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Be an #A11Y—why inclusive design is good design

Good design affects every aspect of our lives, from the tiniest interaction with our phones to preparing food in our kitchens to how we navigate the world by foot. But at some time, we've all felt that overwhelming frustration when something doesn't work the way we expect. When that happens, we feel the pain of being inconvenienced by bad design—design that is also, more than likely, non-inclusive.

It might be easy to think of people with disabilities as just a niche subset of the population or your target customer base. But chances are good that each of us will spend some time disabled, either permanently or temporarily. Consider how many of us need corrective lenses to drive or wear reading glasses to interact with our phones. Or the six weeks of recovery after an injury, a birth, or a surgery. These are the moments we feel the most empathy for those who struggle with tasks we may normally take for granted. And this is why incorporating inclusive design principles are important as you design products and services. Some might say that inclusive design is the only kind of design, that this is a fight we all must fight, and I’d agree.

These are the moments we feel the most empathy for those who struggle with tasks we may normally take for granted. And this is why incorporating inclusive design principles are important as you design products and services.

The good news is that there are a few ways everyone can help, as I learned at the 2019 SXSW panel “Design for Inclusivity: How and Why to Get Started,” featuring Allison Shaw from Zendesk, Szu Yu Huang from Google, Marco Salsiccia, an independent accessibility specialist and advocate for the blind, and moderator Emma Schwartz from Shutterstock.

Be proactive, not reactive

According to Shaw, one of the first mistakes that companies make is to assume they don’t have users with disabilities. “That's a root problem,” she said. There are a couple of issues with this type of thinking: it’s a narrow understanding of what constitutes a disability, and it’s also incorrect. Every product and service has users with disabilities. Every. Single. One.

“One of the best things you can do right now for your company is to wrap your head around the fact that there’s someone out there using your website, app, or product who has a disability,” Shaw said.

"One of the best things you can do right now for your company is to wrap your head around the fact that there's someone out there using your website, app, or product who has a disability," - Allison Shaw

If that reality can inform every design decision, you can begin to be proactive and design your product or service to be inclusive right from the beginning, which is also a lot more cost-effective in the long run. Bonus: when you design for everyone, it’s also good design.

[Read also: The Empathy Economy: Care, so your customers will too]

Good design is inclusive design

As individuals, we each have a unique lived experience. We navigate the world in slightly different ways. Those of us without a disability navigate the world in a predominantly frictionless way—but not always.

Schwartz had us consider this scenario: most of us have two hands with which to hold our phones and navigate our apps. So the prospect of designing an app for a user with one hand, an amputee, may seem at first like an edge case, but if you dig deeper you’ll see the mom with a colicky baby in one arm, or the skier who fell and broke his arm, or the home chef trying to read a recipe on their phone while also stirring a pot. The truth is that, at some point, most of us are using our phones one-handed, like an amputee. This is why many app designers now design apps to be used comfortably with one hand, and when put this way, it enforces the principle of good design as design for everyone.

And though you may not recognize it, many products we love and use daily came out of designing for disabilities. The smartphone touchscreen came out of inclusive design, the touchpad replaced the mouse for those with mobility disabilities, and the OXO line of kitchen utensils was originally designed for people with arthritis.

And though you may not recognize it, many products we love and use daily came out of designing for disabilities.

Designing for everyone can seem like an insurmountable problem, like it’s just too big. Even with good intentions, our awareness simply can’t extend to encompass the lived experience of everyone else. But as Shaw said, that’s okay. No one’s asking for that—but there are guidelines in place that can help anyone start. “You don’t always have to design something new from scratch,” Shaw said. “There are some generally accepted ways of getting something done. Find those guidelines so you don’t have to learn something new.”

Stress test your design

Once you’ve created a design, it’s time to test it. With the proliferation of UX designers and UX testing, this is definitely not a new idea. But, panelists stressed, it’s important to broaden your horizons and seek users with accessibility needs.

When you’re looking for users with accessibility needs, make sure you’re hiring someone who’s interested in helping. Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they want to help you test your design. It’s also important that you pay people for their time.

When you're looking for users with accessibility needs, make sure you're hiring someone who's interested in helping. Just because someone has a disability doesn't mean they want to help you test your design.

One caveat here: make sure to consider who’s missing from your test demographics. You might put a call out for users with disabilities, but that doesn’t mean all populations are naturally represented. According to Schwartz, people with autism, for example, are less likely to become accessibility consultants, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t using your product.

[Read also: Put yourself on the path to empathy]

Listen closely

Salsiccia works as a product tester for the visually impaired and began consulting after sending an angry tweet to a company when he couldn’t use their product. Instead of brushing off his tweet as just one angry user with a unique case, the company hired him to help them build a more accessible product.

He advocates for speaking up when a product is hard to use, and certainly for companies to listen. If one person writes in with a usability issue, it’s likely many others are also struggling with that same problem. “Be open to the feedback,” he said. “Listen to every demographic and especially outside sources.” This is also why hiring consultants can be a good idea during the testing phase, to ensure there’s an objective third-party that can help keep you honest, so that you aren’t just checking a compliance box.

“A lot of people think it’s someone else’s job to think about accessibility,” said Huang. “They think it’s the accessibility specialist’s job, the engineer’s job, or the designer’s job, but actually, every single member on the team has something to contribute.”

Go bravely forward—you don’t have to do it alone

Many people worry that designing for accessibility will be expensive, or that they’ll do it wrong. Others are simply unaware of inclusive design as a concept. But the only way to do it wrong is not to try. “We should think about product accessibility as being as important as product performance,” said Shaw. “It must be part of the MVP.”

"A lot of people think it's someone else's job to think about accessibility. They think it's the accessibility specialist's job, the engineer's job, or the designer's job, but actually, every single member on the team has something to contribute." - Szu Yu Huang

As the panelists pointed out, there are plenty of resources to help you along the way. Get curious, read, and start asking questions.

If you’re looking for guidelines to inform your design, the World Wide Web Consortium created the WCAG guidelines, which are considered a standard starting point. Another great resource is The A11Y Project. For some light reading, you can sign up for a weekly newsletter that will fill your inbox with useful inclusive design information. Or, if you’re more of an audio learner, check out the A11y Rules Podcast.

If you’re working as a designer, another great way to learn is to check out the accessibility websites of large corporations, such as Apple, Target, and Microsoft. Zendesk also has its own inclusive design project called Zendesk Garden, Shaw said.

You can also start looking at the accessibility settings available in the different products you use. iPhones allow you to set a visual ringtone that uses the camera flash for hearing impaired users and Trello has created a colorblind-friendly mode. What simple changes can your company make to have a more inclusive design? If you’re stuck for ideas, take five minutes and read or try out some empathy prompts to better understand the lived experience of others.

Good design is inclusive design—and inclusive design is good design. When we all work together to think about and incorporate inclusive design principles, we make the world a better place for everyone.