Inclusive Instructional Design in the Workplace: Beyond Images

July 01, 2022

Read about one content creator’s journey to understand inclusive instructional design from many angles, with actionable steps to make content more inclusive.

Kelly Johnson, Manager for Interactive Learning and Design, Paylocity

A year ago, if you had asked me how inclusive design fits into instructional design, I would’ve said it was being able to engage, or interact with the technology, using tools like closed captions or responsive design. But our ongoing organization-wide conversation on what is truly at the heart of inclusion, and how to best create an inclusive workplace, challenged me to go beyond the technical end-user experience and consider the emotional and social impact we create.

So, I sought industry guidance on applying inclusive design that considers all aspects of how we connect to employees in instruction (quizzes, scenarios, imagery) to improve the employee experience. Surprisingly, one definitive source didn’t exist.

To help future content creators, I set out to define guidelines as a resource for teammates, peers, and colleagues. To do so, I pulled practices from across creative spaces, considered content intent and instructional design practices, applied those practices, and engaged our Paylocity Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) experts.

To get to a more intentionally inclusive place as a practitioner, I’ve learned it’s an ongoing journey to better ourselves and our content as we explore inclusive design practices.  These ideas apply not only to material delivered through a Learning Management System, but to any content shared within an organization.

Let’s take a closer look at how visuals (icons and images) and expressions (word choice and language) affect the emotional and social impact of the learning moment. 

Visual Design

Imagery connects the learner to the content, reinforces messaging and concepts, adds context, and simplifies complex ideas. When images and icons are added with a respectful and inclusive lens, they can help break down stereotypes. The inclusive imagery represents underrepresented people in all industries, roles, skills, and interests, while expanding and redefining norms. As a result, we can make everyone feel welcomed, represented, and valued.

Visual learners make up 65% of the population, so the intent of the imagery used is crucial to the learning outcome and influence of the social and emotional impact on the learner. Consider the why behind including an image and how it connects to the content, context, learning moment, and learning intent, including:

  • How the sex, gender, race, age, or ability of a person is represented in the image, and the relevance to the learning moment, scenario, question, or host dialogue.
  • Representation through gender-neutral imagery (non-binary and androgynous aesthetic) and images with multiple individuals.
  • How you portray leaders, individual contributors, and peers in gender and gender expression. For example, is the leader a senior male in a traditional suit and tie?
  • Are underrepresented groups presented or does it reinforce industry stereotypes and assumptions? For instance, do photos include only female nurses or male factory workers? Consider who’s shown in the image and your intent.
  • Don’t forget people portrayed in iconography. You can represent key behaviors/actions or professions through icons, shapes, or symbols, without the outline of a person. For example, instead of a person in a nurse’s hat, what about a hospital or medical symbol?

Language and Expressions

Language is a powerful tool to create action, build ideas, and share information, but it can also lead to exclusion and perpetuate inequalities. This can happen when expressions and language are used in a way that supports social stereotypes through the generalization of people’s attributes or characteristics. For example, reinforcing gender stereotypes in occupation physical appearance, domestic behaviors, and personality traits.

How can you address expressions and language through inclusive design?

  • Consider how you represent a gender through expressions, job roles, and job titles.
  • Consider how gendered expressions portray any minority or underrepresented individuals in scenarios/examples. For instance, does what you're saying (e.g., “She’s like us, one of the guys”) convey a different message (e.g., qualities reserved for males).
  • Reverse the gender or age. Does it change the meaning or emphasis of the sentence? If so, you may be using language that perpetuates a stereotype.
  • Consider whether the assigned emotion or expression is needed for the context of key learning points and if there are social stereotypes associated with it. For example, is the behavior bossy or assertive? These are often portrayed as a negative when associated with women in the workplace. Meanwhile, men are often praised for the same attributes. Clarify and build the emotion of characters and relationships with a wider and neutral range of emotions.

Pronouns and Names

When you meet someone new, you might introduce yourself with your pronoun and respectfully ask them how they’d like to be addressed. But what about when you design content, where you speak indirectly to a broader audience, or use fictional characters to highlight a behavior or action to the job? What pronouns do you use? How do you talk to the learner and share gender-inclusive examples and scenarios?

When you use examples and scenarios to highlight key actions, behaviors, or takeaways, consider:

  • Adding context to the scenario and building the role of characters and relationships with job roles or titles, vs. assigning gender through names or pronouns.
  • Whether the use of the character’s name or pronoun is relevant to the learning moment, scenario questions, or host dialogue, or if the pronoun adds context and clarity around action that’s needed (e.g., legal laws, common misconceptions).
  • If the conversation sounds natural; if you had it with a peer or leader, would you use pronouns?
  • Does the imagery and video complement inclusive and diverse representation without/with the use of pronouns and character names and contribute to the intent of the scenario?

Common Missteps

Inclusive design will look different for every topic, learning intent, and application/pull through of content. As I’ve become more intentional about inclusive design my team’s work, I’ve realized it’s not always easy.

Here are some common missteps I’ve noticed from myself and others to be mindful of:

  • Don’t design in a vacuum. The best way to be intentional in representation and inclusion is to get insight and feedback from others. You might think you're doing something positive, but you end up doing something that doesn’t elicit the emotion you hoped for.
  • Take a step back and look at your work holistically. A hyper-focus on single items of inclusion can lead to the unintentional omission of groups, which can continually reinforce false stereotypes and misinterpretation. For example, parents are only represented with a male dad and female mom, or pregnant employees aren’t included in work scenes. The focus should be to ensure inclusion, but not at the expense and exclusion of others, even those in the dominant groups.
  • Don’t lose sight of your learning intent. If you’re trying to portray laws or misconceptions that meet your intent–such as what is or isn’t discrimination, or what microaggressions look like–include examples, stereotypes, or behaviors to highlight the negative behavior or action. Then, share alternatives of what you’d like to see to create a more inclusive culture.

Getting Started

The considerations above offer general guidelines and are by no means a complete list. Our practice of inclusive design will continue to expand as society evolves and social stereotypes and norms change, so it’s essential to continually adapt, learn, and implement.

For starters, put practices and processes in place to continually review content, drive open dialogue, and move toward inclusive design.

  • Start with one goal. Pick a specific area, such as written scenarios in digital content, and branch out from there.
  • Create a review process specific to DEIA feedback. This can be with your DEIA employee resource group or internal expert(s), creating an employee subgroup, or seeking out others who can provide a diverse perspective.
  • Look at holistic practices and experiences with a community of creators. Create design principles and practices specific to your team and processes (e.g., ADA closed captions, pronouns, expression).
  • Create open dialogue on the intent of the design and how it helps eliminate stereotypes, represents underrepresented people, expands and redefines norms, and builds a culture of intentional, inclusive design.
  • Foster a culture of inclusion and respect within and outside your content.

No matter where you are in your practice, remember that inclusive design isn’t just about the imagery. Always take a step back and review your content holistically. Is everyone represented in a way that’s positive, welcoming, and professional? Are learning moments around DEIA and inclusive design intentional?

To hear more context about my journey, please tune in to my recent interview on the PCTY Talks Podcast, or you can tune in to this recent Paylocity webinar


Grow Your Talent with Better Training

Now, more than ever, employees want more career development opportunities from their employers. The right Learning Management System (LMS) can help develop new skills while training your workforce on company policies, products, and more. Empower your employees to grow professionally with LMS, a modern, mobile solution that fits different learning styles and connects to your existing systems and processes.

Start Training Talent