Designing for Everyone

A short primer on building inclusive technology for a wider, more diverse audience.

“I build technology to connect people.”

Product designers and developers wear this phrase (or some variation of it) like a badge of honor. Yes, you’re designing technology that millions of people use — but what if some people have trouble using the same technology as you?

Not many technologists realize that they often unintentionally exclude millions (yes, millions) of people who can’t experience technology like the average person can, due to a disability, their location, or insufficient prior experience.

Accessibility (also known as inclusive design or universal design) is the design of products, devices, services, or environments such that the final product can be used by as many people as possible, both directly or with assistive technologies, like screen readers. Specifically in the case of technology and digital products, it refers to design that affords users engaging and uncompromised experiences irrespective of their physical or cognitive abilities. Accessible technology accommodates users’ needs and adapts in ways that meets their visual, cognitive, hearing and speech needs.

According to the WHO, 285 million people around the world are visually impaired, of which 39 million people are legally blind (2012 census). Another 275 million people (2004) have medium-to-profound hearing impairments which actively affect how they perform day-to-day activities. To put this in perspective, compare these numbers to the current population of the United States: 319 million. Anyone who claims to build technology “for people” should consider it their social responsibility to also make it accessible. In some countries, companies and developers have a legal obligation to build accessible technology. The Australian government, for instance, has strict regulations that developers must adhere to, or face hefty fines — or worse. This is a great effort to make sure that differently-abled people don’t face technical barriers when trying to use technology built around the needs of the average person, who probably doesn’t have the same needs as they do.

That said, people with disabilities aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from technology that’s accessible and thoughtfully designed. Consider someone who has fractured their dominant hand and has it immobilized in a cast, or someone who is trying to use their phone while they’re holding a baby — all very real possibilities. Accessible design, at its very core, is people-friendly design.

The most common argument against focusing on accessibility is that it will affect users who don’t have special needs. It doesn’t have to. Start small. For starters, you could make sure that your choice of colors doesn’t impact readability for color blind users. Ensure that the text size in your app or website can be changed, and doesn’t adversely affect layout or readability when made larger or smaller. If a certain UI element is an important part of your interface, make it obvious — don’t hide it behind an interaction. If an element triggers an interaction, make sure the tappable area is sufficiently large. Try not to design interfaces that force users to keep a steady hand or be extra careful in order to interact with them. For instance, many older users have trouble accurately tapping touchscreens, and it’s not terribly inconvenient to help change that. If your app uses pre-recorded sounds, consider letting the user choose between stereo and mono audio. Users with partial hearing loss will appreciate being able to listen to those sounds as you intended for most users to.

Other than just making consumer technology accessible, it’s really important to consider how we can use technology to bridge the gap between how regular people and differently-abled people experience day-to-day life. One of my favorite research initiatives that aims to do this is Microsoft & Guide Dogs’ Independence Day project. Their objective is to help visually impaired people experience their surroundings in a more rich, more meaningful way with a clever combination of 3D soundscapes, smartphones and bluetooth beacons. I highly recommend reading the entire writeup, and watching the following video. Really inspiring stuff.

“There hasn’t been this much magic in 
the British suburbs since Harry Potter 
was dropped at 4 Privet Drive.”

It doesn’t take much to build inclusive technology. It mostly involves combining accessibility principles and applying them within specific contexts to meet your users’ needs. It involves thinking like your user, and having empathy for your user. Accessible design — design in general, really — is all about finding your way around constraints like these without compromising the experience you aim to deliver, and presenting your solution thoughtfully.

Technology is available to many, and is making its way to many more. Making it accessible is one way making sure that nobody gets shut out.