How to Embed Accessible Design Into Your Products

Impactful product development requires Product Thinkers to test, validate, and design against the four product risks – feasibility, viability, desirability, and usability. As technology has become seamless and ever-present in people’s lives, designing for usability has seemingly become second nature, with less focus placed on it. In simple terms, usability is considered table stakes.

However, this means that product after product is falling into a trap, a trap that isolates and excludes millions of users: they are not designed for specific users’ accessibility requirements. Instead, builders are often designing for the majority – the hypothetical “average” user – and adding on accessibility features as an afterthought. At best, this approach creates a clunky, uncomfortable user experience; and at worst, it makes products impossible to use for those who have specific requirements. 

“Accessibility isn’t just an on–off switch,” according to Amos Marsters, Product Designer at Connected. “It isn’t something you need or you don’t, or you did or didn’t do. Making a product accessible for those with specific needs like screen-readers, or alternative navigation options than a traditional mouse or keyboard make the experience better for everyone.”

The Importance of Lived Experience

Rather than using guess work, working with people with disabilities gives you a deeper understanding of how and why you should design with accessibility front of mind. People with disabilities and assistive technology users can speak directly to the impacts of inaccessibility. Samuel Proulx, who has been blind since birth explained: “If my screen reader can’t read content, that means as a user I can’t control my device.” For Sam, and over 1 billion people living with disabilities, accessibility is the baseline.

As the Community Manager at Fable, an accessibility testing platform for digital products, Sam leads a community of people with disabilities who provide insights to major organizations on a variety of accessibility and usability issues. He shared that “the most common issues we find are missing labels. If something is not labelled, I don’t know what it’s for.”

Interactivity is another problem. “While organizations may reach ‘level one’ of having a labelled form, I might still not be able to interact with it. For example, while I might be able to fill out a form, what happens next? Will the form or page change to indicate that my submission has been sent? In many cases, this doesn’t happen. There’s no change of focus or no message on the screen. So I’m stuck.” This is a textbook overlooked accessibility issue, where a visual change that is clear to a sighted user is unclear to someone who is blind.

Ultimately, the big answer to solving for accessibility challenges is to genuinely design for your users. Don’t design for the average person. Design for the margins, design for individuals, and ultimately, that gives you a better chance of designing for everyone. By focusing on user needs, pains, gains, and jobs to be done, you can identify the real experiences of users, not the limited perspective of those building the product. 

“The best way to ensure products are built with these accessibility needs in mind is to test with those users,” Amos told us. “We as designers can do our best to mimic what it might be like to complete tasks or navigate a website as someone with accessibility requirements, but to ensure your design truly works, work and test with the people who need it.”

Sam highlights that engaging people with disabilities is essential to improving accessibility. “Again, consider the labels of elements in a product. All that an automated test for accessibility can do is tell you if a label exists. But it can’t tell you if it’s ‘good’ and accurate. Right now, only a person can do that with high confidence. If you swapped something out in an image for example, most automations wouldn’t be able to tell. Human intelligence is critical, because using a product is a human experience.”

No Quick Fix For True Accessibility

Developing for accessibility enables organizations to build better products. As Sam mentioned, some of the most common tactics to improve accessibility include improving labelling and forms. “But it goes beyond simply enabling people to complete tasks. At Fable, we focus on helping organizations improve the usability of products, making them both accessible and incredible experiences.” That can involve anything from having people with disabilities involved in user research, to testing design prototypes, or validating products in development and QA. Sam remarked that “there’s no quick fix to accessibility. It starts and ends with users – people with disabilities.”

The guidance in this article has been specifically designed to ensure that product impact is measured accurately across all users. As Product Thinkers, we have a responsibility to build responsibly and make products accessible for everyone. The internet was meant to be the great democratizer of knowledge and information, it’s time products became the great democratizer of experiences. But it is only by changing how we build that we can truly change what we build.

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