Women Shaping the Future of Design: Meet Kat Holmes, Director of UX at Google and Founder of Mismatch.design
In 2018, Kat Holmes published her book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, and launched mismatch.design, a digital media enterprise dedicated to providing inclusive design resources and education. Currently a director of user experience (UX) at Google and formerly the principal director of inclusive design at Microsoft, Holmes knows a thing or two (an understatement) about designing and optimizing a product for massive audiences of users. While at Microsoft, she was the leader of the company’s executive program for inclusive product innovation; her award-winning inclusive product design toolkit was subsequently inducted into the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Museum.
But it would be a mistake to think that Holmes limits her purview to the world of technology. A glance at both mismatch.design and the first few pages of Holmes’ book make evident that Holmes champions inclusive design—and the pros who execute it in their respective fields—everywhere from the built environment (she curated an exhibit for AIA Seattle in 2016) to education, and of course, the pixels of the tech world. Interior Design sat down with Holmes to discuss her work with Mismatch and the impact of inclusive design.
Interior Design: How does your work with Mismatch relate to your day job?
Kat Holmes: Mismatch is the name of my book and the name of my website. The word “mismatch” also refers to the World Health Organization’s definition of disability, which in 2001 was redefined as the mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live. Known as the social model of disability, this definition helped to shape my thinking about inclusive design. I approach all of my work from the perspective of trying to understand how design can be the cause of exclusion (intentionally and unintentionally)—but design can also be the remedy for exclusion.
ID: Did you have an ‘aha’ moment that prompted you to veer your career in the direction of inclusive design?
KH: My aha moment came when I was working on a digital personal assistant at Microsoft. At the time, there weren’t any voice-conversational design tools to help us develop this AI assistant. We discovered that one of the best resources for us was to talk to actual human personal assistants to find out what it takes to create a great experience for another human being. Their expertise was crucial to our work.
What led me to inclusive design was exploring the many kinds of human expertise that are missing from most design processes. Most notably, the expertise of people with disabilities who have long been innovating a diversity of ways to interact with technology.
ID: You mention in your book that inclusive design can be challenging to implement successfully across multiple teams in a large organization. How have you personally overcome this in your role as a leader at some of the biggest multinational technology companies?
KH: It takes a lot of people and collaboration to build an inclusive design practice within an organization. The important thing is to keep asking whose voices and whose expertise are missing. If you keep asking the question, then it forces you to consider how you can create a diversity of ways for people of different abilities to engage with the solutions you design. I firmly believe that inclusive design fuels innovation and makes good economic sense. Reminding senior leadership about all the ways that inclusive design helps the bottom line is key.
ID: The approaches you outline in Mismatch extend to a variety of disciplines (ex: the built environment, software, education) and incorporate a variety of professionals who are experts in those fields. Why was it important to you to look beyond the specifics of your own field?
KH: Exclusion happens everywhere. When I was consulting, I worked with companies across sectors. Regardless of the line of business, the questions were similar: Everyone wanted to know how to start and how to get buy-in. I wanted my book to help set a foundation. Once grounded in some basic principles, companies can begin to incorporate and adapt inclusive-design practices for their respective needs.
ID: What changes have you seen in the way the design and engineering community approach inclusive design in their practice since releasing Mismatch (the book) and launching the digital media company?
KH: Interest in inclusive design has been growing and preceded the publication of my book. My book was published last October and there hasn’t been enough time to be be able to gauge its impact. Anecdotally, the response from the people who have read the book has been positive and I’m grateful.
ID: What are your hopes for the future of inclusive design?
KH: I always tell people that inclusive design is a daily practice—like brushing your teeth. You have to do it consistently to receive the full benefits. There are many different forms of exclusion that we don’t fully understand. The practice of inclusive design will help us navigate those waters.