How can accessible design for digital products improve your business?

In the field of digital product design and development, ‘accessibility’ (and so-called ‘accessible design’) is an increasingly significant factor which has recently been receiving much attention. Many of you may have come across this term already but its meaning is not always clear. Owing to that, the principles of incorporating accessibility into digital product development might seem somewhat vague. In this article, I share my practical knowledge about accessible design with you.

Some people associate accessibility with endless lists of formal requirements, referring to ways of adapting a product or a website to the needs of people with disabilities. For various reasons, this issue is rarely prioritized or believed to be worth deeper analysis.

If this is what you think about accessibility issues or if this attitude is common in your product team, consider looking into the subject again. Taking accessibility into account and complying with its principles is important not only from an ethical perspective, it may also bring tangible profits; i.e. improve the usability of your product, enlarge the group of potential users, and enhance the SEO results.

In short, accessibility as part of UX design can have a number of benefits in terms of both product development and business outcomes

To find out more – read on.

Accessibility in product design – what is that, actually?

A product is considered accessible when anyone is able to use it regardless of their physical, intellectual, or technological limitations. Such limitations may be related to disabilities (e.g. visual or mobility impairments); however, you must bear in mind that some limitations are situation-specific and more widely experienced. For instance, after a long day in front of the computer screen, your eyes may be fatigued and your sight is weaker. Another example: when you commute by train, holding your backpack in one hand and your phone in the other, you are not able to move freely, so it is more difficult to hit a tiny button on the display.

As soon as you begin to think about such situations, you will realize how important it is to apply the principles of accessibility when creating digital products. By doing so, your products will become accessible to users with disabilities as well as to non-disabled users. And the user experience as a whole will be better. Accessible design is strictly related to universal design: the approach to product development in which all products can be used in any possible context by a wide audience.Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

Keep reading for some practical guidance on where to start on your road to accessibility, what improvements can be introduced at the various stages of the development process, and what measurable effects may accrue if you increase the accessibility of your products.

How to ensure accessibility of digital products?

Detailed guidelines concerning the development of accessible web content and products are available here: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Take some time to read them to recognize their scope and diversity in how they can contribute to product accessibility.

The WCAG list is quite extensive and might seem overwhelming in the beginning, though. So, which aspects listed there are particularly important and how exactly can you set out to improve your product accessibility?

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

  • Colors – First of all, pay attention to the contrast between the text and its background (this is very important for people with a visual impairment and for people with tired eyes after a day spent in front of the computer). You can check the color contrast using one of the available tools, such as Contrast Checker or Check My Colours. Another key matter to take into consideration is how colors are often used to convey specific information (e.g. red or green messages signifying the success or failure of an action, or ‘stop’ and ‘go’ indicators). This will help people with conditions such as color blindness or monochromacy.
Color Vision Deficiency Examples table above shows how people with color vision deficiencies perceive colors - normal vision is compared to protanopia and achromatopsia vision.

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  • Fonts – If the fonts are too small, they may be difficult to read for people with visual impairments. In fact, they may be difficult to read for anyone. Choose the size of the fonts so that the visual hierarchy of the elements and their relations are clear and legible. The user (e.g. an elderly person who doesn’t use digital products very often) must be able to understand at once which element is the website title and which one is the headline.
  • The size of elements – For instance, if the buttons are too small, they may be difficult to click for elderly people, people with reduced mobility, and actually all people using mobile devices
  • Video subtitles – If you add subtitles, the content will be accessible to people with hearing impairments as well as to those who want to view it but cannot turn the sound on at that particular moment (e.g. they are on a bus and left their earphones at home).
  • Adding alternative text to all the graphic elements (photos, images, icons) – This will facilitate the use of the product by people with vision loss or visual impairments who use screen readers. Using alt attributes and describing images and graphics in the proper way is also a method of improving the SEO of the product.
  • Keyboard navigation – This will improve accessibility for people with reduced mobility who cannot use a mouse or touchpad.
  • Make sure the content on your website is easy to understand, presented in a clear way, and consistently arranged – This is particularly important for people with dyslexia, concentration deficit disorders, or low IQ scores.
Consistent typographic hierarchy and clear layout help understand the information architecture and improve overall user experience for elder users or those with limited cognitive abilities.

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  • Avoid excessively dynamic animations and animated banners – Such solutions may prove dangerous to people with photosensitive epilepsy, as they are likely to trigger a seizure. Animations shouldn’t move more than three frames per second.

How to create accessible products?

Remember that accessible design begins at the stage of product development: changes introduced early enough can help you improve the accessibility of your solutions.

The awareness of the problem of accessibility within the team

It can be easily assumed that the designer is responsible for a large number of aspects connected with product accessibility (e.g. adequate visual hierarchy, element sizes, link highlights, contrasts) so it is the designer that should always keep these issues in mind.

