When design is inclusive, everyone wins

A few months back we published a piece about Human-Centered Design in Times of Crisis. The first point it hit upon is a mantra we use with all of our clients, “People First.” This philosophy means always putting the end user at the forefront of our strategy when designing any product, app, web site, or digital experience. But just as important is whether the set of people you are putting first is inclusive of your entire digital audience.

Accessibility is a term that often brings something different to mind depending on a person’s point of view. UX professionals tend to think of considerations such as font and target sizes. For visual designers the term can sometimes feel restrictive, with features such as color palettes being constrained due to screen contrast or other requirements. Developers may automatically think of the WCAG checklist used by many organizations to ensure they are in compliance. Recently it has become a term that has made some companies nervous as a wave of lawsuits began targeting corporations such as Kroger and Apple for not being user-friendly for certain segments of the population. In a widely known case in 2017, grocery store chain Winn Dixie had to pay a $250,000 fine for not adhering to web site accessibility standards, setting a precedent nobody wants to follow.

Great design should be measured by being useful and usable to all.

For end users for whom accessibility is necessary to complete everyday tasks, how compliant a web site is can mean the difference between easily getting essential goods and services and not being able to get them at all. Access to essentials through the web and mobile apps has become even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, with companies such as Instacart grocery delivery seeing a 500% increase in business year over year. For many of us, especially certain segments of the population like the immuno-compromised and elderly, the use of such technology has become a necessity rather than a convenience.

This new pandemic reality paired with recent lawsuits has made the topic of accessibility more important than ever. Everyday activities that are now dependent on web access such as viewing a restaurant menu to order take out, accessing a child’s school curriculum and online school classroom, ordering the delivery of medicine and prescriptions, and scheduling telemedicine visits are facing increased scrutiny as more people need these services to operate on a day-to-day basis as effectively and efficiently as possible.

How do companies embrace this new world while still providing the highest quality and inclusive user experience possible?

Rather than thinking of accessibility as a checklist or something to avoid getting sued, we encourage clients to think of it as a tool to help their digital designs improve and run at their absolute best. After the American Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed a phenomenon called the “curb cut effect“ was coined which highlights how physical spaces that are made more accessible for the disabled help everyone. The example of the curb cut that allows a smooth transition from a high curb to the street below was originally designed for wheelchair users but is now greatly appreciated by shoppers with carts, anyone pulling a suitcase, parents with strollers, those using crutches or experiencing joint pain, etc. A design that was originally put in place to address the needs of people with disabilities is now considered normal and a best practice that many of us would greatly miss if it was suddenly no longer there.

Man pushing cart on a curb“Curb cuts” are handy for anyone using anything with wheels and have become an expectation in our physical environment.

The same applies to accessible web design. Examples of web site design features that are useful to all of us include captions on internet video, meaningful titles and alt tags for photos, user control for anything with a time limit (e.g. an automated slideshow), and the auto-filling of forms. Search engine optimization also increases with many of these changes providing an added traffic boost to organizations that comply.

While the pandemic has made it even more important for web sites to be accessible, it has also changed the way many organizations fundamentally do business. The need for limited person-to-person contact has led to more efficient and effective service models such as curbside pick-up options from retailers, optimized take-out and delivery protocols for restaurants, and augmented digital forms of educational services such as tutoring. Moreover, businesses and customers are starting to understand that some of these changes may forever be useful, pandemic or not.

As you tackle your next digital project, try framing accessibility measures with your team early on as a way to make the highest quality product possible. Great design should be measured by being useful and usable to all. If you can, bring all types of people in to help test-run any changes you make, including those that use screen readers and other accessibility devices. Even better, have your team review their own designs using such tools. See if embracing changes you make to comply with accessibility standards along with efficiencies created to help your business run during the pandemic actually help you run a better business permanently.

Like the curb-cut effect, the “COVID effect” may have lasting benefits that help us create the best in universal design.