As designers of digital products and websites, we want to help as many people as possible to have a positive experience with what we create, regardless of who they are and how they interact. We obviously need to design with certain accessibility principles in mind, but accessibility is simply an outcome – whereas inclusive design is a process, an ethos and a particular mindset.
“Inclusion is about creating a better world for everyone.”
Diane Richler, Former President, inclusion-international.org
When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web 30 years ago, he thought he had created an egalitarian tool that would share information for the greater good. The founding principles of the framework on which our internet is based, is one of equality and equal access to knowledge and experiences. But has the opportunity for ever more impressive visual design, interactive techniques and digital experiences got in the way of that founding principle? To quote the man himself; “Web users ultimately want to get at data quickly and easily. They don’t care as much about attractive sites and pretty design.” This statement may be a hard pill for many designers to swallow.
Remember, you are not designing for yourself or your peers
When designing products and services, it is vital to consider the wide spectrum of users who may encounter your creation. Even if you’ve identified your ideal user or customer by creating personas or other methods of defining your audience, you should ensure that people who are on the fringes can still enjoy the experience, or at least access the information and accomplish the goal they’d expect to achieve when using your product.
The concept of “disability” may have limited the understanding of the need for accessible technology … the IT industry must consider the wide range of people who could benefit. ”
You may be designing for a specific demographic, with various needs in mind, but it’s essential to consider the context of their encounter with your product. As the image below highlights, people will have varying requirements at varying times throughout their lives. You must consider the permanent, situational, and temporary levels of need, and ensure your design adapts, or better yet, simply works for all instances.
Ask questions throughout the process
Whether you follow an agile or waterfall process (or something in between,) you should factor in the following questions at each stage of your design and build process.
- Can I think of anybody who might struggle to use this feature or UI element?
- Am I building unnecessary barriers into the user journey?
- How might a user with X disability accomplish this task?
- Am I hiding or obscuring important information for aesthetic reasons?
- What percentage of this design is function vs decoration?
- Could this appeal to a wider audience or market?
By asking key questions and really challenging yourself and your team, your initial ideas will be more robust, meaning your wireframes will be better fleshed out, and your prototypes, MVPs, and shippable products will be stronger as a result. And you’ll probably be sharply aware that it’s much more costly to go back and fix or patch things, post-launch than it is to prevent errors and oversights from happening in the first place.
“Accessible design is good design. Everything we build should be as inclusive, legible and readable as possible. If we have to sacrifice elegance – so be it. We’re building for needs, not audiences. We’re designing for the whole country, not just the ones who are used to using the web. The people who most need our services are often the people who find them hardest to use. Let’s think about those people from the start.”
The UK Government’s sixth design principle
Putting it into practice
Inclusive design thinking can be applied to create brand new products and systems with a wide demographic in mind, but more often than not, the introduction of inclusive design will result in the improvement of existing products. Adapting existing systems in seemingly minor ways can profoundly increase the reach and usefulness of a thing.
Adapting existing designs
One real world example is this simple adaptation to wheelbarrow handles – it still functions exactly like other wheelbarrows, however the handles pivot to lessen wrist strain caused when lifting and tipping. This makes the product accessible to a wider user base without isolating the original demographic.
Another example of inclusive design is language. It may not be obvious but copywriting is the perfect opportunity to practice inclusive design thinking, and is actually a great example of inclusive design thinking. Your core message should be easy to understand, and whilst you are free to add some flourishes or descriptive text, you should not allow the words get in the way of what you’re trying to say. Readers of any level should be able to understand the instruction conveyed.
“If you are a person who requires translation services or struggles to understand English, please go to the reception areas and ask the receptionist who will be happy to refer you to a translator.”
This sign would be much better if read like this:
“If you need a translator, please ask at reception.”
No need for an “accessible mode”
This illustration of a tilting hand basin is a great example of inclusive design. As you can see, it works for standing and seated users without either needing to change their processes. Neither position is the default, there are no “normal” or “accessible” modes. Rather the product simply adapts slightly to allow both users to easily accomplish their task.
Inclusive design and genuinely designing for all, has empathy at its heart. It is an expression of really understanding that there will be another human being on the other side of your screen who will be interacting with the product you are building. Instill the principles in yourself and your team, so that no matter who that human is and what level of ability they may have, you will fulfill your duty to provide a good and seamless experience that enables everyone to achieve their goals.
Not only is this approach nice and thoughtful, it’s also good business. By baking inclusive design into your product development cycles, your team will inevitably become more innovative and ask questions that other development teams may not ask. This approach will help differentiate your product and, by doing so, establish your brand as being responsible and caring.