Corporations, agencies and designers have run full-force into the digital service era. While most of us thrive on convenience of information and quick, easy consumer reach, a huge part of our consumer base has been elbowed out of the party or left at home entirely—unable to access the basic digital products and services that shifted the way we think about consumerism today.
I spent a few days at CSUN, an Assistive Technology Conference, trying to figure out why, when so many services are exclusively digital, we don’t prioritize digital accessibility and how those responsible for laying the foundations of a universally accessible internet can shift their approach and start making better.
While there are several causes we see surface in hindsight, at the base of each one is our tendency to ignore any user whose experience deviates from the one most similar to our own. We’ve taken the easy-path.
We aren’t sorry until we’ve been caught. With the passage of long-overdue updates to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a new baseline expectation for web usability has been written into law and corporations, agencies, and designers are scrambling to catch-up as lawsuits are piling in.
Design is a commodity. When we side-step universal accessibility for short-term profit gains, we disregard the 20 million working-age American consumers that report having at least one disability. That’s a huge 35 percent, neglected.
Universal Design was never translated to digital. As a result of excluding digital when discussing Universal Design, digital accessibility is viewed as a niche specialty. New designers are coming out of university with the same myopic view of Universal Design as their predecessors and everyone is left unprepared to deliver.
Disabilities are not one-size-fits-all. Disabled and handicapped are catch-all terms; they tell us no vital information about our consumer and help justify the we’ll-deal-with-it-later mentality towards accessibility features that would be useful to all consumers.
Accessibility isn’t a one-person-job. Internal teams aren’t discussing division of responsibility along the strategy, design and development assembly line and third-parties and their clients aren’t discussing digital accessibility in their up-front scopes of work. That’s a lot of not discussing.
Accessibility starts on day one. At the foundation of inclusive design is a mindset that views designing for disabilities not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity.
Compliance will follow. Take the personas your team is already familiar with and assign a disability to each. If you design for a quality user experience first, you are more likely to consider the criteria needed to meet ADA/WCAG compliance along the way.
Treat accessibility as a core competency. Promote certification for the key digital players you employ and support the sharing of knowledge across internal teams. From there you can properly develop an organizational strategy to deliver quality accessible experiences.
Invest now or pay later. Recognize that digital accessibility is non-negotiable. Invest in proactive fix costs by scoping time and resources to incorporate accessibility throughout each phase of a project. Hire, staff, invest and charge accordingly.
Inclusion drives innovation. Understand that disabilities exist on a spectrum of permanent, temporary and situational. When we design for users with permanent disabilities first, situational users also benefit. Instagram recently added the ability to provide alt-text to photos. This serves consumers with visual impairments or a slow internet connection in addition to creating new SEO opportunities for business accounts.
Embrace change. Creative directors should be championing the importance of universal accessibility to clients, leadership and their teams. Researches should incorporate disabled users in testing. Graphic and UI/UX designers should ensure color contrast meets WCAG standards and offer simple interactions that don’t rely on a mouse or a touch screen. Developers should provide meaningful alt-text and skip-to-main content blocks. Everybody should be holding the person to their left and right accountable along the way.
If you are a stakeholder in a digital product or service, it is your job to ensure that you deliver not just a compliant experience, but a quality one. We cannot claim to be shifting the future through technology while ignoring the consumer whose needs differ from our own. It’s well past time to innovate and make for all.
If we are unable or unwilling to design for universally accessible digital outcomes, then we are unqualified to design digital products and services at all. We are all capable. It isn’t difficult, it just takes the willingness to shift our approach and start making better.
POV by Sarasota Proffitt, Sr. Experience Designer at INDUSTRY