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Inclusive Design: the what, the why, and the how

July 15, 2019

A good designer is one who has a good capacity for empathy and wants to create designs that are inclusive of all people. But more often than not, we create designs that are not inclusive. And doing so we marginalise people with an impairment — this can be a long term, temporary or situational impairment. This is not good enough, we need to ensure that everyone can enjoy the products we create.

Luckily they are tons of resources (written by smart people) to guide you in creating better products that are inclusive of all people. This article will help you find those resources. And better your understanding of inclusive design.

Diversity Is Being Invited to the Party; Inclusion Is Being Asked to Dance — Vernã Myers

Before we begin, let me give you a word of advice. This article contains links to other materials, so click on those links, read the content and come back. And one more thing, I am not an expert in accessibility or inclusive design. I just believe in a web for everyone.

What is inclusive design?

Inclusive design is a way of thinking. Actually, it is more than that. It a way of creating digital products that enable a wide range of diverse people to access those products. This includes designing for people with and without impairments. Microsoft’s Inclusive Design has a fantastic set of videos on Inclusive Design. Unfortunately, there are a lot of digital products that are inaccessible for vast numbers of people.

A chart containing a brief history of inclusive design and how it takes the centre stage.
Inclusive design takes center stage after many decades.

The “2018 Design In Tech” report provides a brief history of accessibility problems and how solving these has provided us with mass-market solutions that benefit everyone. There are principles behind Inclusive Design to help you create those experiences. Lillian Xiao describes these brilliantly in her article 6 principles for inclusive design.

Why is inclusive design important?

The web was created for everyone, but that has not been the case. Sometimes you need to explain the benefits of a web that everyone can access. All companies will reap the rewards of adopting a more inclusive mindset in their product creation. And early adopters will have a clear advantage over others. Here are a few reasons why you should be creating inclusive products:

It is good for business. Over a billion people have an impairment of some sort. By creating inclusive products, you will increase your market share, which will help to increase revenues. One example of the opportunities available to businesses if they become more inclusive is this research by the UK government. Read WAI’s business cases for inclusive design.

Protects you against lawsuits. If all people can not access your product, then you are discriminating against those people who are unable to use it. And many countries have laws against discriminating against people with disabilities to ensure that they have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. Of late there has been a rise in lawsuits against websites that are not accessible for all people. Earlier this year, Beyonce’s website was in a lawsuit over web accessibility. WAI has a list of Web Accessibility Laws & Policies that you need to read for your region. Even the UN has a convention on the rights of persons with disabilities that include digital access.

It increases creativity. Creating inclusive products can be challenging for designers and developers due to constraints. But this generally forces them to be more creative. And a creative mindset is one that will create better products.

It is the right thing to do. Giving everyone the same opportunity in life is the right thing to do. And as digital product creators, we need to promote doing the right thing so that all people have equal rights and opportunities. But don’t take my word for it, these TED talks really nail it home.

How can we create for all?

Designing and developing products that everyone can use is an excellent thing to do, but how do we do it? It is a common question, one that I asked. And here is the answer to it:

Do a course. I would recommend you do an online course to help you understand more about accessibility. There are plenty of free courses out there, such as Udacity’s Web Accessibility course. Here is a list of free and paid courses.

Read about it. There are many excellent blogs and books about accessibility, such as the article “7 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About Accessibility” or the book “A Web For Everyone”. Both of which are fantastic. A11Y Project has a great list of resources and so does Accessibility by A List Apart for reading more on the topic. Lastly, Microsoft has a great resource dedicated to inclusive design, give it a read.

Try walking in their shoes. Use assistive technology on your favourite sites and apps to get an understanding of what others experience. Then do the same on your products to understand what your users experience. Web accessibility in mind has a great list of assistive technology tools that are available. Chrome also has a wide range of accessibility extensions that you can try out.

Get to know the guidelines. There are plenty of guidelines available for you, so read them and practice them. These include the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), VOX’s Accessibility Guidelines, Material Designs Guidelines for Accessibility, and Apple’s Accessibility Guidelines. Another particularly excellent resource is Inclusive Components — not guidelines per se but worth the read.

Use tools that will help. There are plenty of tools available to help us make our digital products more accessible. The A11Y has a great list of online tools that you can use right across your product development lifecycle. Chrome has a wide range of extensions such as AXE, and even the DevTools has plenty to offer for testing accessibility. The Stark sketch plugin is excellent for designing for all. And the Contrast mac app is also brilliant.

Test for accessibility. Start including people of all shapes, sizes, and impairments in your user tests. Not only will this test your product against a broad type of people, but it will help to better your understanding of the experience your users face. This article is an excellent example of the impact user testing with a wide range of users can provide eye-opening findings. If you’re wanting to start testing with all users in mind but don’t know where to start, then this article will help you out. And make sure to check out the WAI’s resources to help you evaluate web accessibility.

Raise awareness. Talk about designing for all and promote it to others. Read about how Gretchen Nash did this in Amazon. If you have people in your designs, make sure to include a diverse range of people. Pablo Stanley created a fantastic set of illustrations of various humans, try it out in your designs.

Myths around designing for accessibility

Sometimes the natural thing to do is not to do anything or to put an excuse in the way. Most of the reasons why people should not design with accessibility in mind are myths. Here are two of the most common excuses/myths for not creating products for everyone.

Myth: Accessible sites are ugly. This is just not true, there are plenty of digital products out there that are both beautiful and inclusive of all.

Myth: Accessibility is expensive and difficult. There might be a little extra investment at first, but this is generally minor and will future proof your product.

For more myths on Inclusive Design, read this article by Brand Quarterly.

Let’s finish up!

We now know what inclusive design is, we know the benefits of it, and we can start doing it today. If you take anything from this article, then please take away these main points:

  • Designing products that inclusive is not hard and has plenty of benefits.
  • Designers need to practice what we preach. We should show empathy for all people.
  • And most importantly, inclusive design is the right thing to do so we need to start doing right now!

Peace out ✌️

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