Empower All Users, Part One: Beyond Accessibility
Accessible design considers the needs of people with disabilities. Inclusive design considers a diverse human population.
Accessibility. It is one of the most popular buzzwords in recent technological history. There are a multitude of benefits to building an accessible product: they drive innovative solutions, extend market reach, enhance brand recognition, increase customer loyalty, and minimize the risk of costly legal entrenchments.
Sadly, many companies only hear the ‘minimize risk’ part of that statement. Even the mere mention of accessibility can make product owners shudder. The legal repercussions of not developing an accessible product are making substantial waves in the digital space, with major companies like Hulu and Dominos under (expensive) fire for failing to comply with web accessibility requirements. It’s cases like these that have helped push accessibility into the spotlight of design conversations.
It’s a shame, really. Not that accessibility is getting its due time. Rather how (and why) companies are approaching the discussion. For many, accessibility is merely an afterthought: a means by which to tick some ‘let’s-not-get-sued’ boxes. An unfortunate result of this is that many product teams are unwilling to put in the proper work to make their products truly accessible. Designing and developing an accessible product is expensive and time-consuming. But hey, as long as the minimum guidelines are met, the company is safe from legal backlash. After all, users with disabilities only make up a tiny portion of a company’s user base, right?
These are all myths. Misguided and easily disproven myths. Knee-jerk reactions that make it seem like achieving accessible solutions is needlessly complicated. But to reiterate the first point: accessible products drive innovative solutions, extend market reach, enhance brand recognition, and increase customer loyalty. The legal risk is, or at least should be, the least important part of the equation.
Accessibility is not a setback. It is not something that will diminish design or compromise aesthetics. It is not expensive (unless, of course, it is considered at the end of the development process). And it is certainly not as complicated as some would believe you to think.
In reality, designing for accessibility is not that hard. It just needs to be considered throughout the entire creative process, from start to finish. And when done properly, the results are outstanding.
When accessibility is at the forefront of product design, the results bring benefits to everyone.
The right to access 🌎
According to the Pew Research Center, over 40 million Americans, approximately 12% of the American population, experienced some form of disability in 2015. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made discrimination directed at Americans with disabilities illegal. Business, public and private places were then required to provide equal access to jobs, schools, and transportation for those with a wide range of physical impairments and mental conditions.
When we look at disability on a world scale, the numbers swell to 1 billion, or 15% of the population. Even these numbers aren’t entirely accurate. When we think of disabilities, we often jump to the extremes: blindness, deafness, lack of mobility, and severe cognitive impairments. But disabilities span a wide range, from severity and permanency to environmental vulnerabilities.
In photo: Types of Disabilities (common and not-so-common)
- Visual impairments such as color blindness, low vision, degenerative eyesight loss and blindness.
- Auditory impairments such as conductive and neural hearing loss and deafness.
- Cognitive impairments such as memory and learning disabilities and attention and seizure disorders.
- Physical impairments such as paralysis, muscular and joint conditions, reduced dexterity and nerve injury.
- Contextual impairments such as browser and device compatibility, internet connectivity, language barriers, and space and context.
Have you ever watched a video on YouTube or Twitter in an exceptionally noisy environment? Perhaps at a busy coffee shop during the morning rush? Or maybe on a crowded bus or train during your evening commute?
Have you ever been outside in the cold? So cold that you don’t want to remove your gloves and therefore unable to use the touchscreen on your phone?
Have you ever temporarily injured yourself? Such as sprained your ankle or broken your arm?
If you have been in any of these situations, you have experienced a situational or temporary disability. It is essential to consider these sorts of limitations, as it widens our perspective of what disability is. And when we extend our idea of what disability is, we can broaden our knowledge of how to design a more inclusive product.
The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?
Author of Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
You are not your users… or… are you? ⌛
Aside from situational and environmental disabilities, the World Bank estimates do not take into account an aging population, many of whom do not consider themselves to have a disability. According to Nielsen Norman Group, people’s ability to use websites effectively declines by 0.8% every year between the ages of 25 and 60. To put that in perspective, users over the age of 65 are, on average, 43% slower at using websites than those younger than them.
Such cognitive impairments can be particularly difficult to approach, as cognitive disability is often stereotyped to the extremes: down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, dementia and, to a somewhat lesser extent, dyslexia and other learning disabilities. But as we get older, cognitive ability decreases, leaving us less and less capable of figuring new things out, especially when it comes to technology.
This is an important fact we as designers must acknowledge. The tech industry as it stands today is a pretty homogenous group, made up of people of similar ages, abilities, and backgrounds (including myself: a non-disabled woman in her early thirties). Because of this, we tend to create products for people just like us. We design experiences that adhere to how we function right now, in our present moment. Intentional or not, we end up neglecting a sub-sect of people that may have requirements different from us.
We as designers and product managers often talk about how a product will scale in the future as a business requirement. But we do not consider how it will behave and adapt as its users, including us, will change.
When it comes to people, there’s no such thing as “normal.” The interactions we design with technology depend heavily on what we can see, hear, say, and touch. Assuming all those senses and abilities are fully enabled all the time creates the potential to ignore much of the range of humanity.
Inclusive design makes space ✊🏿✊🏽✊🏻
The world is a diverse place, made up of people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, genders, philosophies, and physical and mental health abilities. There is no such thing as “normal.” User experience designers are tasked with creating consistent experiences across numerous platforms and technologies. However, many disabled, or, rather, differently abled people, are not considered in the design process, resulting in a solution or product that may exclude a significant portion of its user base.
Beyond designing for accessibility is inclusive design. The goal of inclusive design is to ensure that interfaces enable users to use products in a way that best fits their lives. As designers, it can be difficult for us to consider other people’s experiences and situations based on our own. As a result, we may design experiences that make it difficult for users to complete tasks on their terms.
Of course, this is often not for lack of trying. Personas and user journeys are powerful tools in our design arsenal, meant to help us design for real people in mind. However, these personas can be unintentionally exclusive. Even in certain situations in which we do consider wider audiences, situations, and abilities, we believe them to be “edge cases,” which draws a line in the sand between the users we decide to design for and those that we exclude.
Rethinking our approach to accessible design is a matter of rethinking our definition of accessibility in the first place. Microsoft’s methodology for inclusive design breaks this down brilliantly:
Disability is not a personal health condition.
Disability is a mismatched human interaction.
Think of abilities as functional capabilities. When we create products, features, or experiences that only consider a narrow selection of capabilities (for example, a non-disabled young adult with perfect vision), we end up creating barriers to the product’s use for users that do not fit that persona. This is disability redefined. A disability is not defined by a person’s functional capability. A disability is a conflict between someone’s functional capability and a barrier created by an object or environment. Redefining disability opens us up to understanding a more substantial portion of the diverse population we design for.
If we get away from force-fitting users into one set journey, we can truly find out what matters to them, opening up our designed experiences to more people with a broader range of abilities.
This is part one of a four-part series on accessible and inclusive design. By the end of this series, I hope to equip designers, product managers, and even developers with an actionable set of guidelines that we can apply to our respective processes.
In part two of this series, we’ll take a look at how designing for a diverse population has sparked the creation of innovative products that have left a meaningful impact on all users.
Part three emphasizes the importance of diversity in building teams and creating products. We will also examine company practices that demonstrate how designing for inclusion is just good business.
Part four is a deep dive into how to design universal user experiences. We’ll break down the four layers of guidance provided by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Using these guidelines, designers can better collaborate with stakeholders, clients, product teams, and developers to deliver a website that is accessible to the widest array of users as possible.
Thank you for reading!