On 7 September 2018, I had the privilege to talk about Inclusive Design at the first annual Retro Rabbit Conference in Pretoria, South Africa. I’m always super excited when I get the opportunity to speak at events or offer workshops on Inclusive Design because it’s proof that there is a growing interest in accessibility. Mindsets are changing and the interest in including ALL users in a product’s experience is increasing. The content I shared with the rabbits at the conference is consolidated in this article, and you can find the presentation on Prezi.
So what is Inclusive Design?
Inclusive Design focuses on the diversity of people, and how to create an environment that’s accessible to all people irrespective of their limitations.
Looking closer at this definition, environment can refer to physical spaces like workplaces, bus stations and museums, it can also refer to physical products like cordless kettles and remote controls, or it can refer to digital spaces like websites and mobile apps.
Since we’re all unique human beings (and no one perfect), each one of us has a set of strengths and a set of limitations. When we think of limitations we usually think of a permanent disability such as blindness, deafness or immobility. These limitations (or disabilities), are not just a permanent restriction of a person’s capabilities but can be temporary or even contextual.
For example, a person can be born blind or colour blind which is classified as a permanent limitation, or a person might have had eye surgery which is only a temporary limitation. Old age is often accompanied with decreased vision which is also a permanent limitation but only surfaces later in life. On the other hand, daily factors like stress and tiredness can negatively impact our sight. Even lighting at a specific time of the day or season, indoors or outdoors, or being in a moving vehicle like a bus can also impact how we interact with a digital product. These factors create contextual limitations.
Human limitations is not a black and white “disability case” but clearly a spectrum.
The excuses of “We don’t have any blind users”, or “The % of users who is deaf in our target market is not enough to create accessibility digital products” is not valid anymore. All your users have some form of limitation, be it permanent, temporary or contextual.
We rarely design or develop digital products with accessibility in mind. Mostly because of the false belief that designing for people with disabilities are costly and the percentage of users who fall into this category is not enough to justify the time and effort to design for them. These 3 excuses are the most popular we use to avoid including accessibility in product development:
#Myth 1: People with disabilities are not our target market
Already busted! Human limitations can be permanent, temporary or contextual, thus a spectrum, not a binary. This means anyone can fall into this segment.
#Myth 2: Inclusive Design is boring to do
Being able to create a digital product that makes more profit and is loved by more users is anything but boring! As UXers, designers and developers we should pride ourselves to create the best possible design, piece of code, feature or product.
#Myth 3: Inclusive Design is too difficult, time-consuming or expensive to do
No one is an expert at a new skill during the first try, or even the 10th try, although it gets easier with time. What new skill have you learned in the past year or even 5 years? Maybe a new programming language? Or surfing? What about playing an instrument? None of these is easy in the beginning.
Another “accessibility block” that I come across quite often is that we tend to think of designing for assistive technology, instead of the human using it. If you’ve never operated or seen a screen reader in action, you think you’re not capable to design or develop for it. This is a logical argument but not 100% true. All assistive technology, software and physical equipment, rely on the same set of stable, referenceable technical standards by W3C. This set of standards is called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) and at first glance, it can seem pretty overwhelming! I’ve created a high-level diagram to explain what the different components of the WCAG 2.1 are and how they relate to one another.
The WCAG 2.1 are organised under 4 key principles, namely Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust. Within these, each principle has a set of guidelines to drive the principle and each guideline has a set of success criteria measured on a level AAA, AA and A.
This is the ultimate level of compliance and meets all the success criteria for Level A, Level AA and Level AAA.
This level of compliance meets all the success criteria of Level A and Level AA only.
This is the minimum level of compliance, and meets all the success criteria of Level A only.
Below is a practical example on how to apply the success criteria for Guideline 3.1 Readable within the 3rd principle, Understandable. There are several success criteria within the guideline, but for this example I picked one AAA, AA and A.
Minimum level A compliance requires that the language attribute is always set for a page. This allows the screen reader to notify the person what language the content will be communicated in. If there is no language set for the page and the content isn’t English, the screen reader will pronounce incoherent words.
Level AA compliance requires that the language attribute is set for a specific piece of content within a page, if it’s different than the language of the page. Again, if the page language is set to English and a piece of content on this page is in Spanish, the screen reader will read this content as English, which will sound like gibberish to the person.
Level AAA compliance requires that the content of a page is formatted in such a way that any person, irrespective of their level of education, can easily understand it. Recommendations are to avoid complicated terms and professional jargon, shorten long sentences and use bulleted or numbered lists to structure content.
From this example, it’s clear that accessibility best practices are not really that hard to implement. If you strive to write good quality code that’s in line with the W3C technical standards, you’re halfway there! The key is to start with small easy implementable changes. Don’t get overwhelmed by the lengthy list of guidelines and success criteria and try to tick all the boxes at once. Remember learning a new skill (like surfing or playing an instrument) takes time!
Another bonus is there’s no need to buy expensive software or tools to evaluate your accessibility efforts! There are loads available online, but my personal top 6 are the ones below. Sim Daltonism is mac based colour simulator that you can use within any design environment. Adobe Photoshop has a built-in colour simulator feature and there are several plugins available for Sketch as well.
WebAIM is one of the most comprehensive accessibility resources online and has created a Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool called WAVE. Give it a try, you’ll be surprised by the status of websites out there!
In short, we need to change our mindsets around our users and their limitations, be in permanent, temporary or contextual. Every human being falls into one of these categories at some point in their life.
Disability is a spectrum not a binary.
Inclusive Design is not too difficult, time-consuming or expensive to do, it’s not easy either, but with all the knowledge and free tools available online it’s much easier than what it seems. Focus on introducing one small WCAG 2.1 success criteria into your daily tasks on a weekly/monthly basis and be part of the generation that creates truly usable digital products for our users.
A little about me: I’m a UX Specialist and Web Accessibility evangelist who started off as a basic web designer in the ’90s. Early on I recognised the critical link between design, functionality & usability. This is where my love affair with UX started. The last couple of years I’ve been focusing on educating product teams on accessibility.
Get in touch if you would like me to do an accessibility talk or workshop with your team!