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Inclusive design is one of those things that you know when you see, or sense when you don’t. Perhaps it’s more apparent in environmental or industrial design because of the tangibility of those disciplines, which is more about universal design. But in thinking about inclusivity and accessibility in the digital space, we need to be just as aware of the purpose, tactics and significance of bringing these efforts into your strategy.
The wonderful thing about practicing inclusive and accessible design is that the process is expansive rather than constrictive. We shouldn’t think about it as fulfilling a checklist of requirements; rather, it opens pathways for truly creative and innovative thinking, where so much more is possible.
Designing inclusively doesn’t mean you’re making one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways for everyone to participate in an experience with a sense of belonging. — Microsoft
Because inclusive design requires so many of the existing fundamental strengths of digital design, like user-centric experiences and versatility of expression, it is an empowering endeavor to achieve. It also depends on an intentional understanding and observation of the wealth of global diversity. When considering the needs of an individual, a community, a region or a digital environment, there certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to how any digital space can be best designed for inclusivity and accessibility.
Certainly a business or concept has a general sense of their target audience, but we can acknowledge that those targets are baseline and contain a potential for a far wider reach. This potential impact guides us to approach digital design with a range of perspectives and abilities in mind. In the interest of defining terms, we can think about two key components:
Inclusivity and accessibility
Accessible design: Accessibility involves optimization of access to systems and considerations of people who interact with products in many different ways. Generally speaking, accessible design is guided by an effort to personalize products for specific audiences, keeping in mind devices, technology access and those with vision or hearing impairment, or other physical or cognitive circumstances that impact the way they are able to access, navigate, understand and interpret a digital space.
Inclusive design: Inclusive design takes into account the full range of human experiences, including, but not limited to: ability, language, culture, socioeconomics, gender identity, race, age and other types of differentiators. Inclusivity can be thought of as a way to identify and eliminate points of exclusion. Inclusive design strives to achieve design for all.
What does it look like?
Putting accessibility and inclusivity into digital design practices shows itself in many ways. There are technical tactics to consider, and it is important to keep inclusivity in mind throughout the design process, rather than as an initial consideration or as part of the refinement stages.
It’s not that this is a new trend or consideration, but tools that can be applied to user experience and user interface are more and more available, and it’s an interesting time to explore strategies that stay ahead of the game and consider the options available to your teams to implement them. With simple plugins and strategies, designers can easily apply accessible design features to existing sites after the fact, and for new projects, these principles can be planned prior to the launch of a website or digital property.
Accessibility is really about customization. There’s something in there that can benefit everyone. Regardless of whether or not you self-identify as someone who needs accessibility, it can really be about productivity or simplicity, how you use your technology in your daily life. — Apple
How is it done?
Inclusive and accessible design can be accomplished in a number of ways:
- Thoughtful use of icons and microinteractions that are engaging without being dependent on the quality of a user’s internet speeds or those that won’t interfere with a device’s or system’s memory, can make a tremendous difference for the user.
- Graphics like stock images or photography that express racial and gender diversity, captions on videos that can assist the hearing impaired as well as those whose devices might not support effective audio, color contrast and readable font size/type for visually impaired users, and gender-neutral language are all examples of inclusive and accessible design at work.
- Language that is created with the most salient points of information prioritized and plain-language standards that eschew superfluous wording can resonate with users broadly, regardless of cognitive ability.
- Consistent branding and navigational attributes throughout the space can improve the intuitive user interface of a site and create a clearer, more impactful communication of the brand’s identity while encouraging exploration of the webpage.
- User testing, if implemented, should include as diverse an audience as is possible, with a persona spectrum in mind. A spectrum of this nature can take into account the senses of touch, feel, sight and sound, for example, as well as a variety of backgrounds, races and gender identities to understand the quality of the message reception and resonance.
Why is it meaningful?
Make no mistake, we all benefit from accessible and inclusive design, even if it is not immediately apparent based on our individual capacities or any other human trait that we identify with. At minimum, it improves reach and impact for a brand or business. But perhaps more than that, it instills a sense of empathy and helps us stay present and aware of diversity of backgrounds when we experience digital design that puts accessibility and inclusivity into practice. This can create a genuine sense of community and organically raise awareness of how important these efforts really are. If we think about the digital space in similar terms as physical ones, we can better grasp how necessary and important this approach is.
We can raise our expectations from the brands we support and services we engage with. As design professionals, we can hold ourselves accountable and to a higher design standard and philosophy, and as users, we can develop a deeper appreciation for diversity of all kinds.