Great UX Design Is One That Works for Everyone

Earlier this year, I saw Rebecca Knill’s TED talk about how technology has changed what’s it’s like to be deaf. It was, umm, an eye-opener for me. As UX designers, we pride ourselves on empathizing with our users. But when it comes to people who have disabilities, what we actually do, is sympathize with them. People with disabilities don’t want anyone to design for them out of pity. What they want, is to be accepted as who they are. That is a fundamental shift in mindset.

Every year, the third Thursday of May is celebrated as Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). Today marks the tenth anniversary of this movement. The official website of GAAD states that there are more than 1 billion people around the world with disabilities and impairments. Yes, that’s a billion with a capital B. And yet, when it comes to serving these 1 billion users, we fall short. A survey last year by WedAIM revealed that 98.1% of websites fail to meet at least one accessibility guideline as laid out by W3C. Clearly, there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Initiatives like the GAAD are an opportunity for us to start conversations, and bring accessibility into focus. Instead of looking at accessibility from a purely compliance or technical perspective, it is important that we make users with different abilities part of our design process. Here are just some of the ways you can begin designing for accessibility:

  • Include people with different abilities in your user research.
  • Ask them about their challenges, and how they get around them.
  • Create personas and storyboards to include them in your design process.
  • Simulate the experience by disconnecting your mouse and turning off your screen. Switch off the speaker, or hit the mute button.
  • Familiarize yourself with the tools your users are familiar with, such as screen readers and head sticks, and make sure your design works well with those tools.
  • Most importantly, test for accessibility. No matter how well you do your research and simulate the experience, test with real people.

Designing for Accessibility Improves UX for Everyone

People with disabilities can offer you perspectives that ordinary people cannot. Think about the ramps beside staircases that make it possible for those on wheelchairs to move about independently. But it’s not just wheelchair users who use the ramp. Everyone does! Those who are tired, who’re dragging heavy luggage bags, or those who’re recovering from injuries find it easier to use the ramp instead of the stairs.

© Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 

Similarly, when the contrast ratio of the text on screens is high, everyone can read the text without straining their eyes, not just people with low vision. And when we introduce closed captions on videos, it helps us when we forget our earphones, or when we can’t understand the dialogue. People with disabilities are extreme users. When we serve them, we make life easier for the entire user base.

Where To Begin Learning About Accessibility

Accessibility covers a wide spectrum, and it can be an overwhelming subject for beginners. To help you get started, here are some resources:

  • Online Course: Accessibility: How to Design for All
    Founder of Award-winning UX consultancy Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers walks you through all aspects of accessibility – from the basic and optimizing code to design strategies and accessibility testing. Get a free preview here.
  • 6 Principles Of Visual Accessibility Design
    The web and the interfaces on screen-based devices (computers, smartphones, smartwatches) are, well, visual. The WHO estimates that there are over 2 billion people with some level of visual impairment. To help better serve this user base, Jenna Erickson shares the principles of visual accessibility design. Read here.
  • Ten Guidelines To Improve The Usability And Accessibility Of Your Site
    When we think about accessibility on the web, we often think about visually impaired people. But vision isn’t the only disability. Here’s a high-level view of the other elements of accessibility, helpfully created by Trip Rems. Read here.
  • 3 Reasons Why Accessible Design Is Good for All
    Accessibility is often the least priority for business stakeholders. If you find yourself facing resistance from your colleagues and superiors, use the arguments shared by Ditte Hvas Mortensen and Frank Spillers to convince them, that accessibility is not only morally right, and legally required, but is also good for business. Read here.
  • 10 Free Web-Based Website Accessibility Evaluation Tools
    Justin Mifsud has curated a handy list of free browser-based accessibility evaluation tools that you can choose to see how well you have implemented accessibility in your website Read here.

Great design is one that works for everyone. And when it works well for people with different abilities, it will invariably improve the user experience for people with regular abilities.

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