Accessibility in digital product design

minute read

What is accessibility?

Let’s start with the basics. Accessibility measures to what extent individuals can use a system - a website for example - for its intended purpose. This may be with the help of assistive technology, such as a screen reader or a braille output device. 

Because different groups have different needs, accessibility is a very broad area, with a near-infinite number of requirements one could aim to address. Ultimately, while it may not be possible to create a digital product that caters for every need, thorough QA processes should ensure the product is accessible to the largest possible number of people.

While much of the focus continues to be on accessible website design, mobile app design should follow the same rules. In fact, the unique features of handheld devices support accessibility in ways that traditional desktop and laptop technologies do not. We have a handy cheat sheet on designing great mobile experiences on our blow, which you can download here.

Why does accessibility matter?

Accessibility is fundamental for a more inclusive digital experience. And as more and more services and products move online, that digital experience is playing an increasingly large part in everyday life. Accessibility, then, is a core requirement for fostering more diversity and inclusiveness in public and private life: everybody deserves a seat at the table. 

That moral argument aside, it is also generally true that a wider user base will improve a digital product because each user will experience it differently and provide their unique feedback. More inclusive tech makes better tech - and better tech benefits us all. And while there is still plenty of room for improvement, products have been making serious efforts to be accessible to everyone.

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is a great example of an early initiative, conceived in 1996 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This initiative took about nine months of volunteering work to complete and marked the beginning of broader tech accessibility efforts. Its guidelines on various components of accessibility, first released in April 1997, continue to serve as a blueprint for many other areas of digital technology. 

When does accessibility matter? 

For a significant number of people, accessibility support is essential for them to actively participate in everyday life. The text to speech and voice recognition programs of today, for instance, play a big role in many individuals being able to communicate their wishes and needs. In fact, much of accessibility tech centres around communication and choice - giving people the ability to communicate with the world around them and making their own choices. This can mean something as simple as choosing what pair of shoes to buy online, to a life-changing action such as filling out a digital legal document or tender. 

Often, accessibility design and mainstream innovation have gone hand in hand: screen reading and voice description technology, initially useful for specific problems like transcribing public transport network maps for visually impaired users, eventually led to digital assistants like Google’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. These technologies benefit everyone, but have made everyday life more manageable for individuals with physical disabilities. 

Putting it into perspective

As reported by the World Health Organization, there are more than 280 million people worldwide who are visually impaired and cannot read all the displayed content on a website. 39 million of them are blind and cannot access any of the content by eyesight. Additionally, there are 360 million people suffering from hearing loss worldwide. 

“Almost everyone will temporarily or permanently experience disability at some point in their life. Over 1 billion people – about 15% of the global population – currently experience disability, and this number is increasing due in part to population aging and an increase in the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases.“

World Health Organization

From a business perspective, it is clear that these communities constitute a significant potential market. From a moral standpoint, it is hard to justify excluding fellow human beings solely on account of their physical or psychological conditions varying from what we have come to see as “the norm”. Websites and mobile apps have to cater to their needs if they wish to be truly accessible.

What does this mean in practice? A mobile app, for example, should consider taking into account these basic requirements for people with additional needs:

  • Having simple, clear and consistent layouts
  • Writing copy which is clear and succinct
  • Picking the right font types and sizes
  • Designing for colour blindness
  • Including audio and visual material
  • Developing the app so that it is easily read by screen readers

Much of this applies to website design as well, of course. Designing for accessibility, it turns out, is actually just good UX.

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