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Opinion: An inclusive approach to designing brand experiences: Understand, don't assume

Opinion: An inclusive approach to designing brand experiences: Understand, don't assume

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Sportswear brands grappling with transgender representation; beauty companies helping “everyone” bring out the best in themselves; fashion and retail names rethinking clothing lines for people with disabilities. All over the world, we are seeing brands take a hard look at purpose: what they stand for and how they can be part of creating a more inclusive culture.

This move towards equality and inclusivity is a global imperative. Reducing inequality is number 10 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, and we see brands stepping up. They understand that creating inclusive experiences helps to build towards a world with equal access and makes plenty of business sense.

Consumers want brands to take a stance. In APAC, nearly three-quarters of consumers (72%) expect brands to take more responsibility, helping them to live by their values. In addition, being inclusive allows businesses to reach to new customer groups and unlock new opportunities for growth.

At the same time, there is no easy shortcut to building truly inclusive experiences – brands need to recognise that it is a never-ending journey and a practice, rather than a destination. It takes continual investment to shape this way of thinking and working. The question for brands is: where to begin?

Human insights as a basis for deep understanding

The most crucial step in laying the foundation for designing inclusive experiences is to begin from a position of understanding. To do that, human insights – not assumptions – for decision making are critical. Brands must roll up their sleeves to gather meaningful quantitative and qualitative data and take a hands-on approach to validating and testing experiences.

When experiences are designed based on human insights that truly capture user needs, brands can gain access to a new group of potential customers and unlock growth opportunities. Many companies pay lip service to champion I&D. The ones who get down to the real work and understand its true benefits will stand to reap significant user satisfaction and long-term positive brand reputation.

Adopting a life-centred approach in design

A focus on consumers’ needs often pushes brands to adopt a human-and-user centred design approach that puts the user at the centre of experiences, and constantly evaluate how to align the experience around an individual. However, when designing for inclusivity, brands must move towards a life-centred approach to also consider the consumer’s collective stakeholders, and shared values.

Human-centred design, if focused solely on convenience and the desires of the individual, can grant instant gratification -- but leave behind a trail of damage for other stakeholders. We have seen this in environmental issues that have emerged over the last century, arising from the exploitation of land and natural resources, as well as the exploitation of workers The important takeaway for brands is to embrace a holistic systems mindset, where people are not separated from the ecosystem in which they live. Designing for two sets of consumer values – personal and collective – is critical for inclusivity.

The reason is simple. Consumers in the post-pandemic era and increasingly expect brands to focus on the collective good and a culture of care, for each other and the natural world. Among consumers we surveyed in APAC, more than half of them expressed that they were attracted to environmentally friendly brands and those that source services and materials in highly ethical ways. To recall the writer John Thackara’s theory of design, it’s not just about designing for human life, but for all life -- the entire planet.

Brands such as Patagonia are recognising the collective importance placed on sustainability, leading them to take action in a variety of ways, such as donating their record-breaking Black Friday sales to environmental causes. Fast Retailing Group has also established sustainability targets for 2030, aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through initiatives across their value chain via energy conservation measures from its retail stores to the supply chain.

Increase accessibility for inclusive experiences

Designing for greater accessibility not only unlocks access to experiences for consumers, but also helps organisations reach more users. By catering to smaller demographic groups, experiences that organisations create become fit for more groups of users.

An example of this comes from New Zealand, where Hāpai Hapori, a government department which administers funds for community development, noticed that smaller grassroots indigenous organisations that directly serve the Maori and Pacific people were not receiving the same funds as larger charities.

Through design research and a partnership with Indigenous Design and Innovation Aotearoa, Accenture identified what was driving inequities and helped describe how to reposition Hāpai Hapori’s role within the philanthropic ecosystem. Working together in consultation with the local communities that Hāpai Hapori serves, we were able to help propose changes to how different communities gained access to funding.

Conversations with indigenous community groups were instrumental in expressing the importance of advocating for inclusion. They also highlighted the importance of localised cultural competency training so that benefits would accrue to people with different lived experiences. By understanding the limitations of the old funding systems, Hāpai Hapori is now ready to reimagine the process for applying for funding, making it simpler and more inclusive.

Designing for inclusivity: Not a destination but practice and mindset

With consumer needs and sentiments constantly evolving, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to designing for inclusivity, and neither is there an absolute benchmark for success in the space. Equally, organisations must remember that brands today are subject to greater scrutiny and held to high standards of accountability: efforts to “woke-wash” (that is, to tap into social issues without genuine conviction or actual impact) will most likely backfire.

Designing for inclusivity is not a destination but a practice and mindset.

Brands must rise above existing beliefs and assumptions and strive to understand the consumer from every angle and nuance. Diversity must be embedded in every aspect of the experience from end to end, in order to represent the views of all stakeholders and minimise bias in produces and services. That also means ensuring diversity of teams – recruiting and maintaining a team from diverse demographics, and with diverse skill sets – for everyone leaves their stamp on the work they do.

Design for inclusivity requires commitment to an ongoing journey of investment, research, and iteration of products and services. The prize is a brand that grows along with evolving consumer behaviour and attitudes – a brand that thrives and is loved by consumers.

The writer is Celia Romaniuk, Accenture Song's growth markets product innovation lead and ANZ design lead.

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