Accessible Design: Good for People, Good for Business

 
(Illustration by me)

(Illustration by me)

Do you ever think about how you would browse the internet if you lost your sight? Or how you’d use your phone with severe arthritis in your hands?

If you’re healthy and able-bodied, probably not.

But for millions of people with functional impairments or those slowly losing abilities due to illness and age, using digital products isn’t always a given — especially when said products weren’t designed with accessibility in mind.

Though most people know designers should create products so that those with functional impairments can use them, it doesn’t always happen.

“There’s not enough time.” “We don’t have the money to run user testing.” “I forgot.”

The excuses run the gamut. And, with some niche products where you anticipate a very narrow swath of the able-bodied population to be users, maybe you don’t have to design with disabled people in mind.

Most of the time, though, this isn’t the case.

Product designers should design with accessibility in mind for all products. It’s the right, ethical thing to do.

And, when it comes to healthtech products, accessible design becomes even more important. The likelihood that your users have some form of disability, whether temporary or permanent, is higher than with the general population.

The ethical treatment of users is paramount to good design, especially in healthtech. Though medical ethics was once left to the healthcare providers, the increasing prevalence of digital products in the healthcare space has brought medical ethics into the realm of digital product design.

Bioethicists often refer to four basic principles of medical ethics — autonomy, justice, beneficence, and nonmaleficence — when evaluating the merit of medical procedures. I believe these should be taken into consideration when designing medical and healthtech products.

If the bleeding heart argument of simply helping people for the sake of helping people doesn’t resonate, accessible design is also good for business. Many people have disabilities, and ensuring the accessibility of your product means you can attract more paying customers.

THE NUMBERS / WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

According to the most recent American Community Survey, there are millions of people with disabilities, and that’s just in the states alone.

Additionally, the percentage of elderly Americans is growing, and that trend will lead to even higher percentages of disabled people. If you’ve ever had to yell at grandpa over the phone just to have a basic conversation, you know that most elderly people become hard of hearing, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Eventually most become hard of seeing and hard of moving around.

Building digital products with these users in mind helps them continue living their lives, all the while expanding your potential customer base.

From Pyramid to Pillar: A Century of Change, Population of the United States

COMMON WEB ACCESSIBILITY MISTAKES, AND WHY THEY’RE EVEN BIGGER PROBLEMS IN HEALTHTECH

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

-Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the W3C and inventor of the web


Many digital product designers come from backgrounds in visual design, and therefore focus on form over function. Even designers that don’t come from visual backgrounds make common usability mistakes to the inadvertent detriment of their products and the people using them. In order to maintain the universality of the web — its “essential aspect” — designers must try to avoid these accessibility mistakes.

According to MCD Partners, some of these include:

  1. Insufficient color contrast

  2. Inadequate keyboard access and visual focus indicator

  3. Missing or poor alternative text on images

  4. Meaningless link text

  5. Illegible resized text

Making sure your designs use the right colors with enough contrast ensures color blind people won’t struggle with your product. Building in keyboard shortcuts and clear visual focus indicators helps those with mobility and vision impairments. Providing alternative text on images and using relevant link text ensures the visually impaired can understand what’s going on on your webpage. Illegible resized text, a big problem with many sites that claim to be “mobile responsive,” ensures all users, whether visually impaired or not, can use your site on mobile devices and tablets.

Even if you’ve made the mistakes, the good thing is that most of them are easily remedied. Taking the time to fix them will open to door to new users and potentially new, fresh designs.

HOW TO MAKE SURE YOU’RE DESIGNING FOR ACCESSIBILITY

Designing for accessibility takes more time, but it’s not astrophysics. People have done the research and established seven principles of universal design. These principles are not the be all end all of accessible design guidelines, but they’re a good start.

Keeping these in mind will increase the chances that those with disabilities can use your product.

These principles and their components are:

  1. Equitable Use:

    • It provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.

    • It avoids segregating or stigmatizing any users.

    • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety are equally available to all users.

    • The design is appealing to all users.

  2. Flexibility in Use

    • It provides choice in methods of use.

    • It accommodates right or left handed access and use.

    • It facilitates the user’s accuracy and precision.

    • It provides adaptability to the user’s pace.

  3. Simple and Intuitive Use

    • Eliminate unnecessary complexity.

    • Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.

    • Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.

    • Arrange information to be consistent with its importance.

    • Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

  4. Perceptible Information

    • Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.

    • Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.

    • Maximize "legibility" of essential information.

    • Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).

    • Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices that people with sensory limitations use.

  5. Tolerance for Error

    • Arrange elements so as to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible, with hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.

    • Provide warnings about hazards and errors.

    • Provide fail-safe features.

    • Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

  6. Low Physical Effort

    • Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.

    • Use reasonable operating forces.

    • Minimize repetitive actions.

    • Minimize sustained physical effort.

  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

    • Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.

    • Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.

    • Accommodate variations in hand and grip size.

    • Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

Factoring in these principles does not preclude user testing, though. Granted, in some cases you might not have the time and resources, but including thorough user testing in your design process should always be the golden standard. Even when actively following these principles, designers should still conduct user interviews and functionality tests with groups that include people of varying physical and mental abilities.

Designing this way is key to functional, ethical, and lasting products. Building accessible digital products will increase the likelihood that users can continue using them, even with various levels of ability or lack thereof.

Accessible design isn’t just for the deeply empathetic or “bleeding hearts” among us. When you consider the number of people with various disabilities and our aging population, designing your products for varying levels of able-ness is as nice as it is practical.