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Authors: Colin Clark, Dana Ayotte, and Antranig Basman

Since 2007, the Fluid Project has been developing an integrated set of inclusive design methods and software tools to support personalization, authoring, and software creation by users within a participatory, open source community. In this paper, we position the Fluid Project's inclusive design practice within the context of interaction, participatory, and universal design methods, examining and contrasting these approaches from the perspective of supporting user creativity throughout the process of designing and using software. The Fluid Project is an open source community of designers, developers, testers, users, and other diverse contributors who might not otherwise fit into the highly technical culture of conventional open source software communities.

Industry-driven interaction design methods such as those of Cooper (2007), Beyer and Holtzblatt (1997), and IDEO primarily look inward; they are created by professionals and intended for an audience of like-minded designers and managers. These methods aim to provide prescriptive, generalized, and reproducible techniques for managing teams who design commercial software products or offer design consulting services. The emphasis is on "modelling" users, their goals, and their work or organizational processes (Beyer and Holtzblatt 5). Such industrial modelling methods invariably cast the user in a passive role as "consumer" or "customer," often advocating for a rigid design focus on typical or mainstream requirements while explicitly de-prioritizing the "edge cases" of outlying, marginal needs (Cooper 80). While this approach works to simplify product requirements and focus designers on the most popular features, it also risks excluding the crucial features and customizations that enable people with disabilities to use a software product, and which ultimately contribute to greater innovation and the overall usability of a system (Treviranus 95). Moreover, interaction design advocates often argue that their subjects (i.e. the individuals who use their software on a daily basis) are unable to be articulate or self-aware about their own technology needs, and that only industry can provide design innovation, not users themselves (Skibsted and Bech Hansen). The result is that there are few opportunities for individuals to actively contribute to the design process and work alongside professional designers, except as consumers or research subjects.

Universal design, with an explicit emphasis on meeting the needs of all individuals, including those with disabilities, substantially expands a designer's creative remit and responsibilities. However, the challenge of universal design is in its emphasis on a single product or design that aims to fit the needs of all users without adaptation or personalization. Ron Mace describes universal design as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design [our italics]" (Center for Universal Design). As the complexity and diversity of today's software grows, we argue that it is no longer practical for designers to plan for every user and every feature within a single piece of software, nor to be able to fully understand and obtain expertise in the infinite variety of creative, serendipitous, and unexpected uses that software can be subjected to. Instead, the design process needs to be supported by technologies that provide users with a means to materially change, personalize, specialize, and extend their software environments.

Participatory design, in contrast to many interaction design methods, offers the potential for users to more actively engage in the design process. This often takes the form of workshops and scenario-building exercises where users are invited to explore design strategies alongside professional designers (Wakkary 2-3). While participatory and "co-design" techniques play a foundational role in the Fluid Project's inclusive design methods, particularly the concept of experienced designers working in harmony with users and other non-designers, we argue that workshops and other "before-the-fact" design methods alone are insufficient for two primary reasons:


Taking up the participatory design position that "all people have something to offer to the design process and that they can be both articulate and creative when given appropriate tools with which to express themselves" (Sanders), the Fluid Project has been developing design and technological tools to support user creativity. We aim to extend the design process into the designed artifact itself—to give users the ability to continue the design process themselves, after the specialized design effort has been finished and the product has shipped. Designing inclusively, we argue, requires more than just design processes, but also new technologies. This is the motivation for technologies such as Fluid Infusion, a software development framework that enables applications to be reconfigured in context and preference-sensitive ways, and the GPII Nexus, which provides a means to integrate diverse software components together in a way that can be supported by graphical authoring and programming tools accessible to non-developers.

Fluid's software and design tools are rooted in open community practices that emphasize the role of users—especially users with disabilities—as co-designers, "gardeners," and ongoing caretakers of the project's outcomes. Fluid's approach emphasizes the importance of non-prescriptive design methods and self-organizing collaborative teams who freely draw from a toolbox of design approaches (such as those documented in Fluid's Design Handbook and the Inclusive Learning Design Handbook) based on the design context and the needs of participants and project stakeholders. Some of Fluid's community-driven design methods include:

  • UX Walkthroughs, a hybrid technique based on heuristic evaluation and cognitive walkthroughs, which emphasizes paired or collaborative evaluation of user interfaces by designers and non-designers alike, and which serves to bring a diversity of perspectives to bear on the design process
  • User States and Contexts, which serve to "de-centre" and "multiply" personas, reducing the risk of stereotyping with personas by emphasizing the dynamic nature of a user and their needs across different contexts of use. This tool offers a way to represent and "query" or visualize a diversity of user needs and perspectives individually or in aggregate.
  • Community design crits, which bring together designers, developers, and users to discuss and critique design artifacts—including ideas, scenarios, mockups, and in-development software
  • Open, transparent sharing of design artifacts and discussion on mailing lists and other community forums based on lazy consensus governance principles (Capra and Wasserman 7), which support community-based decision-making processes.


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  • Capra, Eugenio and Anthony I. Wasserman. "A Framework for Evaluating Managerial Styles in Open Source Projects." Open Source Development, Communities and Quality. Ed. Barbara Russo, et al. IFIP International Federation for Information Processing, Volume 27. Boston: Springer, 2008. pp. 1-14.
  • Cooper, Alan, Robert Reimann, and Dave Cronin. About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2007.
  • Emke, Coraline Ada. "The Dehumanizing Myth of the Meritocracy." Model View Culture (21), 2015. Web.
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  • Treviranus, Jutta. "Leveraging the Web as a Platform for Economic Inclusion." Behavioural Sciences and the Law 32: 94-103 (2014).
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  • Wakkary, Ron. "A Participatory Design Understanding of Interaction Design." Science of Design Workshop, CHI 2007.
  • NC State University Center for Universal Design. The Principles of Universal Design. 1997. Web.