Microsoft, Apple and Google: how inclusive are they?

Barriers to digital use are caused by a complex web of intersecting factors. Gender identity is just one of them. Age, education, socioeconomic status, race, physical and cognitive disadvantage all have a role to play. Focusing on one dimension of inclusion does not account for all the complexities. That’s the conclusion two researchers came to after looking at Microsoft, Apple, and Google websites.

The big software industry players have enthusiastically promoted their commitment to inclusive design. But how inclusive are they?

A Microsoft office building with the Microsoft logo displayed on the front.

A paper discussing aspects of their inclusive practice from a gender perspective reveals that it is only a partial response. That’s because gender intersects with many other identities such as age, capability, and ethnicity.

“Regardless of efforts to promote inclusivity mainly in terms of gender, the intersectionality of identities is frequently overlooked and ignored in design.”

A pair of hands wearing red nail polish is holding an iPad with a Google search screen visible.

Microsoft, Apple, Google and Meta

The paper covers the issues of intersectionality and imagery, which is followed by tech industry case studies. Here is a brief overview:

Microsoft’s manual does a great job in explaining why there is a need for inclusive design. However, it is focused on disability and the images maintain the male/female binary. It covers theoretical and practical aspects.

Apple’s site has a detailed description of what the company thinks about inclusive design. It goes further than Microsoft on accessibility an introduces language use and stereotypes. Apple does not provide designers with many practical tools on how to do universal design.

Google acknowledges the need for equity and inclusion in their products by giving voice to the most underrepresented groups throughout the production process. They have a list of diversity segments for designers to consider.

Meta has implemented several key strategies in its design process to create inclusive products. The company is evolving to recognise the importance of accessible and inclusive products for all users. Meta conducts user research on a regular basis to gather feedback for improvements.

Guidelines for gender inclusion

The research resulted in guidelines for designing gender-inclusive tools in technology. They are applicable to both academia and industry. They are also useful for anyone responsible for the look, feel and accessibility of their organisation’s website and digital products.

  • Consider intersectionality: avoid simplifying people to one-dimensional characters. People have complex identities, which go beyond belonging to one specific gender, race, or sexuality group.
  • Avoid propagating stereotypes: attaching typical looks, occupations, and traits to a person based on their gender, race, or sexuality, contributes to social stereotypes that aggravate misogyny, racism, and homophobia.
  • Overcome the gender-binary: avoid producing text and images that reinforce the gender binary and social stereotypes, regarding appearance, jobs, preferences, or skills.
  • Make your text, tone, and imagery consistent and inclusive: it is necessary to maintain efforts for inclusivity throughout your copy, visuals, communication, and products.
  • Show the diversity of each community: make a conscious effort to illustrate how multi-colored communities are, instead of simplifying them to stereotypes.
  • Involve people with that particular identity: diversity and inclusion should be taken seriously. There’s no better person than the one with that particular identity to tell you about their concerns and challenges.
  • Avoid concentrating on a single mode of communication: adapt your copy, images, and communication to different languages, cultures, and levels of complexity.
  • Provide training in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: help your business or organization by providing constant training and mentorship.

The title of the paper is, Gender Inclusive Design in Technology: Case Studies and Guidelines, from the ResearchGate website.

From the abstract

The need for inclusion stems from the fact that the composition of the IT sector reflects a workforce that is not diverse enough. This can result in blind spots in the design process, leading to exclusionary user experiences. The idea of inclusive design is becoming more prevalent. In fact, it is becoming a general expectation to create software that is useful for and used by more people.

With a focus on intersectionality, inclusive user experience (UX) seeks to actively and consciously integrate minority, vulnerable, and understudied user groups in the design.

UX that is based on inclusive design and aims to overcome social disadvantages in all of their intersectional complexities. These arise from gender, sexual orientation, age, education, dis/ability, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity, among others. At the same time, gender-inclusive design has challenges and limitations: the idea of gender inclusion in design is not yet a reality.

Our research investigates academic literature, as well as tech industry practices, like the websites of Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Meta. Our analysis shows that intersectionality suffers even when inclusivity is considered. We also offer guidelines for factors that might be explored for a more inclusive design.

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