Q&A With Christine Hemphill, Managing Director at Open Inclusion

Christine Hemphill is an inclusive researcher, designer, and innovator. She is the Managing Director of Open Inclusion, a global agency based in the UK that she founded in 2015 to bring the value of disability- and age-inclusive insight to design and innovation.

Prior to Open, she spent decades working in corporate marketing, strategy, service, and digital design, using customer-centered techniques to inform solutions. She also enjoyed life as a professional triathlete for a few years. She is an economist by trade, an inclusive researcher by practice, and an innovator by nature, looking for practical ways to make products and services that are simply better for all.

How did you get your start in accessibility?

My entry into accessibility and inclusive design was a combination of personal experiences, interests, and opportunities.

Having found my way into it, I now also know that it deeply appeals to my nature as someone who loves being curious and learning, then using that learning to create positive change. This work provides me with ongoing, constantly evolving challenges, uses tools and approaches I understand, and improves outcomes for communities that haven’t been fairly served by design to date. Opportunity and impact! I’m not planning on leaving any time soon!

I’ve also always felt like a bit of an outsider for many reasons. I love the attitudes, natural and learned innovativeness, and richness of perspectives in the disability and age-inclusive communities. I feel at home here working closely with others who also have an outsider perspective for their own individual reasons.

I spent the first few decades of my career working in large commercial organisations in marketing, customer strategy, service and product design, and innovation. Across a range of industries and roles, there were two things that I generally did:

  • Be the bridge into the organisation for an outside-in perspective. Listen to customers and infuse their perspectives into the strategies, designs or innovations I was working on or influencing.
  • Make new things or build new teams. These were anything from new customer-facing products and services to new internal processes or strategies to deliver better customer and business value.

We had a number of experiences in my family that started in the 2000s that led me to be much more personally aware of disability, disability exclusion, and how design is failing customers with additional needs. This in a very odd way also led me into being a professional triathlete for a few years. (My first triathlon since university was to raise money for a disability charity for research.) By accident, I qualified for the ITU World Championships in 2009 and went from there.

When I came back to more traditional workplaces, I worked in a new digital design agency as Strategy Director. I helped differentiate that agency based on accessible digital design, “better for all.” This was where I first started learning more about accessibility and inclusion, specifically as it relates to digital experiences. We also had the opportunity to do a lot of user research there, including many people with lived experiences of disability.

By the time that agency got bought out, I knew that I wanted to work in inclusive research and design. I had found my place. However, I loved the process more than making the product as I thought there must be many other designers like me that could benefit from applying it. So, I established Open Inclusion to help creators access insight from disabled and older individuals to improve their solutions.

A fabulous woman I had worked with when engaging with the disability community for research had developed and managed a disability and age-inclusive insight community across the UK for 15+ years. She joined forces with Open and this community became the beating heart of our business, bringing our joint capability to life.

Across our team by then we had people experienced in inclusive digital, physical product, built environment, communication and service research and design. This allowed us to confidently engage with clients to better understand and improve their end-to-end brand experiences of disabled and older customers.

Open regularly collaborates with other leading agencies like Equal Entry, and I have loved this also. We are always learning from our partners and helping each other create better outcomes by applying our different experiences, skills, and contexts.

The more I learn, the more I enjoy working in this ever-evolving field, with and in this community, across different industries, and types of brand experiences.

You’re involved with inclusive design in XR. What makes XR accessibility a priority for you?

Innovative and emerging technologies like extended reality (XR) are powerful. This power can be both positive or negative, especially in marginalised communities. It depends on how it matures and who gets engaged, innovators’ intent, knowledge, and power balances.

This is particularly important at the point of maturity that I feel immersive solutions (XR) are right now. They are rapidly transitioning from being a novelty on the side to being adopted more broadly in fundamental services and solutions.

The positive potential of XR is enormous. New technologies provide new opportunities to address old problems and unmet needs in better ways. As an example, directional sound (known as binaural audio) allows a user who is blind or has low vision to know more about what is going on in an experience without needing to audio describe it as deeply. The direction of the sound naturally provides more detail. This allows the audio description to be more creative and experiential, while still practically useful.

Augmented reality (AR) melds physical and digital information by overlaying digital content onto the real world. It can do this in ways that make physical environments more accessible and usable by more people.

