Inclusive Experiences Start With Inclusive Language
“See me, feel me, touch me, heal me” —the Who (“See Me, Feel Me”)
THESE COLUMNS USUALLY start either with some tortured and convoluted excuse for an introduction or a self-deprecating quip—or both! It’s almost like I took a bus with someone who once took a comedy writing class. But this time out I want to start out more seriously. Seriously! Among other topics, my team at Forrester Research studies and works with clients on issues of digital accessibility and inclusive design, and many of the issues raised in that research have built a cabin and taken up permanent residence in my brain.
In particular, I have been obsessively thinking about the role of language in making experiences inclusive, or at least helping avoid exclusion in experiences. Whether it is the text fields on an online form or the dialogue presented by a chatbot or the content in a marketing offer, words matter. Inclusive experiences just don’t happen without inclusive language. If customers cannot find themselves in the language, their proclivity to engage fully (to buy, to apply, to use, to interact) drops dramatically. Enter the art of inclusive language.
In our research, Forrester defines inclusive language as “language that acknowledges the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, gender identity, language, race, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics.” Using inclusive language is an important way of reflecting an organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in customer experience, and DEI is clearly a priority for many organizations right now.
That may sound like a floaty, gossamer idea, but companies are building real competencies around inclusive language. They are building automated tools to check for exclusionary language in code bases. They are listening to customers by mining social media, customer reviews, and voice-of-the-customer channels to identify areas where customers have called out exclusionary language. They are building out auditing practices to check whether their owned properties comply with the guidelines that the federal government has laid out on the plainlanguage.gov website (itself an effort to aid with compliance with the Plain Writing Act of 2010).
The point is that there are many practical steps that organizations are taking today to drive toward inclusive language as part of their efforts to design inclusive experiences. In Forrester’s research into the subject, we made several best practices recommendations for how to go about it. Recommendation No. 4 was “Provide inclusive answer choices.” I was reminded of this recently when I saw the work that New Zealand telecom Spark, in partnership with OutLine—which describes itself as an “all-ages rainbow mental health organization”—did to help other companies do exactly that. The two organizations created Beyond Binary Code, which they describe “as a simple piece of code that can be added to your website to make data forms and fields gender-inclusive, and ensures you only ask for what’s needed.” The key idea for me here is that this code—and the language options it generates—was co-created by nonbinary communities. This is a case of achieving inclusive design by designing with—and not just for—an inclusive population.
So, yeah, a serious column, but one with a strong current of hope. When I see companies doing work to improve not only their customers’ experiences but everyone’s experiences, I get a jolt of hope. That’s a seriously good conclusion!
Ian Jacobs is a vice president and research director at Forrester Research.