Ep. 19: Designing for Diversity


8 min read

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Speaker 1: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon. Future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Speaker 2: Hello and welcome to this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show, I'm Toby Mildon. And today, I'm joined by David O'Coimin, who is a brilliant guy. He has created a product called Nook, and a core component of his product is inclusive design. Both inclusivity for people who are neurodiverse, but also inclusivity in terms of how the product is used by many people in the settings or the offices in which it's used in. So David, welcome to the show.


Speaker 3: Great to be here, thanks very much indeed, Toby.


Speaker 2: David, can you just tell us a bit more about your background and what led you to creating Nook, the product that you've developed? 


Speaker 3: Sure, no problem at all. So as you can instantly hear, I'm Irish, I'm 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 am at the moment and I have spent the entire duration of this current pandemic. I would... I think it's important to say, classify myself and it's probably coming across easily as an extrovert. I can't sit still, I am also someone who is highly empathic, and I blame my mother for this a little bit, very emotional. [chuckle] And personally, I crave a balanced life with a mix of some high-octane urban engagement, but with rural sort of recharge. I really seek out the green and the blues of the mountains and the lakes of the world.


Speaker 3: And Nook came about due to frustration, as many things do. I feel like that we're still kind of stuck in a bit of an Industrial Revolution mindset, only now our factories are white-collar and we call them open offices. You see like, rows of workers with foremen watching to ensure that they're working. And I feel like baked into this format is a sort of a mistrust and an unfortunate tendency towards designing to prevent the small percentage of advantage-taking that goes on. And I feel like it stifles the most important, and to be brutally honest, the most expensive asset in an organization, its people.


Speaker 3: I think that open office was designed by extroverts for extroverts. [chuckle] And I know that 'cause I'm one of them and I know that there's a better way. And so one of my philosophies is to design for the extremes in order to benefit the mean. 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 organization behind me, so I wanted to create something that could work very much in the middle market.


Speaker 3: I am inspired by really innovative approaches to workplace, but I'm also very mindful that the majority of the workforce sits in the middle of the market in smaller companies that don't necessarily have a global head of employee engagement or a diversity and inclusion... And inclusivity director, and they have a business owner and they have a facilities person maybe or an office manager. I just want to... So first of all, help people find a withdrawal space from the open office so that they can reflect, recharge, and also connect better with colleagues. But I also want to help organizations take steps forward, tangible steps, affordable steps with long-term value that are sustainably minded, that are changeable and things like that. So that's where it comes from and that's what it is.


Speaker 2: Brilliant. What exactly is Nook? If I've got one in my office, what will I be looking at? 


Speaker 3: Okay, so the metaphor is not subtle. It 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. So it looks like a little house. In its most common form, it's for two people to sit opposite each other, work separately but together or to collaborate. It's soundproof throughout inside and it's got this really... At its core, in its DNA is this balance between... It gives you 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 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.


Speaker 3: And so, it's got lighting that you can control, which is an important aspect of allowing people an element of autonomy over their environment, it's got the acoustics as I mentioned, it's got power for your laptop and your mobile phone, it's got a generous workspace in two levels. I very much subscribe to the notion that a clean work space is a clean mind, but that's... Not everybody subscribes to the same thing, but 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... I almost forgot to mention is, it's mobile, it's on heavy duty lockable casters, and so it can move around really easily. So it can help your space to adapt and adjust either over the course of time, 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.


Speaker 2: Yeah, I think it's quite useful for us to visualize that it's like a mini house in the middle of your office. This is a podcast, so obviously, we're not benefiting from the visual medium, but I was speaking to somebody the other day who's been inside one of your Nooks, and she said, it's one of those things that you just have to experience. It's quite hard for us to kind of... We can describe what it is on this interview, but once you're inside the Nook, it's like, people have this physiological response, don't they? And you can see that response in them when they step inside.


Speaker 3: You can. And you know what, after four years... We've started this in 2016, it still shocks the hell out of me and it shouldn't anymore, but it still does, and there's this two kind of stage experience effect that it has on people. And the first one is very much of that, "What? How?", "I was just out there and now everything sounds really tinny and high frequency, and a little disturbing for my brain and noisy, and 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. And all the low frequency of my voices being amplified and everything feels so much calmer. And the best way for me that I like to talk about what does it do is around the response to it, not to try to describe it too much and not to be too scientific about it but the response to it.