AR can overlay a virtual sign language interpreter in a digital format besides a physical painting or museum artifact and describe it to you in your preferred language when you wish to be there. This is more flexible than waiting for the once-a-day, once-a-week, or never offered a tour with an in-person sign language description of the exhibition. It also means you can offer multiple sign languages more easily rather than assuming everyone can speak the sign language of the country the museum or gallery is in.

XR can provide different ways to experience activities that some are excluded from today due to their disabilities. 2D gaming has previously offered this, but it is now enriched with more immersion from binaural audio, 3D visual content, and increasingly also haptics. Haptics offers a sense of touch or movement. For example, I was on a bobsled experience that replicated the sense of feel on the real bobsled ride at La Plagne by tipping and bouncing along in a replica sled fixed in place as you watch and hear the visual experience wearing a VR headset.

Re-enabled experiences can include skydiving using games like Rush, driving a race car, or riding on a roller coaster in VR while your friend or family member sits “beside” you as they ride it in real life at a theme park. This could allow you to virtually be there by having cameras and sound recording capability that captures the moment alongside your friend. And it allows you to share it together in two different ways, each suited to your personal needs, one on the ground using VR, and the other on the ride itself.

Functionally XR can also support personal independence and management in some interesting ways. From removing the need to travel to a hospital or centre and ensuring correct alignment when doing physical therapy exercises to practicing conversation in a safe space for those with aphasia post-stroke and getting used to new spaces or experiences for those with limiting anxieties or who can get overwhelmed by new experiences.

By being more like real-life than 2D experiences, but still able to be adapted to the individual and turned off in a moment, XR can provide enriched, immersive, safe, supportive engagement and learning.

Equally, XR may become a new format in which we exclude swathes of society and then need to work much less efficiently removing the barriers in the years ahead once they are built-in. Exclusion will happen if the XR creative community doesn’t consciously consider the needs of people with disabilities now. Cross-industry collaborative organisations like XR Access are doing great work to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Smart innovative organisations engaging in XR who want to build significant market share and comparative advantage are also proactively engaging with disabled co-creators. They realise that by collaborating with experts in diverse usage, they will create more powerful and valuable solutions that are usable and enjoyable to more people more rapidly.

In short, I want to ensure that people with disabilities are considered from ideation to market entry across the innovation process, and from marketing and unboxing, to use and maintenance for in-market XR products. This will make the solutions consistently more accessible, delightful, and valuable to more people. This is good for both users and creators.

How does research and insight from the disability community influence and guide your work? What are you doing to strengthen the impact of experiences of the community on design and innovation?

Everything that we do at Open is guided by authentic diverse insight.

As mentioned earlier, our community is the heart at the centre of our organisation and proposition to clients. Most projects have a significant portion of the work focused on developing rich qualitative insights using one or a blend of approaches tailored to the specific client and challenge. These could be surveys, focus groups, mystery or accompanied shopping, usability testing, diary studies, ethnography, co-design, and co-creation or “meet your customer” sessions.

All engagement with the community is valuable and fairly valued. Each community member is paid for contributing their insights and value to each project they engage with.

In addition to the broader insight community, over half the team working at Open identify as disabled. Our colleagues with disabilities represent each of the major communities we work with. This allows us to co-create the research with lived experiences of the communities we engage with. It helps us design research that, as far as possible, allows each community and individual to contribute easily, safely, in their preferred way, efficiently, and confidently.

In the UK, our community of 600+ people with a very diverse range of lived experiences of disability and/or older age has now been providing fabulous and valuable insights for over 20 years.

This year we started growing the community to include people in other countries who feel that they would like to positively and valuably support better product and service design that understands and considers their needs.

If you feel that design fails you due to differences in the way you move, sense, think or feel, whether or not you identify as disabled, you can sign up now. Come and join us! In addition to the UK, we already have a small but influential and growing community in North America, Australia, and Ireland.

We have great partnerships with DPOs in these new regions supporting our understanding of the regional cultural and disability community differences. We also have partnerships in Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Latin America, and India to offer disability-inclusive research more globally.

Our goal is to significantly reduce the difficulty and friction that exists today for organisations to easily engage with disabled people in a way that is fair, safe, useful, and efficient. As multinational organisations operate in more than just one country, we need to ensure that inclusive insight services can also.

Lastly, we are also trying to share the skills and experience around inclusive insight, customer / user experience design, and disability-inclusive innovation that we have learned in as many useful ways as we can while learning from others constantly also.

