As designers and builders of digital products, we have an incredible opportunity to create experiences that empower and include people from all walks of life. But too often, we fail to consider the full spectrum of human experiences and abilities. When we design with these assumptions, we end up excluding and disempowering people who don’t fit into that narrow scope. This includes over 1 billion people worldwide living with a disability—a number that continues to grow and includes both permanent and temporary disabilities.
Accessibility is the design practice of creating products and experiences that can be used by as many people as possible, including those with visual, auditory, mobility or cognitive impairments.
Temporary disabilities can also include injuries, illnesses, and age-related conditions that significantly impact a person’s ability to interact with digital tools and physical environments. By building with accessibility in mind, we tap into a huge population of potential new customers and users. We also future-proof our products for our own lives as we experience the gradual loss of ability that comes with aging.
By designing for accessibility, we are designing for the margins of human experience, preparing for situations we may someday experience ourselves with age. We open our products up to a huge market that continues to be underserved.
And, this is not just about doing what’s right for humanity. There are many business benefits from designing more accessible products such as:
- Empathetic Design. Start with a deep understanding of your audience. This means considering people with different abilities, whether visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive. Use personas that reflect this diversity during your design process.
- Increased customer base. There are over 1 billion people living with disabilities globally, in addition to 2 billion aging individuals experiencing age-related difficulties using technology and environments. Most remain underserved.
- Future-proofing. Accessible design prepares companies for the gradual loss of ability that comes with an aging overall population and the temporary disabilities we all may face at some point.
- Competitive advantage. Companies leading with inclusive, accessible design gain reputation and loyalty benefits, which drives word-of-mouth marketing and long term success.
- Innovation boost. Designing for the margins sparks new creative solutions that can improve the mainstream experience. Curb cuts and closed captioning are two examples that started as accessible features but became ubiquitous.
- Improved brand reputation. Prioritizing inclusive, accessible design demonstrates a company’s social and ethical values, which appeals to most consumers today. Customers want to support brands that support their communities
- Improved SEO. Search engines favor accessible websites, meaning you can reach more people organically.
- Legal Compliance. Avoid lawsuits and fines by adhering to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and similar legislation worldwide.
So how do you do it? How can product teams build more accessible products? Some key steps for accessible design include:
- Universal Design Principles: Implement these principles from the onset of your design process, ensuring your products can be used by all, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation. These principles include flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, and perceptible information.
- Test, Test, Test: Engage with real users, especially those with disabilities, during your testing phases. No amount of good intent will match direct feedback from the people you want to serve. Use assistive technologies like screen readers or voice recognition software to test your products.
- Standards and Guidelines: Familiarize yourself with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and aim for at least AA level compliance.Provide text alternatives for images, including alt text, captions and audio descriptions. This helps people who can’t see the visuals.
- Add control without mouse: Include keyboard navigation that allows people to use the product without a mouse. This helps people with motor impairments.
- Color friendly design: Choose a color contrast that meets WCAG standards for text and background colors. This helps people with low vision.
- Visible design: Allow for resizing of text without breaking the layout. This helps people who need larger font sizes.
- Web accessibility: Include headings and semantic HTML markup. This helps screen readers announce content in a logical way.
- Feedback loops: Provide multiple ways to contact and get support so people can choose what works for their abilities. This helps accommodate a range of communication preferences.
- Flexibility: Build flexibility of use into your product. Design for the margins, not the average, so people can adjust settings to meet their own needs.
- Keep up to date: Stay up-to-date with web accessibility standards and best practices. Technology and guidance are constantly evolving. What was once accessible may not be today.
When we design inclusively, we gain valuable business benefits: our products become visible and available to more potential customers, we build a reputation for leading with empathy, we gain a competitive advantage, and we earn loyalty from underserved segments of the market.
While designing with inclusion may require effort and resources up front, the long term benefits to innovation, human empowerment and business success are well worth the investment. Our world desperately needs more compassion and belonging. As product leaders, CEOs and designers, let’s have the courage to build it.