Inclusive communication lets people access and understand it, and feel safe and empowered to respond. It's being clear, honest, and mindful of the impact what we’re saying might have on those who encounter it.
There’s lots of information out there on how to create inclusive content. But the vast majority that I see focuses on how we communicate within our products and services, and the need for inclusive communication goes beyond that.
We also need to consider how we talk about our work, and other people’s. Whether it’s in person, in presentations, in blogs and articles we write, what we post on Twitter, on GitHub, in our Slack channels, and so on.
I believe we need to think beyond how we communicate with our users, and examine how we communicate with our colleagues and peers in the wider community, too.
Here, I’ll explain why using inclusive communication outside of a product or service matters, and what it means in practice.
Why inclusive communication matters
If we want to make an inclusive web, we need to foster an inclusive environment in which to make it.
Speaking on complexity of tooling, Jeremy Keith said:
“I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, 'this is for everyone.' And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.”
Likewise, I believe that failing to communicate inclusively can raise and introduce barriers because people may:
- not understand what’s been said
- feel too afraid to respond
- think it’s not intended for them
When this happens, it impacts us and our work as well as those we’ve excluded.
Government design principle number 10, Make things open, it makes things better, reminds us that “The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets–howlers are spotted, better alternatives are pointed out, the bar is raised.”
But that's only if those eyes know what they’re looking at and the voices attached to them are empowered to respond. If we don’t communicate inclusively, we significantly limit our opportunities for feedback.
We risk finding ourselves in an echo chamber, our assumptions and biases get reinforced, and we stop learning anything new.
To avoid this, we need to enable people to understand and participate in our processes and decisions. And we cannot achieve that without inclusive communication.
How to communicate inclusively
Expose the journey as well as the outcomes
As maths tests taught us, it’s important to show our workings. But sometimes it seems as though we’ve come to value certainty and finality over consideration and analysis.
Punchy statements like “this technology is obsolete” or “that approach is always harder” might be impactful, but they’re also reductive and dangerous. Talking in absolute terms about things which are not clear cut is misleading to newcomers and those with less experience. It also masks all the valuable experiences that led us to a particular conclusion in the first place.
Doubt, uncertainty and questioning are an integral part of building knowledge. Without them, we would never progress as individuals or as a community. It’s up to us to expose that uncertainty wherever we can.
If we strongly believe in something, we should do the work to make our case and convince others, as we were convinced.
Be clear and open
We strive for clarity when designing content for products and services, but we’re often less careful outside of this context.
There are lots of reasons why we might obscure information.
Sometimes, we don’t want to make ourselves look foolish by over-explaining.
We prefix statements with “Obviously…” or “As we know…” to protect ourselves against the possibility of unknowingly presenting common knowledge as new information.
But this is problematic, because it’s almost certain that some people won’t know what we’re telling them.
“The amount of available knowledge in our field (or any field really) is growing larger, more complex, and more segmented all the time. That everyone has downloaded the same fundamental knowledge on any topic is becoming less and less probable.”
For people who don’t know the information we’re sharing, these qualifiers imply that they’re on the outside of a more knowledgeable circle. We need to make it OK not to know things and to ask questions.
Sometimes, we don’t explain things clearly because we simply don’t want to burden people with lots of complicated information.
I was recently messaging with someone on Twitter about this, and they told me:
“When I joined my team as a junior delivery manager, I got quite a lot of ‘it's very very technical, don't worry'. Except that's really isolating. If I'm part of this team, I need to know what you're talking about. If I don't know and you can't tell me, I'm on the outside.”
This clearly wasn’t malicious, but was no less excluding. If someone expresses a desire to be taught, we should take our cues from them, and teach.
Failing to give clear explanations can evoke feelings of self-doubt. Many people, when faced with something they don’t understand, blame themselves.
In a recent round of user research, we asked people with limited experience of code to follow guidance on creating prototypes from HTML and CSS.
When participants got stuck, no one said “this is not explained clearly enough”.
What many of them said instead was “I’m being so stupid”, “Sorry this is taking me so long”, and “You must think I’m such an idiot”.
In this case, we were actively seeking feedback and will use it to improve our content. But in a real-life situation, we often won’t have visibility over how our communication makes people feel, so we need to preempt the impact it might have.