Undoubtedly, the person who designs concrete solutions has a huge impact on product accessibility. However, other members of the team also need to be aware of the issue of product accessibility and understand its significance. Thanks to this awareness, developers will bear in mind appropriate HTML markups and correct code structure; while testers will pay attention to whether the new solutions meet accessibility requirements. In fact, the whole team should be aware of product accessibility as one of the goals of product development. If someone in the team has better know-how concerning accessibility, they could prepare a short presentation about it for their colleagues before starting off with a project, or – if there is no time to do that – they can regularly update other members of the team in this regard and educate them in terms of particularly important notions or problems.

Diversity in the development team

The whole development team will impact the final shape of the product by suggesting solutions and identifying gaps or areas for improvement. Everyone can contribute their own perspective, which is a combination of the position, role, and skillset of a given person as well as their personal experience, beliefs, and habits.

If you mean to create a really accessible product – a product that does not exclude anyone – you need to take all the diverse perspectives into account and remember the numerous possible circumstances in which the product may be used.

How to ensure this diversity? It would be great if the development team were as diverse as the intended users – in terms of gender, age, experience, and origin. This would help combine a variety of perspectives rather than narrowing your vision down to a single point of view.

If you wish to learn more about this subject, I recommend this inspiring book: Mismatch: How inclusion shapes design by Kat Holmes, the former Principal Director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft.

The correct choice of research participants

User research will help you verify the effectiveness of your solutions at various stages of product development. When selecting research participants, you usually make sure they correspond with the target group of your product.

In fact, you need to check yourself at that point: perhaps you are overly restricting this group and forgetting about other potential users due to your own unconscious bias. It may also happen that you forget about including people of various genders and with various disabilities in the user testing.

In other situations, and for a variety of reasons, it is sometimes impossible to run user tests and the existing research results must be taken into account. In this case, you should also verify these results and check what level of diversity was ensured in the tests: which genders or social and ethnic groups took part in them. To find out how often studies do not take the perspective of a large part of the society into consideration, read Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. This book shows how many existing designs, solutions, and recommendations, even those concerning the diagnostics and treatment of diseases, ignore the perspective of women, who constitute half of the population.

The use of accessibility evaluation tools

There are many tools on the market which can support you in evaluating the accessibility of your product. You can make use of these both at the stage of designing and proposing new solutions, and to check the accessibility of existing products.

You can find these tools here: Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List.

Which of them are of special importance? Keep an eye on the following:

  • Color Oracle – a free color blindness simulator showing what people with common color vision impairments will see;
  • Check My Colours – a tool for checking foreground and background color combinations and determining if they provide sufficient contrast;
  • Google Lighthouse – one of the Google Chrome DevTools which can be used to audit accessibility and generates neat reports with specific recommendations;
  • Wave – this tool can be used to assess a number of elements, such as the correct HTML structure of a website, contrasts, and compliance with particular WCAG recommendations relevant to the analyzed website.

What are the further benefits of product accessibility?

A larger group of end users

A fully accessible product can be used by as many individuals as possible, regardless of their age, technological competence, mobility, sight, or education level.

If you don’t exclude anyone, you have a chance to reach a greater number of people, thus enlarging the target group of your product.

Better product usability

Usability and accessibility have a lot in common: many of the basic accessibility principles are the same as usability factors (e.g. contrasts between the colors of the background and the text, which increase legibility, as well as resulting in unambiguous, comprehensible, readable content). By implementing the accessibility principles, you will simultaneously enhance the usability of your product.

A usable product is intuitive and easy to use for anyone, especially for less experienced users. Thanks to this, all users are able to make the best of the product (e.g. they can place an order in an online shop easily and quickly). Moreover, they are more willing to use the product and go back to it frequently.

Better search engine optimization (SEO)

Search engine rankings have an impact on the traffic on your website, therefore, they may increase the number of your potential clients.

Many of the elements which are crucial for web accessibility (e.g. alternative text added to photos and graphics, video subtitles and recording transcription, or well-structured webpages and headlines) also improve the search engine rankings of the website.

User-friendly viewing on mobile device

Apps and websites which are designed in accordance with accessibility principles are normally more convenient to display on mobile devices. For devices with a low display resolution, the legibility of text is extremely important, just like the font or button size.

Digital products which respect accessibility requirements usually provide a better user experience also on mobile devices thanks to right sized buttons, clear typography and the right contrast between colours.

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Lower costs of future product development

Website or application code created with accessibility in mind has a better organized and ordered structure, which meets high quality standards. Thanks to that, you can easily and quickly extend or modify your product later on. This, in turn, will result in lower costs for possible alterations.

To sum it up

The improvement of product accessibility is an essential subject these days, but it is also a rather extensive one as it comprises a number of different aspects. Due to this, the implementation of accessible solutions may seem too complicated or painstaking, which is why the aspect of accessibility is often totally dismissed. This mistake can cost you, reducing the number of your potential customers and decreasing the usability of your product.

This is why it is so important to raise awareness regarding this subject and to gradually introduce best practice and improvements concerning accessibility. Remember that the development of accessible products is a continuous process. The accessibility principles should also be implemented in the design systems, which will allow you to take these standards into consideration in all features of the product, no matter what its purpose and future use or development is.

This way, you will not only make the world a better place, as people of various ages, genders, and health conditions will have equal access to new technological solutions, but you will also guarantee the success of your product.