Accessible design means better design

Unless you’re one of the approximately one billion people with a disability, you may not have given a thought to how easily you interact with products and technology. Yet, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve benefited from experiences designed with accessibility in mind. For example, text messages were originally developed for the deaf so that they could use cell phones to communicate. Now, with over 23 billion texts sent each day, texting is a vital communication channel that exemplifies the universal appeal of inclusive design.

Many companies aren’t fully aware of the benefits of weaving accessible design principles into their digital strategy. Designing for users with varying levels of impairment and exclusion ensures that all user interactions are perceivable, understandable, operable and robust. As with text messaging, once the benefits are understood, accessibility and inclusion should be embedded in the way business is done.

Why accessible design matters

For many companies, accessibility in design is still an afterthought. Here’s four reasons for championing accessible design best practices:

1. It’s the right thing to do—both morally and ethically

In 2006, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities proclaimed that access to communications technology is a human right. In the current digital world, people whose disabilities make it difficult to use technologies increasingly find themselves left behind—in the economy, in education, and in equal opportunities.

Collin Cole, a partner in our Austin studio, puts it this way: “When people are cut off from information, they are effectively cut off from filling basic needs, shopping, learning, and connecting with other human beings. Digital tools are no longer just nice-to-have channels for information; they’ve become a primary means for everyday life.” This was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the current crisis combined with a lack of accessibility have the potential to effectively isolate those most vulnerable, including those with disabilities.

Accessible design means better design
Accessible design means better design

2. It’s a legal requirement

Today, all companies in the U.S. must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. With the rise of e-commerce, the law was amended in 2009 to include telecommunications.

Enforcement actions against companies for noncompliance have been rising. More than 2,200 cases were brought against US companies in 2018, an increase of 181 percent from the year before.

According to Nicole Chavez, a Senior Designer in the Austin studio, too many business leaders see compliance as a burden, often weighing the risks of getting caught against the resources they have to devote to a solution. “Their first question is, how many people are really disabled? Are they really going to be coming to our website or using our product?’ This is the wrong way to go about it if you aim to be a digital leader.”

3. It’s good business

As with other long-overlooked demographic segments, executives have slowly begun to recognize the opportunity in serving people with disabilities.

In 2018 the purchasing power of working-age adults with disabilities was approximately $490 billion. What’s more, with $21 billion in discretionary income, people with disabilities are a larger consumer group than the African American and Hispanic markets combined. Nicole notes, “What companies used to think of as their target markets are rapidly evolving and expanding. Inclusivity in design gives businesses a leg up on the competition by appealing to untapped and underserved consumers hungry for innovation.”

4. It makes for better design

One of the obstacles leaders may cite to embracing accessible design is that it can add extra steps during design research and could slow development when implemented as an afterthought. Designers may believe that to address the needs of people with disabilities, they have to water-down their concepts. The converse is actually true: since accessibility regulations require a certain level of rigor and clarity in navigation, this approach often produces more effective and intuitive products.

If a product is usable for a small set of people; it’s likely much more usable for very large sets of people.

How companies can embed accessible design into their DNA

Adopt an inclusive mindset. The best designers are, by their nature, problem solvers. Expanding that problem set to include accessibility can actually spur more innovation and creativity. Collin explains, “There’s a laundry list of practical things that designers can do, such as ensuring proper contrast ratios, legible font sizes, and optimizing for screen readers, to make products more accessible. But at a fundamental level, better solutions come from a mindset shift to be inclusive.”

Factor in accessibility from the outset. Making digital products accessible shouldn’t be a phase or extra step. And it shouldn’t be something subtracted from the “full” experience. Product managers, designers and developers need to incorporate these considerations into their respective best practices. Whether it’s undertaking a comprehensive digital transformation or developing new products and services, companies can be far more successful in these pursuits when they weave the needs and perspectives of people with disabilities into initial plans and objectives.

Embrace inclusive personas. In design research, co-creation and user testing, product teams should be sure to include people with disabilities in their design sprints. Through personas, digital diaries or in-person interviews, this group’s feedback throughout the process can highlight important needs that might otherwise slip through the cracks.

Nicole advises, “When a lot of people think about accessible design, they think about specific features or lofty requirements. Simple activities like introducing personas featuring disabilities can completely change the way that designers set out to meet their goals.”

Accessible experiences, goods and information not only increase market opportunity for organizations, but also usability for the entire population. Trust us, make things accessible.

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