Drive innovation with accessible product design

Thirty years ago, the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which set accessible design standards for buildings and other areas of public life. This landmark legislation brought accessible features to built environments, making it possible for people of all abilities to participate more fully and equally in society.

For example, the ADA legislated curb ramps that not only allow people who use mobility devices equal access to public buildings, but help folks with strollers, carts, and rolling suitcases get around more easily as well.

While we have come a long way in the past three decades, there is plenty of work left to do. Although, the ADA set strict regulations around accessibility for built environments, that guidance does not extend to the tools, devices, and products that we use every day. Too many companies are still questioning the ROI of accessibility when, in fact, inclusive design can increase their products’ reach and brand loyalty.

How can designers be a part of the solution? Here’s a look at three ways to pursue more accessible design for physical products:

1) Create better guidance

Government regulations clearly define the requirements for publicly accessible buildings and the means of accessing these buildings, including sidewalks, public transportation, and parking lots.

However, physical products do not have such clear rules or regulations to follow.

For guidance, designers can look to the field of Human Factors Engineering to gain understanding of body sizes and proportions, as well as how people relate to surrounding objects. In addition, the Seven Principles of Universal Design can remind designers of the core values to consider when creating their products, including: equitable use; flexibility in use; simple and intuitive use; perceptible information; tolerance for error; low physical effort; and appropriate size and space for approach and use.

Sara Cinnamon, McKinsey Design Engineering Director, believes the design community can help create best practices where none currently exist. “If there are no rules to define what the product should do,” says Cinnamon, “we have the tools to create the rules.” Dissemination then happens organically, as features of successful products are emulated until they become ubiquitous. Designers can leverage thoughtful, accessible design to intentionally create product shifts throughout the market and define new accessibility standards.

That automatic door you love at the supermarket? That was created to lower the barrier to entry for people, and now comes in really handy in the time of COVID when no one wants to touch anything.

2) Think beyond “target markets”

When creating a new product, companies often begin by identifying their target market. While it’s common for businesses to think about the needs of a market like “young professionals,” it’s rarer for them to consider groups such as “older adults”—or the diversity of people contained within that demographic, including “people with a physical disability.”

This is where human-centered design can help businesses consider a larger group of humans, and thus a larger target market.

“It’s really common to end up just designing for yourself,” says McKinsey Design Senior Design Researcher Madison Berger. “So if you can push yourself to think, ‘How would a different group use this?’ or even ‘How would your kid or grandmother use this?’ it can lead to a better, more accessible design.”

Having a diverse set of designers is another valuable tool. Building a team with people of different backgrounds and at different life stages means more varied perspectives that can help everyone collectively think more broadly and more inclusively.

3) Explore hidden potential

In 2018, the purchasing power of working-age adults with disabilities was approximately $490 billion, with $21 billion in discretionary income. As a historically overlooked population, people with disabilities form a large, untapped market opportunity that designers can cater to.

“People with disabilities—even temporary ones—are a huge population,” says Cinnamon, “and serving them well can lead to a huge ROI.”

What’s more, products designed with this market in mind can lead to mass market success. A classic example: OXO kitchen tools, which were originally designed for people with arthritis but found widespread popularity because of their soft, easy-to-grip handles and overall ease of use.

In addition, many voice command devices—predecessors to today’s ubiquitous virtual assistants—were built initially for people with visual impairment. So anyone who uses products such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa has the BVI (blind or visually impaired) community to thank for introducing a new way to interact with the world beyond the keyboard.

To add the most value, it’s important to carry accessibility throughout the product development process—from research through delivery. Thinking about product use in edge cases and challenging assumptions forces designers to be more creative and thorough, resulting in robust products that delight a wide range of users.

If a single, universally accessible design is unfeasible, designers should think of how they can expand product offerings for use by other groups. Modularity can be a huge win for a product line, allowing users to tailor products to their needs. For example, Microsoft and Logitech have each developed a huge line of controllers that offer a variety of ways to interact and control gameplay for the Xbox gaming platform. They worked directly with prospective users—including quadriplegics, people with cerebral palsy, and those with other motion limiting conditions—to co-create and test controllers with inclusive designs that would welcome more users without changing the core product offering.

By embracing accessible design throughout the product development process, companies can support underserved populations while enhancing their market appeal and their bottom line. 

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