When brands include neurodiverse and disabled audiences in their approach to product design, everybody wins, says dentsu’s Freya D’Souza.

Building for neurodiverse and disabled populations is a moral and business imperative in today’s world.

The business case for diversity and inclusion is well and truly documented. It’s very old news but bears repeating as not enough is happening, nor fast enough, from a brand or corporate perspective to truly embed diversity and inclusion as a core business imperative.

As advertising so often reflects, two of the biggest moments that champion the cause for diversity and inclusion come from sports and culture – The SuperBowl and Glastonbury. Recent events showed that another side of diversity is coming to light, indicating the need to look at embracing diversity beyond demographics.

Deaf nursing student Justina Miles was one of three ASL (American sign language) performers who took to the field alongside celebrities. Miles’ spirited performance interpreting Rihanna’s songs, as well as being the first person to interpret “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, widely known as the Black national anthem in the United States, won hearts globally. With over 11 million TikTok views and miles of organic PR, the moment truly showcased the power and potential of inclusion and its outsized impact on culture.

One of the world’s biggest music festivals, Glastonbury, wound up over a weekend in June. Lewis Capaldi, a British music star who is diagnosed with Tourette’s (a neurological disorder) and has also been open about his struggle with anxiety, lost his voice in the middle of a performance and started having tics – a series of involuntary physical spasms that may manifest as actions or sounds. In that moment, the crowd took over, singing when he couldn’t. Thousands of voices lifted him up, making it a moment Glastonbury will forever be known by. Capaldi’s performance also prompted other British kids and teens, as well as their caregivers, to open up about their own struggles with Tourette’s.

The point is this: diversity in peoples is a fact. As brands that choose to define their audience in broad strokes, there is a great amount of brand love and equity, along with outsized loyalty, one might argue, to be unlocked in under-represented minorities such as the neurodiverse.

It's worthwhile noting that globally, the disabled market represents 15% of the global population, with US$8 trillion worth of disposable income. That’s 1.3 billion people, states The Valuable 500 founder Caroline Casey, who felt a bit more visible and represented when Apple and Android finally released disabled emojis. In 2019. Only four years ago. 

Diversity by design benefits everyone

A philosophy especially brought alive by the technology industry, diversity by design embeds people-first thinking at the genesis of all product thinking. Brands that have cracked the code to be customer-centric when approaching design thinking for neurodiverse and disabled audiences have a few common approaches that would serve well for brands looking to do the same.

  1. Solve for specifics – it pays to be razor sharp

As Lenovo’s Dilip Bhatia states, designing a product to solve a specific problem for a target demographic might end up creating something that benefits everyone.

Take email, for example. Vinton Cerf, aka the father of the internet and now chief internet evangelist at Google, helped propel email from a closed-network service to what it is today by opening it up to the internet. A reason he often gives is it helped him communicate with his wife, Sigrid, while he was travelling. The couple both have hearing disabilities and email finally removed the difficulties they had when communicating long distance over the phone.

“She could talk but she couldn’t hear. I made a point to try and communicate with her through email,” said Cerf. Since then, email has become ubiquitous to how we live and work. For starters, it has removed the necessity to be always available. It enabled working across time zones – you don’t have to stay up until 3am to reply to an email, unlike a call. Or you can. Email empowered choice, including for Cerf himself.

"Because I'm hearing-impaired, emails are a tremendously valuable tool because of the precision that you get. I can read what's typed as opposed to straining to hear what's being said."

As video becomes the most widely consumed format of content on the internet, thanks to YouTube, Shorts, Reels, TikToks and the like, closed captioning helps keep viewer interest longer at a time when average attention spans last a mere seven seconds. Audiences now expect closed captioning, especially on how-to videos, tutorials etc. Closed captioning has let audiences watch content while on the go, understand hard-to-decipher accents and, in the latest Oscar-nominated flick, helped non-native speakers of English keep up with content.

But closed captioning was originally speech-to-text, a way of making videos accessible to those with hearing disabilities. Like alt text, closed captioning also helps videos be more visible by allowing search engines to index for SEO.

  1. Invest for the long term to truly unlock business potential

Lenovo has a Product Diversity Office (PDO) which embeds DEI thinking into the heart of its customer-centric culture. This has resulted in products with impactful benefits for a wide array of consumers. The PDO initiates research that informs and drives product design ranging from UI/UX decisions such as voice-assistive technologies, and display considerations for products such as smartphones and laptops, to even pricing inputs, in an effort to include user groups like fixed income/disabled folk and retirees.

HP’s Office of Aging and Accessibility serves a similar function, promoting inclusive design at all stages of product thinking, including webcams with a sign language facility to let people with hearing disabilities participate in virtual meetings.

The clothing and apparel industry is also responding, albeit slowly, as Tommy Hilfiger launched Tommy Adaptive in 2017, a line of clothing featuring one-handed zippers and velcro closures that made it easier for those with Down syndrome, wheelchair users and others to dress themselves more easily. The investment has already begun to pay off as 80% of customers who bought the Adaptive line were new customers for the brand. And even more importantly, they didn’t just shop Adaptive.

  1. Go deep into the customer journey to optimise customer experience

There are few industries that embody this as well as the gaming industry does. Global gaming major Ubisoft’s upcoming launch of Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, for instance, promises a whole host of accessibility features including being colourblind-accessible by design.

A prime example of delivering on an enhanced customer journey is Microsoft, with its latest Xbox Adaptive Controller launch.

To design this controller, Microsoft worked with organisations such as AbleGamers, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and others to develop a gaming controller that would meet the needs of those with motor disabilities. What makes this device especially noteworthy is its use in the rehabilitation of war veterans. Even more inclusive is that the adapative controller is built for tabletop use, which sounds simple enough but is game changing quite literally for millions of would-be gamers, who cannot hold a controller in their hands.

In addition, the controller allows for co-pilot mode, allowing a single player to use both a wireless controller as well as an adaptive one. The difference here is that both controllers behave as one device, not two separate ones. Those who choose can give one device to someone else to play alongside them.

Given the burgeoning of the gaming industry worldwide, as well as ancillary platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming, accessibility in gaming designs helps bring millions of gamers into the fold, opening up a whole new audience for the industry and brands looking to connect with them.

The business impact of this inclusivity cannot be underscored enough. Gaming is estimated to be a US$103 billion industry globally, with APAC accounting for 53%. At a conservative estimate, the disability gaming market will be a US$360 million market in APAC alone, growing at a CAGR of 8.51%.

The ad for the controller sums it up well – When everybody plays, we all win.