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Accessible Design is Good Design & Good Design is Accessible Design

Mia E Lee
Mia Ellis-Lee
Design & Frontend Development
Write to Mia

“The role of the designer is that of a good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests” - Charles Eames

Good design should fit the user, the user should not bend to have to fit the design. This is a commonly agreed-upon principle, held by many who design products and almost all of those who use products. Why then, do we hold design on the web to a different standard - particularly as it pertains to accessible design? We still see digital products that remove keyboard focus indicators for purely aesthetic reasons, have poor colour contrast, are entirely un-navigable by mouse and keyboard, or solely rely on colour schemes that are unintelligible to those with colour blindness. Too often sites are designed with the designer’s needs at the forefront, rather than the needs of the users. When they are designed with users in mind, sites designed without accessibility in mind consider only the needs of some, not all. Accessible design should not be considered an extra or an add-on. Accessible design is a fundamental aspect of good design and cannot be ignored.

If a hypothetical product works for only 75% of its users, how can it be considered good? This product doesn’t work 75% of the time, it works 0% of the time for 25% of its users. This holds true in the real world too (albeit sometimes in shades of grey, but often products are completely inaccessible to segments of the population). If a book was printed with green ink on red pages and was unreadable to those with color blindness, would you consider this well-designed? Probably not, particularly when you consider that estimates of the prevalence of color blindness hovers around 8% of men and .5% of women worldwide; a significant portion of the population.

Individuals with disabilities at large represent a huge portion of the general population. Canadian estimates show that about 1 in 7 Canadians aged 15 years or older reported having a disability that limited their daily activities. Worldwide estimates see a similar rate. Reports by the World Health Organization show that some kind of disability affects approximately 15% of the world’s population - approximately 1.15 billion people as of 2018.

So why do we still design and develop websites inacessibly? Why do we so often limit our product’s use and exposure to a specific segment of the population that we design around? Why do we design in this way, especially when you consider that designing accessibly benefits everybody?

“When you include the extremes of everybody, that’s to say differently abled people of all sorts, then you produce things that are better for all of us” - Michael Wolff (Wolff-Olins)

Accessible design is not a zero sum game. Nobody loses out by considering the needs of everybody. The opposite is true - accessible design benefits everybody. We see it time and time again in the real world. Entrances that are accessible to people using wheelchairs become accessible to people pushing strollers or shopping carts. Doors with automatic opening options benefit those carrying boxes, pushing bikes, or using crutches. Implementing elevators alongside escalators in a mall benefits maintenance staff and shoppers.

The same is true of digital design too. Designs using an appropriate level of contrast are easier to use in poor lighting conditions and easier to use for those with vision impairments. Similarly, the option for displaying subtitles alongside video media is useful to people who might be watching in a loud setting, not just users with hearing impairments. The ability to navigate through a website with a keyboard alone is useful not just to those with motor control impairments but also those whose mouse is broken or missing (if anybody else has ever had to Google why a Macbook’s trackpad isn’t working without any other devices to use, I’m sure you understand).

In designing accessibly, we have the opportunity to not only create solutions that work for everybody, but the opportunity create solutions that work better for everybody.

“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people” - Dieter Rams

Designers worldwide and throughout history have begun to recognize that empathy is an indispensable aspect of design. Empathy and focus on the users themselves are key traits in a number of design approaches: universal design, user-centered design, design for all, and the well-known approach known as “design thinking” all place special emphasis on empathizing with users as a vital step in the process of design.

Empathy, understanding, and communication are integral to not just better design, but to designing a better world. These are the steps we need to take to start designing more inclusive solutions to the problems we face. Communication, in particular, is hugely important in being able to design products that work for everybody. Designers without disabilities will never be able to fully experience the challenges that people with disabilities face - communication between these designers, designers with disabilities, and all users is the first step of designing for everybody. It is up to designers to take this communication, empathize with people, understand their challenges, and design solutions that work for everybody.

I’d like to propose a few shifts in thinking that might help us design better solutions for people. Throughout this article, I’ve been using the phrase “user”, but a far more apt approach would be to use the term “people” - especially in the process of design. My qualm with word “user” is it is inherently restricting. “User” often defines a subset of people that the designer thinks will be using a product, rather than considering the wide variety of people who might actually use it. Often times, designers will design something for an idealized individual (usually someone who fits the same physical or mental abilities as the designer themselves) rather than designing for a diverse and constantly shifting population. The abstracted concept of a generic “user” often removes the designer from the reality that they are designing for many different kinds of people with varying abilities, not just one type of person. “People” opens our minds up to the multiplicity and the diversity of people. Of course, “user” is a necessary word in some contexts (hello RFP’s and documentation!), but when we use it, we should remember that our users are people first and foremost, and are an incredibly diverse group.

We need to strip ourselves of the idea that people with disabilities are unable to use or engage with products because of their disability. This mode of thinking inherently propels us towards exclusionary design as it positions the responsibility of being able to use the product on the user, not the designer for creating an ineffective product. Instead, we need to flip this type of thinking on it’s head, and realize that it is the design of these products that disables people and hinders their ability. The inability to use a designed product is not a failing of the person, but of the design. As designers we must also realize that designing accessibly doesn’t have to hamper our creativity but can instead spur us to create solutions that we never would have otherwise thought of. The goal of creating comparable, accessible experiences for people of all abilities can enable us to think outside the box and find ways to create products that can be used by all people.

We shouldn’t design for an abstract concept, we shouldn’t design for the products themselves, and we shouldn’t design for designers. We should design for people.

“Design is an enormous privilege, but it is a bigger responsibility” - Sinéad Burke

It is up to us as designers to demand more from ourselves and demand more from our designs. As designers, we have the power to shape the products and experiences that people interact with everyday. In this way, design has the power to include or exclude, and to shape the everyday experience of all types of people. Design has the power to shape our society and how we think about bodies and disability. And design has the power to uphold dignity, autonomy, and independence. With this kind of responsibility, “good enough” cannot be good enough. We owe it to ourselves as designers and we owe it to all people to creative innovative, inclusive solutions that enable our products to work for everybody. Everybody benefits when we consider the needs of all people. So let’s stop designing for some, and start designing for all.

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