Speaker 3: And the responses are emotional, the personal stories from people are phenomenal to me, they're surprising, they're moving, people open up when they are asked about their experience in the Nook. "Why do you come here? What do you enjoy about it?" And they talk about their difficulties with noise and distraction, but they also talk about their ADHD, if there's autism involved, dyslexia, people talk about how Nook helps them to settle and to feel calm, and then therefore to be able to focus and engage and connect with people in a better way, and that's fundamental, and that's joyful to hear that, it really is.


Speaker 2: Yeah. So you and I were introduced to each other through a mutual connection that we've got, and I looked on your website to check you out in the nicest possible way. And I just loved the look of your product, and then I emailed you and I said, "I love the look of your product. By the way, is it wheelchair accessible?" Because I'm a wheelchair user myself, and I've worked in offices where you have these kind of booths where you can go away and work and do kind of concentration work, stuff like that 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 just might not be big enough anyway to get a wheelchair. You can just about get a weethy chair in there, like normal office chair and one person.


Speaker 2: So I've had my own challenges, that's why I reached out to you first of all. And then I was immediately impressed because you were like, "Actually, we have been experimenting with wheelchair accessible versions of the Nook." And actually a core component of your product development is inclusive design, particularly looking at neurodiversity. So can you tell me a bit more about, I suppose, the accessibility of your product, but also why inclusive design has been so important to your product creation? 


Speaker 3: Absolutely, and if you remember from that original communication between us, the second thing I think I said was, "And we're struggling. We're struggling with it, we need help, I'm delighted that you asked." We've made a couple of attempts and we've been really honest and one of the things that's always sat at my core is a recognition about my limitations, and the same goes for us generally, broadly speaking. As an organization, I've carried that through and I recognize that, me, personally, but also often, the role of product designer has been classed as a sort of a jack of all trades, which is meant to be derogatory, but I see it very positively, jack of all trades, "I'm a master of being a jack of all trades," I like to say.


Speaker 3: But that means that I recognize that we really need to work with people to be our best. And one of the things where we fall down in, is we don't have anybody in the organization who would need to use it, the Nook from a physical accessibility point of view, so we reach out. And that's why we work with organizations like AmbiSpace who build sensory environments, The Well Trust, we speak with, Mind Charity, speaking to the Wales Ability Network about these things, but we're still working hard to get this piece right. Why do we care? Why should we do... 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.


Speaker 3: In order to have a true sense of purpose, in order to be able to achieve a sense of belonging in our workplaces and not just our workplaces, but our learning environments and everywhere else too, I think we need to do so in such a way that we all feel togetherness and that we're making use of everybody's power. And that means catering for everybody, being inclusive, bringing everybody along on the journey. And if you wanna talk true business about that, I think businesses are leaving so much opportunity, engagement, power, productivity, superpowers, capability on the table, on the floor, more than on the table, on the floor by not being inclusive, by not truly engaging everybody. I think we need to move forward in an inclusive way and I don't mean just designing for inclusivity, I mean designing inclusively and 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 a world of improved improvement. 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.


Speaker 2: Yeah, I do think that people working within diversity and inclusion need to have a user experience and design mindset. Because 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 and I learned a lot from them around human centered design, inclusive design and I've been bringing that into my work as a diversity and inclusion consultant. Because so many organizations, they design programs and initiatives that try to fix individuals rather than organizations. They might say, "Okay, we're really concerned about the lack of women at the top of the organization. So, what we're gonna do is we're gonna create this career development program for women, which is all about boosting confidence, opening up their professional network and things like that." And I'm like, "Hang on a second. The women I've spoken to, for example, they said they don't need more confidence." Actually, what is holding people back is the way that the business operates and the culture.


Speaker 2: It might be that the organization is just really not very good at flexible or agile working and that's what's holding people back. When I wrote the book Inclusive Growth, there's a whole chapter called Colleague Experience in Design. And in a nutshell, it says you need to map out the journeys that people go on, identify the speed humps and road blocks that slow people down or prevent them from completing a journey like your recruitment journey, for example, and then eliminate those barriers. And then you end out with a more inclusive workplace. I'm interested in understanding a bit more from you about how you go about inclusive design when you create things.


