What is Accessible Design?

We’ve written before about how the UX process is one of building personas and then constructing your product for those users, with the understanding that the features you create will be useful and awesome for a wider audience because of the thoughtful and intimate nature of the design methodology.

But what does it really mean to design technology that is meaningfully available to people with all kinds of experiences and abilities?  How do you design products that are accessible, particularly to those who are traditionally left out or go unconsidered by product designers in all kinds of fields?  

How do we use empathy-guided design to create experiences that serve the needs of different users, gracefully and with the same foundational principle that the design should ‘disappear’ and hum elegantly in the background–rather than announce its elements at every level.

The simple fact is disabilities are much wider and more commonplace than society as a whole has acknowledged, and that lack of acknowledgement has limited the accessibility of many products and services. And it’s not just conditions that are traditionally thought of as disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, or mobility limitations.  

Older adults with arthritis, people with seizure-related conditions, and young children with differently developing joints are all great examples of users who navigate the world (both physical and UX worlds) in different, important ways.  

The census tells us that about a fifth of the population over five has a self-reported disability, and given the wide range of experiences that can change someone’s experience of their body or world, we should as designers take that as an underestimate.  

And they’re all people who are our friends, family, colleagues, mentors, and even us.  Good design means good design for everybody.

So what are some strategies you can use to adapt your UX design to be more accessible and thoughtful–especially if you’re designing for older audiences or hoping to ‘design for everybody’?  

1. Engage disabled designers or users in the product development and testing

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece about 90 year old designer Barbara Beskind who lives and works in Silicon Valley at one of the country’s hottest design firms, IDEO.  She tells WSJ that she has been designing since age 8, during the Great Depression when she was forced to make her own toys.  Even after retiring, she created her own occupational therapy clinic and designed several objects for it along the way.  Beskind isn’t just a ‘user’–she’s a consultant on some of IDEO’s biggest projects, especially in design for the elderly or those with physical disabilities.  This is an important shift to think about in how we approach the making of designers and users: those boundaries shouldn’t be so distinct.  It’s actually pretty common sense.  Do less ‘designing for’ and more ‘designing with’.

‍‍IDEO’s Barbara Beskind is a great design mind, and she makes many products available to people with mobility restrictions.
Barbara Prototyping

2.  Use accessibility software that’s already out there

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or in this case, accessibility software at every turn.  UX Mag recently wrote a great piece about designing accessible products and services, and included a list of innovative accessibility products. Some of them include the familiar text-to-speech feature included in iPhones.  

Another is the R&D company Blindsight that employs a ‘camera tool and Voiceover to create a text-detection system that allows users with low vision to navigate language-heavy urban environments’.  

Another is the LookTel Money Reader that can identify the denomination of bills for you.  Eventually we might have more popularly available gesture-detection or retina-detection technologies as well.  

Look for what’s already out there–these might be opportunities for meaningful partnerships, or you might find gaps that you want to work on filling yourself!  

Whatever the case is, it’s important that you use the same principles you would use in any product development process: assess the market and then figure out what your niche is within it.

‍‍The LookTel money reader makes everyday experiences easier.

3. Think of accessibility as an opportunity, not a niche

One of the most popular stories about thoughtful human-centered design is the innovative tale of Oxo Grip kitchen equipment.  The Oxo line was designed for the product designer’s wife Betsey who struggled with arthritis and wasn’t able to use traditional kitchen tools that had clunky and difficult-to-hold grips.  The Oxo grips were designed with plush, flexible cushioning and high-quality materials to meet her needs–but they ended up having a much wider market! This is just one great example of accessibility-guided design that has a broad reach and need.

Oxo Grips are a highly successful product line motivated by accessibility.

A great digital example is text-to-speech software.  It’s not just useful for people who aren’t able to type due to sight or other limitations–it’s useful for people in all sorts of situations who, for whatever reason, can’t fully use their hands in a moment.  Accessibility is a thoughtful way to motivate your design, but it’s also just solid business practice.

Even simple text-to-speech software can transform a user’s experience.

Want to chat with our usability experts at GobySavvy about your own UX and how you might design more thoughtful, accessible experiences for your users?  Drop us a line we’d love to hear from you!

About the author:

Janani B.

Janani has a Master's in Design Thinking and writes frequently about UX, design, psychology, and other topics.