Accessibility 101: Design Principles A Designer Must Know

Windmill Editorial Team Windmill Editorial Team

Note: This is a two-part series wherein we discuss why accessible websites and apps are essential and how to design one. 

As human society continues to grow, so does its diversity. There are lots of groups of people with special needs, and innovators are doing everything in their power to make them go through their day seamlessly. Not only is it wrong to create a product that certain groups of people can’t use due to their disability, but it also limits the monetization of that product. It is both unethical and bad for business.

The World Health Organization estimates that 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. People can be born with disabilities, or develop them such as loss of eyesight, or have temporary ones, like a broken arm.

In terms of the share of the likely target audience for businesses, estimates are that as much as 20% of the traffic to business websites could be from users with some disability. That share could be higher for business categories like healthcare.

Did you know, 71% of people with any form of disability will leave a website immediately if it is not accessible?

So, apart from it being a moral imperative for companies to cater to all possible users and the law in most developed markets, ignoring this segment could prove extremely detrimental to business outcomes.

So, what can designers do to make the web content accessible for all users? The short answer is “Digital Accessibility”.

What is Digital Accessibility and how to start with the design process?

Digital Accessibility is a subset of user experience focused on making websites and apps that are inclusive and user-friendly to the widest range of people, including those with disabilities.

There are four major categories of accessibility to factor into design considerations.

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    Visual: Catering to users with visual challenges such as myopia, color blindness, glaucoma, and albinism.

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    Auditory: Catering to users with hearing issues such as presbycusis, acoustic trauma, auditory processing disorder, and otosclerosis.

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    Motor: Catering to users suffering from action-linked motor issues such as cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s, and muscular dystrophy.

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    Cognitive: Catering to users battling cognitive challenges like autism, Down’s syndrome, dyslexia, and global developmental delay.

Accessibility is governed by guidelines and legal requirements such as the Section 508 compliance (US), EN 301 549 (EU), The public sector bodies accessibility regulations (UK), and the WCAG 2.1 guidelines.

So, how is a designer to go about building accessible digital interfaces?

The designer must first develop empathy for likely users. They must possess or inculcate an inclusive mindset based on that empathy to design for a wide range of human diversity.

There are a variety of approaches designers follow to guide their specific work. One approach we particularly like is from Microsoft. Here are their three core principles of accessible design.

The Three Core Principles of Inclusive Design

1. Recognize exclusion

The definition of disability has changed over the years. In 1980, the WHO defined disability as a personal attribute wherein a person cannot carry out normal activities due to limited abilities, but recently the WHO refined that definition. Today they see disability as a more complex phenomenon that reflects the interactions between the person and the society in which they live. This is not about the person, but about the person in the context of the interactions they have to undertake.

Of course, it is natural for designers to bring their bias in while solving issues. However, designers must recognize that disability is not related to personal or health conditions but that disability happens when there is a mismatch in human interactions. These mismatches can be permanent, temporary, or just situational. By being conscious of their bias and by practicing empathy mindfully, designers can identify exclusions and find ways to solve the problem. An inclusive design will make the interface accessible to all kinds of people by addressing the interactions rather than focusing on the individual.

2. Learn from diversity

Humans learn and adapt to diversity quickly. By designing websites for people with different disabilities, designers might end up building something that could be more beneficial to people in general. Hence, designers should put the real interactions and tasks of people at the heart of their creations. This will give them new insights and enable them to build a better experience for all types of users.

3. Solve for one, extend to many

Disability can be permanent (someone having just one arm), temporary (someone who has fractured her one hand), or situational (when a new mother is working on a computer with one hand as she is carrying a newborn baby in the other hand). A truly accessible website must be easy to use for all these types of users.

To build an accessible website, designers must focus on that one big problem that is universal to all users and focus on solving that. By putting people and their constraints at the center, designers can build a more accessible website for all users. Adopting a robust and carefully considered set of design principles, like these three from Microsoft, can help set the context for how designers should build an inclusive mindset in order to create accessible websites.

At Windmill, our designers follow the Microsoft Accessibility Guidelines. To implement it we use website plugins to make sure that the color contrast under different conditions is sufficient while we are creating a design system and developing a product. The specific tools we use include UserWay (https://userway.org/), an Automated Website Accessibility Solution for ADA & WCAG Compliance, and Stark (https://www.getstark.co/), a suite of integrated accessibility compliance tools for software teams. In the next part of this series, we will look at some best practices and tips that Windmill designers use to design accessible digital interfaces.

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