Embracing Diversity in UX: How to Design Accessibly
Digital accessibility is the inclusive practice of ensuring that everyone has equal access to information, functionality, and experience on digital platforms.
The world has become increasingly digitized; and, while many have benefitted from this, people with disabilities have found themselves being denied equal access to website, apps, and other digital assets. According to the World Health Organization, 1 billion people, or 16% of the global population as of March 2023, is affected by some type of disability. The number of disabilities is also expected to rise with time as younger generations age and are prone to visual and hearing impairment due to excessive use of screens and earphones, along with a rise of chronic illness.
The decision, whether intentional or through negligence, to remain inaccesible has real consequences. Persons with disabilities experience more limitations in everyday functioning than others. We need to ensure a wide, diverse range of considerations to create a fair and inclusive online space for all.
💫 Accesibility is not “one size fits all”
Designing accessibly goes beyond appreciating the visual appeal of a design or recognizing what makes for an effective user experience. Accessibility in design ensures that all user needs are considered, regardless of any limitations they may face when interacting with digital spaces. This can vary greatly for different users.
Before delving into the various factors that contribute to enhancing design accessibility, it is crucial to fully acknowledge and understand the wide spectrum of user needs. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) a person with a disability is defined as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. As designers, we should recognize that disabilities can manifest in different ways, ranging from temporary impairments to permanent conditions, as well as situational limitations. A person’s abilities and capabilities can be influenced by a multitude of factors, such as their environment, personal circumstances, or specific contexts they find themselves in. By taking these diverse aspects into consideration, we can ensure that design solutions adequately cater to the unique requirements of all users, promoting inclusivity and accessibility for everyone.
💖 Empathizing with the user
In digital spaces, it is important to consider users with a range of impairments, including cognitive, motor, visual, and auditory impairments. How can we design in a way that reduces cognitive overload? Is our digital content accessible to users who cannot use a mouse? Can users with low vision understand the information we present to them? These questions highlight the challenges that users with disabilities frequently face.
Users with disabilities rely on various tools to modify their digital experiences:
- Screen readers are commonly used by visually impaired users to read web content using speech synthesizers or braille displays. Ensure proper HTML markup and alternative text for images to assist screen readers in interpreting web content
- Captions and transcripts are employed by users with hearing impairments to understand information conveyed through video and audio elements.
- Users with motor disabilities may be unable to use a mouse and may rely solely on keyboard controls. As designers, it is important to ensure our designs are compatible with these types of experiences.
By recognizing that users may interact with designs differently, we can leverage this diversity to create more accessible and user-friendly products for a broader range of people.
🧠 Cognitive accessibility in digital experiences
Cognitive is the largest category of disability across the globe and it also encompasses the most wide-ranging of experiences. It is essential that technologists consider cognitive disabilities and differences when building products and services in digital spaces. Product teams must consider design patterns that best support people with cognitive disabilities, development practices that support integration of assistive technologies, as well as usability guidelines to make digital content accessible and usable.
Ever heard of the phrase, “Nothing about us, without us, is for us”? That phrase was coined as part of the protests that resulted in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Doing user research with people with disabilities helps to understand the impact of a product decision on individuals with disabilities. It’s also important to discuss with several people because not everyone experiences an identical disability in the same way. It is also important to remember that it is always **best not to assume anything, especially within this context. Recognize that a significant portion of the population lives with disabilities; designing for accessibility is not just a legal imperative but a moral one, enhancing usability for all users.
🌱 Why accessibility is important in UX
Accessibility in user experience (UX) design refers to making digital products usable for all, irrespective of their physical or cognitive abilities. This concept extends beyond mere compliance with legal standards; it’s about empathetically and proactively designing products that cater to the diverse needs of users. Accessibility in design ensures that all user needs are considered, regardless of any limitations they may face when interacting with digital spaces. This can vary greatly for different users.
The accessibility needs of users with disabilities still remain cordoned off in the UX design process. Accessibility is retrofitted on UX designs conceptualized for able-bodied users. The user experience concept itself needs revising so that the artificial visible and invisible boundaries that disabled users face is taken down. Techniques for fusing the concept of diverse abilities through participatory design with disabled users is a step toward extracting ourselves from the ableist aspects of UX practice.
To emphasize, true accessibility is about process improvement. It is not just a project; it is a continuous process improvement loop, and there will always be opportunities to learn something new. Even if you think you’ve maximized your knowledge, there are always new tools, product features, or technologies being put out that you’ll need to explore. It’s also important to be open and handle constructive criticism from the public and people with disabilities in a productive manner. Doing so allows you to grow and enhance your understanding and applications of accessibility.
🌎 Using established accessibility standards
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are one of the most influential protocols shaping web accessibility policy. Its requirements fall under four essential principles:
We also have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed in 1990 with the intention to protect people from discrimination due to disability.
In order to support the digital accessibility needs of people with cognitive disabilities, the W3C-WAI Cognitive Accessibility (COGA) Task Force has created an important resource titled “Making Content Usable for People with Cognitive and Learning Disabilities”. This resource explores the following topics:
- People with cognitive and learning disabilities,
- Aims and objectives for usable content,
- Design patterns to make content usable,
- Including users in design and testing activities, and
- Personas and user needs
When examining the evolution of UX through the perspective of disability studies, accesibility is often ignored. Excluding marginalized voices in the design process to favor what is traditionally considered as “univeral” undermines inclusivity, neglecting those beyond our conventional circles of bias. Empathetic considerations can help us all create more inclusive online communities. As designers, we have the power and responsibility to make sure that everyone has access to what we create regardless of ability, context, or situation.
📚More helpful resources about accessible design: