody in a wheelchair and no compromise whatsoever. But also so that we can go back to customers who bought the Nook four years ago and say, "We can now adjust this for you."

That’s another kind of inclusivity that isn't quite in the spirit of inclusivity that we're talking about, but it doesn't leave anybody behind. It’s designing for the future, future-proofing as much as possible. I think that is an important element of designing inclusively. Design so you can adjust it in the future and that you can go back and retrofit those adjustment changes.’

To wrap up, I asked David what inclusive growth means to him and the organisations that use Nook?

‘I think it’s very much around recognising that the only way that we're going to get to growth, and when I say growth, I'm not talking about the bottom line, although I appreciate that it needs to be commercially viable for organisations to adopt it, but when I talk about growth, I think about growth as a civilization and growth as a society. So inclusive growth, to me, means moving to a future where we're not just doing it to satisfy some corporate responsibility programme, but we're including for the benefit of all to be our best selves, everybody. And not just doing it to tick a box or to satisfy some PR exercise that it's genuinely inclusive but that it's done from the point of view of benefits to all, including benefits to the organisation. It's that symbiosis between the person and organisation.’

The company is about to launch a Nook for the home and are looking at an outdoor Nook too, all of which needs feedback and input. David loves to hear people’s feedback and ideas so do get in touch. You can do this by visiting www.nookpod.com where you can also link through to all of their social channels.