As the digital product design community has grown and matured, people have started putting more thought into making sure the products we design are usable and enjoyable by everyone, even those with disabilities or conditions. This has led to a lot of talk around different terms, like accessible design and inclusive design. But what does each one mean and what is the difference between them? To find out, I headed to SXSW this year to listen to a plethora of individual talks and panels focused on accessibility and inclusion.
We have adopted a popular UX mantra around WillowTree: “You are not your target audience.” It is so ingrained in our culture that we got it printed on our mugs as a reminder. While this phrase is mostly used around deciding how to create flows and interfaces, it helps us to think about accessibility as well. Since over one billion people in the world have a disability of some sort, accessibility needs to be front and center in our minds as we create products.
When it comes to accessibility guidelines for the web, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the most recognized standard to follow. Although WCAG doesn’t officially apply to mobile apps, it is largely used as the primary guideline in accordance with Apple and Google’s recommendations.
With these guidelines in mind, I often see designers forget this and choose the “prettier” solution rather than the one that will be more accessible. What they are forgetting is not everyone has their good eyesight, hearing, or cognitive level. People should be able to use the product without struggling. Most care much less about what is prettier, especially since what looks good is so subjective.
One of my favorite ways of thinking about inclusive design is this quote from Kat Holmes, a leading advocate for inclusive design:
Imagine a playground full of only one kind of swing. A swing that requires you to be a certain height with two arms and two legs. The only people who will come to play are people who match this design, because the design welcomes them and no one else.
And yet there are many different ways you can design an experience of swinging. You can adjust the shape and size of the seat. You can keep a person stationary and swing the environment around them. Participation doesn’t require a particular design. But a particular design can prohibit participation.
While accessibility is more of a checklist to ensure you’re being compliant with standards, inclusive design is more of a mindset. A crucial aspect of inclusive design is being more empathetic to diverse groups of people as well as the different environments in which people will be using your product. But that’s not to say that focusing on accessibility won’t help you think inclusively.
For example, I was working on an app recently when someone told me they didn’t have users who were disabled so we didn’t need to prioritize accessibility. Even if that were true—which I promise you it never will be—there are times where fully-abled people are temporarily disabled. This can be from someone who just had LASIK surgery, someone who is driving and is using their device hands-free, someone who is using their device in the glare of the sun, or someone who is using your product in a noisy subway. As you can see, the examples go on and on. These are all instances where everyone would be able to easily use your product if accessibility were taken into consideration.
Just thinking about accessibility won’t make you fully inclusive, though. Accessibility and inclusive design need to work hand-in-hand to make experiences usable and available to all. For example, just last week, a few designers were critiquing a writing app we’re working on with a client. As the designer was presenting, she glazed over a very small but important detail. How do people format text while they type? It’s such an easy thing to not think about because everyone knows how to type and there’s only one way to do it, right?
As we found out, that’s far from the truth. One of us likes to type out the full document and then go back and add bullet points and bolded text. Another likes to add the bullet points first before adding the corresponding text. A third likes to use dashes while typing everything out and going back to convert them to bullet points later. While this may seem trivial, the solution the designer was presenting didn’t account for one of the person’s typing styles. This was a good reminder that getting your work in front of a wide variety of people early and often can help to make it more inclusive.
If making an accessible and inclusive experience wasn’t enough for you, let’s look at the legal angle of some well-known companies. In 2017, a first-of-its-kind discrimination lawsuit ruled against the popular grocery chain Winn-Dixie saying they must update their website to be accessible for visually impaired users. Beyoncé’s official website was also sued in 2019 for not allowing blind users to determine what is on the website, browse the website, or make purchases. By not allowing disabled users the full and equal enjoyment of the goods or services a website or app provides, you’re potentially setting yourself up for legal action.
Our mindset as designers shouldn’t be, “we’re focusing on accessibility so we don’t get sued” (although it can be a big driver for business leaders), but instead about creating an inclusive experience for everyone. Making inclusivity a priority throughout the design process is a win-win for everyone.