This is why we engage in active and well-respected communities and initiatives like XR Access, StartAccess, N+, Forward for Good, Access to Success, and the Market Research Society’s Unlimited group on disability-inclusive research. We want more people to join us and enrich this space. We’re not scared of competition. We welcome it! This opportunity space is way bigger than we ever will be.

Christine Hemphill rides a bike wearing a helmet with a beautiful green hillside behind her

Tell us about your experience as a former professional triathlete. Is there anything you took from that experience and applied it to accessibility?

In high performance and excellence across any field I have worked in, I think talent is over-rated. And a resilient, indefatigable attitude, hard work, building a mix of different people with alternate perspectives, and establishing a process for ongoing improvement and progression are under-rated. This is just as true of an “endurance sport” like progressing customer inclusion and accessibility globally as it is of Iron distance triathlon racing at the professional level.

So, some parallel thoughts and useful practices I still benefit from.

You are not born to be an international athlete. Great performance is using what you have to your greatest ability by working both hard and smart with it.

You need to be a bit odd to be an endurance athlete. In competitive sport, you are likely to go further if you are constantly a bit dissatisfied even with good performance. If you are prepared to think differently and try new things to progress, get new perspectives, be prepared to work really hard and really consistently, even when you don’t want to, when it is uncomfortable, difficult, cold, hot, etc.

Most people at this point would be happy with what they have achieved already or happy to succumb to comfort (physically, emotionally, or psychologically). The best in the world go further and explore their potential well beyond what is comfortable or easy. This is just as true when setting up a new business with a new proposition in a relatively under-developed field like inclusive insight, design, and innovation.

This isn’t about thrashing yourself all the time either. Smart work is setting the pace in a way that is sustainable for the long term. Balancing intense hard efforts with easier sessions that are all about improving technique and base building.

Accessibility is also an endurance sport! We need to pace ourselves to be here for the long term, making change as fast as we sustainably can. I try and balance intense intellectual work or periods of “overwork” with slower burning projects, partnership development, and progression to set up for the future to be more efficient and impactful, both personally and as a team.

Most importantly is that despite triathlon being an individual sport, you can only progress to your potential in anything, including triathlon, when you have a great team that extends and challenges your perspectives, brings their specific skills and experience to support a shared outcome.

Managers, coaches, a physio, masseur, or “body mechanic,” nutritional planning, and the right training partners all come together to make or break your capability on race day. The most valuable perspectives tend to be the ones you want to avoid or ignore at first. They are likely playing to a weak area or restrictive belief you may be holding!

Lastly, I learned how to learn from, and then adapt “accepted wisdom” and available knowledge to work better for me. Most triathlon information is based on research with young men, for young men from technique, training, nutrition, recovery, physiological metrics like heart rate and psychological management. As a woman and one of the older pros on the circuit with two young kids in my life, learning from the prevailing wisdom, then rapid testing, hacking, or innovating for my body and circumstances until it worked for me was a lifelong lesson.

This taught me to respect others’ knowledge, but not to be afraid to adapt it to specific circumstances. Invaluable for running an inclusive solutions business!

What is an accessibility barrier you would like to see solved?

I wish it were easier for people with various lived experiences of disability to engage in research and insight accessibly. Accessible research design is mainly common sense applied to good accessible UX practices and good research practices.

Then tested with individuals with different needs and different research engagement approaches such as those who use assistive technologies or need clear English or easy read versions prior to use. This ensures the final research is accessible to everyone the researcher would like to represent in the findings. It’s a shame that today accessible and inclusive research is not commonly practiced.

If it were easier to complete a survey, be recruited for and share perspectives in a focus group, co-creation workshop, usability testing, or any other research format, then better design decisions would be made.

For national quantitative data, like labour force statistics, any distortion due to the accessibility of research formats can impact the data that national or regional policies and programmes are based on.

At the corporate level, customer experience or design insight is fundamental to improving business value. If you can’t access the insight from customers with disabilities, you have 20% of the market you are under-representing when making your decisions. You are also missing out on the insights that are more likely to offer more value due to their specific requirements and differentiation from other customers’ perspectives.

Good decisions require good insight that fairly and accurately represents all the people it needs to. Inaccessible research approaches are more than simply frustrating to potential participants, they limit our ability to understand, identify opportunities and appropriately value them. Inclusive and accessible research is an enabler of an inclusive and accessible society.

Accessibility is an endurance sport! We need to pace ourselves to be here for the long term, making change as fast as we sustainably can.

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