Redefining Human-Centric Design

Ethics, equity and accessibility in the design process

frog Editor
frog Voices
6 min readMay 10, 2022

--

By Lucie Bolé

Humans are hardwired for compassion. Research shows that helping others triggers the same reward systems in the brain as when we help ourselves. When we create tools and solutions that address the limitations and challenges of our fellow humans (whether it’s creating a user-friendly interface or an ergonomic pillow) we’re in part motivated by a desire to care for others. This is why advancing a human-centric approach to design is crucial — it puts greater focus on understanding end users and helps to generate innovative solutions suited to their needs.

For innovation to truly be human-centric, we must ensure accessibility for all. If a design only considers the needs of some humans, ignoring the needs of others, it can’t truly be called a human-centric design. We can redefine what human-centric means by incorporating the principles of equity and inclusivity. The design process needs to be both accessible and equitable to be considered humane.

Changing Perspectives

What if we started projects with ethics and equity in mind? What if this change in perspective allowed us to identify and solve problems we haven’t even thought of yet?

There are already numerous examples of this. Audiobooks were introduced in the 1930s by the American Foundation for the Blind and the Braille Institute of America and were designed to meet the needs of people with temporary or permanent low vision and blindness. Today, millions of people listen to audiobooks daily, and their usage is not limited to people with vision disabilities. This shows how a product made for a specific kind of disability can be used by all.

Another example of a popular product that was initially designed to serve the needs of a specific population is the Microsoft Xbox Adaptive Controller. First created to accommodate gamers with limited mobility, its customizable interface helps users decide how they want to play by adjusting the controls to fit their body and abilities. In other words, the Xbox Adaptive Controller allows anyone to play video games no matter their abilities.

26% of all adults have at least one disability in the US. Source: CDC
The prevalence of disability is higher than you might think

A Major Market

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 26% of all adults have at least one disability (2018). By this estimate, if our creative process is not informed by accessible design, we are unwittingly neglecting the needs of a quarter of the population.

According to the American Institute of Research (AIR), people with disabilities make up $490 billion of the total disposable income of the working-age population. Consequently, by ignoring the needs of people with disabilities, we are not only making innovations inaccessible to a potentially large number of users, but we are also failing to reach a significant part of the active market.

Designing for All

Several companies have been able to increase their market reach by designing for people with disabilities as part of their human-centric design process.

  • The Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive line was created to make the experience of getting dressed easier for people with and without disabilities. Thanks to one-handed zippers and magnetic buttons, this inclusive clothing line led to an impressive 80% increase in new customers.
  • The OXO Good Grips vegetable peeler was developed for people with arthritic hands. Due to its ergonomic shape, it became one of the most comfortable peelers available and has been used by people both with and without arthritis. The large adoption of that product led OXO to become one of the leaders in the cookware market. By creating an accessible product, they both unintentionally extended their market reach and introduced an innovative cooking experience for all.

Legal Standards

Implementing accessibility best practices not only supports a strong business case but is also required by law. Since 1990, all companies in the U.S. have a legal requirement to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. Additionally, in 2006, during the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UN proclaimed that access to communications technology is a human right.

Among other entities, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which provide international web content accessibility standards. They have identified what the best practices are to make a digital product accessible and how to implement these standards.

Failure to meet these standards can lead to enforcement actions against companies for noncompliance. In 2011, Netflix became the first company to be sued because they failed to provide closed captioning for movies on its website. Since then, the number of ADA Federal Lawsuits has increased — in 2019, 11,053 ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits were filed.

In the digital space, other companies and celebrities have been sued for non-ADA compliance. For example, in 2019, Parkwood Entertainment (owned by Beyoncé Knowles) was hit with a class-action lawsuit claiming that the website Beyonce.com violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying visually impaired users’ equal access to its products and services. That same year, Domino’s Pizza was sued by a man with vision impairment after he was unable to order food on their website despite using screen-reading software.

These are just a few examples of how noncompliance with accessibility guidelines can tarnish a company’s reputation. If a human-centric design approach of equity and inclusion had been prioritized by these companies, those lawsuits could potentially have been avoided.

Accessible from Day 1

One of the most common problems encountered when trying to make a product or service accessible is retrofitting. Because it requires more time, money and effort to retrofit than to build in accessibility from the start, ideally companies should apply the principles and practice of accessibility and inclusivity during the planning phase.

To make sure accessibility is considered throughout iterations of the design process, it’s important to:

  • include a diverse population in the research process
  • follow accessibility standards and guidelines
  • test prototypes with assistive technologies and accessibility tools

Auditing Accessibility

Unfortunately, the reality is that many products and services today are not accessible and will need to be modified to be ADA compliant — a recent WebAIM report estimated that less than 1% of website home pages met standard accessibility requirements. It’s also the case that retrofitting is often unavoidable, for example, when it comes to existing products and services. That’s why it’s important for companies to conduct accessibility audits; to determine the most efficient ways to make products or services accessible and execute any identified recommendations.

In short, accessibility can be a tool for innovation, and making it an essential part of the design process should be a priority. By simply following accessibility guidelines, and including people with disabilities in the design process, we can provide better experiences and solutions for all. A commitment to the principles of inclusivity and equity can even have the power to enhance a company’s image and extend market reach.

We have the opportunity to lead the design industry toward redefining what human-centric design stands for. Let’s drive the effort by advocating for inclusivity and making sure that implementing accessibility best practices becomes the norm.

“Ethics must become a custom, a way of thinking, a set of values held by all in the industry.” Cennydd Bowles, Future Ethics

Lucie Bolé—Accessibility & Sustainability Lead, frog Philadelphia

After working as a graphic designer in Paris and NYC, Lucie studied at Parsons School of Design to explore how user research and user interactions can bring change to society. Her experience designing products in the worlds of AR, VR and NFTs brought her to becoming a Senior Interaction Designer at frog.

Certified as a professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC), she is determined to make human-centric design more ethical by promoting the importance of inclusivity, accessibility and sustainability in the design process.

A headshot of Lucie Bolé

--

--