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Inclusive Design Is The Process, Accessibility Is The Outcome


LAST UPDATED: 03 May, 2024

Now is absolutely the time to be doing better in digital. The way we live and do business has shifted, the real-world channels where we have previously engaged our customers have been paused or simply turned off.

Everyone is relying more on digital so now is the time to up our game, and really think about who we are designing for, and — I need to emphasise this – include them in the process.

I attended A11y Camp last year, and one of the presentations I really liked spoke to the concept that accessibility is the outcome (i.e. the standard we reach, the level of compliance) and that, more importantly, inclusive design is the process (or the way we work).

Many of the other presenters spoke to various versions of where accessibility fits into the process. Even in Discoverly training, I speak to a diagram which has five boxes to visualise the design cycle so I can make the point about where accessibility fits in, who is responsible (product owner, decision-maker, designer, developer, testers) and the concept of shifting the conversation to the left.

On the topic of design, let's for a moment say we are all designers of sorts – whether it's in our job title or not. Sure there are visual designers, but there are also those who design the experiences, the systems and workflows, the databases, the tech stack, the architecture, and so on. From brainstorming and ideation all the way through to implementation, we are all designing.

I don't think the conversation should be around where accessibility (or inclusive design) fits in – I think that inclusive design is the conversation. It's the only conversation. Inclusive design isn't about where to fit it in – how to tick a box – it's fundamental to everything we do creating digital products.

If we aren't thinking of all of the people who will use our products – their diversity, their different abilities, situations, backgrounds, literacy levels, age, access to technology (the list goes on) – then what are we doing? Who are we designing for?

As an example, I worked with an agency a few years ago who's long-time client (a leading Australian retailer) asked them to redesign their product detail page — the most important page on their website, and one of the top three pages in Australia by traffic. The agency went through a rigorous process and was proud to show off the end result.

I wasn't directly involved in that project, but I was there at the launch and I made enquiries about the user testing and how the users were involved. It turns out two rounds of testing were conducted with four people in each… to validate the designs.

“It's not possible to truly be inclusive when ‘user testing' is a checkbox with only four users.”

The naivety of a team of creatives patting themselves on the back for a job well done, believing they knew what their users needed when they really hadn't thought much about who their users were at all — really thought about it, what their needs and abilities are — and certainly hadn't included them in the process, was astounding to me.

Part of the problem is we can (and do) make websites without learning anything about the topic of accessibility, and we're (often) not held accountable for inaccessible products going out the door.

What I would like to see – and the approach I like to take with clients – is that web accessibility (or inclusive design) should be a key principle adopted in decision making throughout the entire design cycle, and that users with varied and limited abilities should be included in decision making throughout, particularly during user testing.

A couple of articles which are relevant here if you want to do more reading are:

The first two are an introduction to the top of web accessibility if you haven't heard much about it before, and a conversation about why it is important now.

The third link is a white paper from WebKeyIT which is a great piece of research into perceptions around digital accessibility.

The final link is from the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and makes great points around the business case for digital accessibility, including how being more inclusive is a good thing for your brand, and how it can improve your reach – by including a huge chunk of potential users you may not have realised you were excluding.

Please join the conversation – are you happy with how your organisation handles accessibility?

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