Inclusive Design: why designing for accessibility benefits everyone

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Making what you’re designing accessible helps both disabled and able-bodied alike.

(Note, when writing this, Antonio has made an assumption here that you’re able-bodied like him, at least when it comes to interacting with computers and phones, as this applies to the vast majority of designers due to the nature of the job – as if you’re not, you likely already know all of this).

Think about a time when you really needed to send a text message but your hands were busy. Maybe you were washing the dishes, which meant your hands were soapy and wet, making it difficult to use the touchscreen. Instances like these are common but they aren’t constant. You’re not perpetually washing dishes.

Now, ask yourself, “What if my hands were always busy? What if I couldn’t use my hands at all?”

Empathy should be at the heart of all User Experience design. The first step to building it is to think about the times when you’re not able to do the tasks you typically can. Those times can be frustrating, but they’re informative, as well. Inclusive Design aims to solve those frustrations, for all people, by looking at each problem from different perspectives.

By creating features that account for those times when you can’t use your product the way you typically do, you end up creating for people who may not be able to use it at all. This allows more people to use your product, more often. In the case of websites, the outcome could mean more traffic, which in turn potentially means more revenue.

Also consider that word of mouth is the most influential marketing strategy, thus it can also be the most damaging. If you don’t create accessible features for your site or product, potential users may not spread the word about it. You may end up isolating people who may otherwise become your best advocates. Worse, they may actively avoid it and suggest others do the same.

A Step Further

When aiming to design inclusively, it’s important to remember that not everyone can use your products the same way, or the way you may have designed them. For example, when building websites, consider how not everyone can control their computers the way you do. They may not be able to see the screen at all or may not have the mobility to push a mouse.

Inclusive Design is more than meeting accessibility compliance. It is much more than simply checking a few boxes to make sure colour and contrast ratios meet standards. Inclusive Design starts at the very beginning of any project, before pixels get pushed, before pens even hit sketchbooks.

Let’s take the previous thought experiment a step further. At the beginning of your next project consider asking, “How would this product work if I couldn’t see it? What if I couldn’t touch it, or move it? What if I couldn’t hear it, taste it, smell it?” This will help you think about people's pain points and usages differently, lending some guiding principles toward the design of your product.

Recognise Bias

There are varying degrees to which a user might be limited with respect to using your product, ranging from very temporary to permanent. A user might be washing dishes, holding their newborn child, have a broken wrist, or be an amputee. Get to know the people who might be using your product. Try to understand them and their pain points, their needs, their motivations. Look at your product through their eyes as much as you possibly can. Even more importantly: interview them and have them test your product – repeatedly, if possible.

Naturally, we tend to design for how we individually might be able to use a product. We consider interaction models – swipe, tap, pinch, click, slide, etc – that we, ourselves, are able to perform. That’s designing to our own capabilities. Sometimes, designers can step outside of themselves and consider how to use their product as someone who has a different set of capabilities. This is problematic, though. We easily fall into the trap of thinking people are only capable in one interaction or another. This limits our ideation around interaction methods, and stops us from thinking across different perspectives.

Some abilities and limitations are permanent, some are not. Capabilities change, and change often, depending on the situation. When we design for situations, we start to approach them from multiple angles. We can brainstorm new, different ideas as to how to solve a problem outside of a limited set of capabilities.

A More In-Depth Primer

When working with anyone new to thinking about inclusive design, I like to have them perform an in-depth thought experiment. It goes something like this:

  • There’s a moderately heavy door ahead that swings out towards you. There is a bright light just above the door, shining down. Vertical bar handles are on either face and it is locked by a keypad on the left.
  • How do you get through the door?
  • Now imagine you are holding bags of groceries in each arm. How do you open the door?
Imagine you are on crutches. How, now?
What if you are in a wheelchair?
What if you just went to the eye doctor and your pupils are dilated?
  • What if you can’t see at all?

This thought experiment sheds light on how we can better make things for all people. Instead of thinking about simply designing a door, we can start to look at the door (or any other product) from multiple vantage points and different types of interactions.

This is Just the Beginning 

We've looked at Inclusive Design using physical capabilities as our lens, but that’s only part of what it takes to designing inclusively. The same thinking can, and should be applied to neurological, cultural, ideological, or environmental viewpoints. Those, too, can play a huge factor into how people use and interpret products and their design.

Of course, thought experiments are only a good first step. They pale in comparison to all the great amount of data and insights obtained by user testing and interviews. The absolute best way to design for multiple situations is to work with the people who live through them. Again, interviews and testing reveal loads of information that mere thinking cannot.

Inclusive Design isn’t solely about making sure a small percentage of the population can use your product. It’s about making sure anyone, in any situation, can use your product. And that benefits everyone. 

Antonio Holguin is an associate principal designer at Smashing Ideas.

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