Empower All Users, Part Two: A Showcase of Innovation

Designing with accessibility and inclusion in mind drives innovative solutions that bring benefits to everyone.

Ashley Carter
Jun 7 · 6 min read

Accessibility is not a setback 👏👏👏

At first glance, incorporating accessibility into one’s design or development process can seem like a daunting endeavor. One look at the vast documentation of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG) is enough to make even the most open-minded designer or developer shy away in intimidation.

It’s a common complaint among product makers: that accessible design is limiting, complicated, and expensive. For product owners, tasking the team with integrating accessible design and development standards could mean an increase in scope and a strain on the project’s budget. For developers, accessible code translates to a significant increase in time. For visual designers, having to adhere to color contrast ratios and particular font sizes for legibility can stifle creative freedom. And for experience designers, accessible design practices could mean stripping a product of its uniqueness, resulting in a dull and boring product.

While these concerns are understandable at the surface level, they are among the most common misconceptions about incorporating accessibility. The truth is, if accessibility is not a consideration early in the design process, it could lead to major redesign and development efforts after the product or website’s release. And if that’s the case, the fears of the product owners, developers, and designers will all come true: more time and more money; not to mention a frustrated or dissatisfied client.

But the point of this is not to make accessibility more intimidating. Designing for inclusion has many benefits that greatly outweigh the worries. When considering a broader audience in the design process, innovation has room to thrive. Considering accessibility can surface unanticipated problems. Developing features that address specific disabilities solve these previously unanticipated problems, resulting in a product or experience that benefits all users.

Many organizations are waking up to the fact that embracing accessibility leads to multiple benefits — reducing legal risks, strengthening brand presence, improving customer experience and colleague productivity.

Paul Smyth
Head of Digital Accessibility, Barclays

Accessibility drives innovation 💡

Accessible design has a funny way of trickling down to empower all users, especially when the original intention was meant strictly for disabled users. Perhaps the most widely-known example of this is in physical space. Entrances to buildings can be made more accessible by including a wheelchair ramp. But depending on the entrance’s location and the building’s design, the resulting ramp may end up looking more like a labyrinth than an accessible feature.

When accessibility is considered as an afterthought, the results can be less friendly and more… daunting.

In photo: (L) a zig-zagging, maze-like wheelchair ramp clearly designed as an accessibility afterthought; (R) a sidewalk with curb cuts.

If a universal approach is taken, the resulting design can benefit more than just the intended user. Curb cuts were first installed in Michigan in the early 1940s as an assistive measure to help wheelchair users. But curb cuts quickly proved their usefulness to a larger array of people. Bicyclists, parents with strollers, and people carrying luggage also benefit from the design. By now, the curb cut is so ubiquitous that they are no longer considered “assistive.” Larry Goldberg, founder of the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media put it best:

A sidewalk with a curb cut is simply a better sidewalk.

Thinking about situational and temporary disabilities (discussed in part one of this series) widens our assumptions of what a disability is. How can we as designers and product teams provide value for a wide range of people and a wide range of situations?

Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

In photo: A Timeline of Creative Innovation:

From the typewriter to driverless cars, designing for disabilities has sparked ingenuity in products with far-reaching uses. Google, for example, has a history of designing impactful products for all users. In 2006, Google Maps introduced turn-by-turn directions, originally meant for blind users using screen readers or other assistive technologies. Contrast minimums, an accessibility guideline also meant to aid visually impaired users, were increased across Google’s online and mobile products, resulting in increased legibility for all users. Like those, for example, in bright light glare situations.

I think that science is for everyone. It belongs to the people, and it has to be available to everyone because we are all natural explorers. I dream on a level scientific playing field, where people encourage and respect each other, where people exchange strategies and discover together. If people with disabilities are allowed into the scientific field, an explosion, a huge titanic burst of knowledge will take place, I am sure.

Wanda Diaz Merced
Blind astronomer who developed a non-visual system for studying stellar radiation

Digital groundbreakers 💥

Closed captioning allows viewers both deaf and hard of hearing to follow the dialogue and action of a television program or video. Consider a scenario mentioned in part one: trying to watch a YouTube or Twitter video on a crowded train. More and more organizations are utilizing closed captioning to their video content, which helps not just those hard of hearing but for the situation in which you might be hard of hearing.

Speech-to-text applications have a long and varied history stretching back to the 1950s where the first speech recognition systems could only understand numbers. Voice dictation evolved over the decades as a means to provide further access to people with disabilities. In the early 1980s, Dragon Dictate released as a proprietor speech recognition software. A notable user of this software was popular Star Trek and The Incredible Hulk comic book artist, Peter David, who said, following his stroke in 2012: “I’m looking forward to getting home and, in the meantime, thank God for the Dragon Dictate program.

Fast-forward to 2019: a world where millions of people with or without disabilities utilize Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and/or Apple’s Siri to manage their schedules, play music, order and track packages, and keep in touch with family and friends.

As technology advances, more and more opportunities for innovations will rise. And as these situations present themselves, we as product makers have the impressing ability to discover and open up new opportunities for engagement.

This is part two of a four-part series on accessible and inclusive design.

Part one is a call to action for designers and product makers to rethink their idea of what disability is in order to open up their thought processes for creating more inclusive solutions.

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!

Ashley Carter

Written by

Experience Designer. Seeking ways to grow and apply my design expertise to accessibility, inclusion, and mental health initiatives.

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