At least one billion people, 15% of the world’s population, have a recognised disability — a figure that will only grow as the global population ages.
With that number making up a huge proportion of potential users for any single application, it’s not only morally right but makes good business sense for software developers to aim for better end-user accessibility.
In the same way that it’s not right to exclude someone from a physical building because they use a wheelchair, it’s also not right to exclude someone from using an application because, for example, they have a visual impairment.
However, the unfortunate truth is that often “good design” only considers the best form and function for some people and excludes many others based on ability. Initiatives like Global Accessibility Awareness Day aim to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion. From a DevOps perspective, it’s important to bear in mind that design shouldn’t discriminate or divide. The aim for every developer needs to be bringing people together, instead of shutting certain groups out.
What is inclusive design?
Inclusive design can be thought of as the practice of making your applications usable by as many people as possible. We traditionally think of the outcome of inclusive design — accessibility — as being about people with disabilities. This is true to an extent, but it’s also much bigger than that. Accessibility is about treating every user the same, giving every person the same experience and opportunities regardless of their abilities or circumstances.
Inclusive design emphasises user diversity, and the contribution a multitude of capabilities, needs and aspirations makes towards the decisions we make as developers. Furthermore, it recognises that needs shift overtime, anticipating the different ways an individual might interact with an application as life goes on.
Even those with full abilities can require more accessibility in some situations — if only for a short time. Think about looking into a bright light, wearing a cast, or ordering dinner in a foreign country.
All humans are growing, changing, and adapting to the world around them every day. We need our designs to reﬂect that diversity.
Where to start — practical tips
Through a combination of the right tools and a responsible approach by the developer, there are several practical steps that we can take when thinking about accessibility and inclusive design.
The W3C — the international community that creates Web Standards — sets its own Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) with the goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organisations, and governments globally.
With criteria set along A to AAA requirements, developers can easily track and mark their applications and software against references to determine how accessible it really is.
And whilst triple-A is the gold standard, it’s not an overnight journey. The first measures that we can take to ensure software is more accessible are often simple changes — rather than a radical fundamental shift to how the software operates and looks. With this in mind, some thought-starter questions for developers to ask themselves include:
Am I paying attention to the basics?
It may sound obvious, but often the key to enhancing user experience lies in the little things. Start off by asking yourself if the headers on pages and tabs are visible and whether form-fills are clear. If not, do you need to rethink their lay-out and purpose to make it easier for a user with additional needs to interact with?
Do my webpages have a clear logical order of information?
Does the order of information make common-sense, both in terms of hierarchy as well as from a communicative perspective? If not, how can it be reordered or configured to make for an inclusive experience?
Are my components being used for their correct purpose?
Are buttons being used for buttons, links for links, paragraphs for paragraphs? Are they all serving the purpose they’re intended for? Do they fully enable the user of the application to interact with it in the right way?
Am I supporting multiple forms of interaction?
People with disabilities access and navigate the web in different ways. Can you navigate through your webpage using the keyboard alone? Is it robust enough to be interpreted by a wide variety of assistive technologies?
Why accessibility benefits everyone
As designers, it’s our responsibility to know the points of exclusion in our software. Doing so will help us generate new ideas and inclusive designs, as well as highlighting opportunities to create solutions with utility for all.
Many organisations are waking up to the fact that embracing accessibility leads to multiple beneﬁts. These range from reducing legal risks, strengthening brand presence to improving customer experience and colleague productivity.
Accessible design provides varied and ﬂexible ways for users to interact with websites and applications, options that are useful for people with and without disabilities. Designers of user interaction should also think about experiences other than screens when accessibility is a consideration. With global sales of smart speakers expected to exceed 200 million by the end of 2019, there seems a logical business case to be made for digital initiatives that are more human-centred, natural, and contextual.
A clear commitment to accessibility can also demonstrate that a business has a genuine sense of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Potential outcomes for CSR programs include enhanced brand image and reputation and improved workforce diversity.
Accessible design can also lead to improvements in customer experience and loyalty. For customers with disabilities, such improvements are vital but for every user it should lead to a better overall experience. At a time when competition in many markets is heated, increasing accessibility can help an organisation reach a new customer-base it was unknowingly ignoring before.
At some point in our lives, all of us will experience the need for greater accessibility — we are all only temporarily fully-enabled. Rather than the common misconception that accessibility is a minority issue and a barrier to innovation, designers should view accessibility as a core component of the innovation process — one that opens new ways of thinking for every user to have a better experience.