What prior knowledge are we assuming and how could we do more to help those who might not have it? Can we explain ourselves more clearly, or direct people to a source of information that does?
Communicating inclusively doesn’t mean explaining every single concept in granular detail, but making the effort to share knowledge and lower the barrier to entry, where we can.
Be collaborative not combative
In my experience, the best way to effect positive change is with strategic, constructive conversations. But all too often, we encounter something we don’t like and become combative.
We’ve all seen those mic-drop statements on Twitter. The attention-hungry smackdowns designed to rally support against someone’s design or technology choices, to settle a score or to speak out against a perceived injustice.
There’s no denying this kind of communication is satisfying and powerful. There’s a reason Tweets like this commonly go viral. But they're not start points for collaborative conversations that lead to long term change.
Communication that leads to positive change is significantly harder. To do that, we have to learn to engage with those who think differently from us.
Why? Because aside from the hurt and harm it causes, attacking people like this is fruitless, most of the time.
When people's work is attacked or ridiculed in public, many become defensive and look for a sympathetic ally. They’ll seek reassurance that the attack was unkind and unjustified and if they chose their ally well, they’ll get it.
The most likely result of all this is that they’ll end up feeling vindicated and having their views reinforced. Ultimately, we’ve made the situation we thought was bad, even worse.
And the negative effects of these attacks are not limited to those they’re aimed at. Absolutist, sarcastic, attention-grabbing criticism is unlikely to make us seem particularly approachable, or to elicit a response from anyone other than those who understand and agree wholeheartedly or those who disagree and want an argument.
It leaves little space for people who simply don’t understand or who feel uncertain and too intimidated by our approach to engage.
How people respond to our messages and posts is a good indicator of how it’s made them feel.
If we see people prefixing their replies with modifiers like “This might be a silly question…” or “Sorry if I’m being stupid…”, it suggests they feel unsafe. They are asking for mercy.
And that’s only the ones who were brave enough to respond at all. Communicating like this sends a very clear message about how we’ll respond to those with whom we don’t agree, so many people simply won’t engage.
If we really care about righting a wrong, we have to do better.
We should start with questions, and a sincere effort to understand the context. People may be dealing with constraints we’re not aware of, or lacking the knowledge and experiences that we have.
When expressing concerns, we need to do so sincerely and with a collaborative intent.
Some hard truths about inclusive communication
I believe that if we want to do meaningful work to make things better, communicating inclusively is the place to start–but there are some possible side effects.
Inclusive communication might get less likes
Inclusive communication isn’t necessarily sexy. Being clearer and more considerate means we might have to use more words to make our point.
Some of our posts may be less straight down the line and hard hitting, and that may mean, in the short term at least, less likes and shares on social media.
But it’s a trade off. By communicating more inclusively and enabling more people to properly engage with us, we can build more lasting relationships and better quality connections.
We have to worry less about raising our profile and focus instead on raising our game.
Inclusive communication won’t convert everybody
Using inclusive communication is not a ticket to make everybody agree with us, nor should it be.
But when we use exclusionary communication, our chances are pretty much off the table.
Even the most clear, honest and collaborative approach won’t bring everyone round to our way of thinking, but it’s less likely to make people defensive, which lays the foundation for a more constructive conversation.
Communicating inclusively doesn’t mean everyone else will
Some people will always be challenging. They’ll anger and provoke us and when they do we’ll want to cast aside these principles and retaliate. And sometimes we probably will.
But resisting the urge when we can is a better decision in the long run. It's about focusing on how inclusive communication benefits the community, and not the individual who’s in our face at that particular moment in time.
When we're pushed, it's a choice between what we want now and what we want most.
Our communication is a powerful tool when it comes to making an inclusive web. It’s not enough to only think of those who use the web–we also need to consider those who make it.
Inclusive communication goes beyond the content inside our products and services–it’s how we communicate with our colleagues and peers, when we agree, and when we don’t.
It’s communicating in a way that helps people understand, respond to and participate in our work.
Every small change that makes our communication more inclusive brings us one step closer to a web for everyone.
I hope this has inspired you to make a small change today.