Speaker 3: Very good. And if I may, I also think that there's... You have a particular approach, which I admire greatly in helping to educate organizations around their culture, around diversity and inclusivity. One of the things that I set out to do early on was to almost do it in a more sneaky... Is that the right word? Subtle, between the lines kind of way by creating a product that has multiple functions where its inclusivity component, its diversity component is baked-in and that it doesn't shout about that. That it's just something that everybody can use, but some people benefit from it more than others. Everybody gets a benefit out of it, but some really crave it and need it and some just enjoy it and don't understand really, really why. And I think that's... There's a good... There's some merit in affecting the marketplace in a way that it doesn't necessarily understand what's happening, but tacitly somehow in between the lines, there is a subconscious understanding of what's happening. That, "Oh yeah, these spaces really are helping." "Oh look, our introverts, the people that... The quiet people are really enjoying it." "Oh look, the loud people are enjoying it, having a quite a moment in there." It's recognizing 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, a variety that we need from the space.


Speaker 3: One size does absolutely 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 recognizing where what we don't know, an element of the known unknowns, known knowns, unknown unknowns, the Donald Rumsfeld factor. [chuckle] And bringing people into the process. And I'm a very strong advocate of the JFDI approach. I won't shout out what the 'F' is, but the just do it parts [chuckle] on either side, is just test and test and test and get feedback and get out there in the workspace and do it. And how we got off the ground was we partnered up with a wonderful co-working in Bristol called the The Engine Shed and we made our first couple of prototypes and we just threw it in there and we interviewed the hell out of it. And we encouraged people to come and use it and try it in different ways, and we spoke to organizations 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.


Speaker 3: And 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, fail quickly, right? But our human sense really 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 "wuu ha ha", terrible, when somebody criticizes 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 to that, that's when you can really 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 [chuckle] such a cliche. But that's the way to do it for us.


Speaker 2: That's a really interesting point about failing fast or failing forwards, because 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. And those organizations that I really admire are the ones that call me back and go, "We're really 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 actually gonna make the service better for everybody else." And I've got so much time for those organizations and I've gone on to work with some of those organizations to help them create more inclusive products and services. So it's a great way of doing things.


Speaker 3: Yeah, I think that's one part of it. And then the other part of it from a... If you're making a physical product point of view, is at some point you have to put your stake in the ground and launch, and you have to get a product out there. And 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. So, how about... And 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. So when we built the product first, while it had this element of neuroinclusivity, it was built around introverts and people on the autistic spectrum and wanting to help in that respect, it wasn't physically inclusive. But we 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 free standing, 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."


Speaker 3: And that is 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. And so you're designing for the future, you're future-proofing as much as possible, I think that is an important element of designing inclusively. Is you know and recognize that it's not always gonna be right right now, but design it such that you can adjust it in the future and that you can go back and retrofit those adjustment changes.


Speaker 2: Yeah, I like your use of the word future-proofing 'cause the subtitle of my book is future-proof your business by creating a diverse workplace. So that's very serendipitous. We haven't gotten any preparation, we just rock up and have a chat, that's how we roll on this show. So before we go, what does inclusive growth mean to you and the organizations that you work with that uses Nook? 


Speaker 3: So for me... And I think I touched on that a little bit in a previous answer, it is very much around recognizing that the only way that we're going to get to... And when I say growth, I'm not talking about the bottom line, although I appreciate that it needs to be commercially viable for organizations to adapt 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 including in order to satisfy some corporate responsibility program, but we're including for 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 organization. It's symbiosis between the person and the organization.


Speaker 2: Brilliant. David, thank you ever so much for joining me today on this episode. Before we go, how can people get in touch with you or learn more about Nook if it sounds interesting to them? 


Speaker 3: Super. Thanks a million, Toby, great to be here. So the best place is, nookpod.com, where you can also link through to all of our social channels. We're really active and love to engage on our social channels, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, even Pinterest these days. So come and talk to us. That's really... We'd love to hear your feedback, we'd love your help, we'd love your ideas, we're about to launch a Nook for the home, we're looking at an outdoor Nook, so we'd love to hear your input on all of those things and, yeah, please reach out. And thanks very much once again Toby, great to chat and look forward to following up in the future too.


Speaker 2: Thanks, David. And for the avoidance of any doubt. Nook is spelt N-O-O-K so that if anyone has any difficulty finding you online. David, thank you ever so much for joining me on this episode, and thank you for tuning in to this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I hope you found my conversation with David interesting and helpful for the work that you do. If you know anybody who's interested in inclusive design, in neurodiversity or perhaps they want a Nook for their office or their garden, which is coming soon, please do share the link to this episode with your colleagues and friends. Until next time I hope to see you on the next episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I hope you stay safe and have a great time. Until then, goodbye.


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Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.