Human-Centered Design: The Path to Accessible Digital Experiences
The cultural shift in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is unmistakable. As different parts of society and business reconcile with a much needed DEI push, digital experience has its own giants to face. We’re not far removed from a time when accessibility in the digital world was an afterthought — something nice to have.
That line of thinking is no longer the way of things. True digital inclusivity stems from online experiences that are designed for everyone to use, regardless of their abilities. Equitable experiences across the digital landscape light the way for an inclusion revolution across the digital realm – one that we aim to help lead.
Still, while inclusion might be a hot topic, executing inclusive design has to step beyond conceptual frameworks. Which is the goal of this article: together, we’re going to explore the path to accessible content and digital experiences, leaving you with a picture of how to make inclusion a tangible reality for your organization rather than a timely parlor conversation.
What is inclusive design?
Inclusive design is the all-encompassing practice of building human-centered digital experiences that account for the whole spectrum of human differences by meeting people where usability and accessibility intersect.
The idea of being human-centered may seem obvious, but many industries have been guilty of leaving some people on the margins. Human-centered design doesn’t mean mostly inclusive; it means all inclusive.
We know there are more than a handful of facets that make up the tapestry of a human being, but we key in on certain human factors for creating human-centered designs:
For human-centered design to work, we have to start with the most basic foundation of what makes up a person. Without considering these seven factors — and the innumerable others that branch from them — our view can be blinded by our own accessibility preconceptions.
Building inclusive digital experiences
Designing inclusive digital experiences is largely a matter of knowing what your audience needs, which calls for thorough user research. Once you’ve done that research, you’ll be able to map the aforementioned human factors with three broad considerations that link directly to inclusive design:
Environment: Arguably the most difficult of these three considerations to nail down, environment can mean anything. Mobile-first design might not be the best for users who primarily browse from desktop. A video-heavy site might not work well for populations with slower internet connection speeds. You get the picture. Any number of environmental factors influence how a digital experience might affect people. It’s your job to strive to be as inclusive as possible in the face of these variables.
Assistive technology: What technologies will you need to ensure your digital experiences are accessible to everyone? Integrating your organization's digital properties with the appropriate assistive technologies is the first step to implementing inclusive design. These could include translation software, text-to-voice or voice-to-text, screen reader compatibility, and so on.
Impairment: Impairments can be temporary (broken arm), situational, or permanent (arm amputation). One of the biggest misconceptions in accessibility is the idea that accessible experiences are meant for people with permanent impairments. In the name of being wholly inclusive, proper accessibility ideally covers every type of impairment.
Inclusive design and digital experience
Inclusive design is an ongoing process, but there are some key aspects that help get the ball rolling.
It’s estimated that more than a billion people worldwide experience a disability and that 25% of the planet will experience a disability at some point in life. That’s no small number. Ensuring accessible digital experiences begins with being empathetic toward individuals with disabilities. The previous section explored human factors, but empathy comes even before that.
Empathy requires an organizational shift. Accessibility can no longer be seen as the responsibility of one department or team. It needs to be central to the very fabric of the organization. Of course, there will be leaders of the charge in this aspect, but bringing empathy into the larger conversation about digital inclusivity encourages human-centered thinking.
Evaluation and people
After establishing empathetic dialogue concerning digital experiences, the next phase would be evaluating what your organization currently has and assessing where you need an accessibility overhaul. The evaluation process can be tricky, though, namely because it needs to have diverse evaluators in order to be inclusive.
Reflect back on the seven human factors we mentioned earlier. How inclusive can an accessibility evaluation be if the majority of the evaluators share the same experiences? This gives the opportunity for unconscious biases to take hold in decision-making. A proper evaluation of accessibility must have individuals with diverse backgrounds and abilities to lend a fully rounded perspective.
Standards like Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and 508 website compliance are official demarcations of viable website accessibility. They can veritably act as your web accessibility north star. It’s important to use these guidelines as a base. From there, you can tailor experiences to your particular audiences, evaluations, and user research. WCAG lists three levels of accessibility conformance:
- A: The base level of conformance impacts the broadest group of users, but will still present barriers that impact certain user groups.
- AA: The most commonly targeted conformance level, the criteria at this level establish accessibility that works for more users, including those who need assistive technology.
- AAA: The highest conformance level (and rarest) achievable covers the criteria of all three levels, but isn’t universally recommended as total accessibility isn’t possible with certain content. However, organizations may choose to adopt specific criteria at this level.
Ignoring or failing to meet minimum standards in some cases can result in legal trouble. Between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Rehabilitation Act, and European Accessibility Act (EAA), your organization may need to comply with all three to avoid litigation from users.
WCAG developed four guiding principles for being digitally accessible:
- Perceivable: Users have to be able to perceive content.
- Operable: The interface cannot require actions users can’t perform.
- Understandable: Content should be clear and not needlessly complex.
- Robust: Content should be accessible to a variety of audiences using a range of assistive technologies.
Tools and measurement
Now is the time to establish ongoing plans that will maintain and improve accessibility over time. This will call for some tools that help test accessibility and compliance while searching for gaps to address.
Accessibility documentation is another great way to keep track of iterations, areas of success, and growth potential. Think of it as a ledger of all the accessibility work different teams have done and a map for where they plan to go in the future.
While these are all great accessibility pulse checks to use internally, there’s nothing that can replace user research. When you’re regularly evaluating accessibility by asking diverse user groups what they think, it’s best to look outside of your own organization to gather accessibility intel from actual users of your digital properties. The best way to improve user experience is by asking users about their experiences.
Building accessible digital experiences isn’t just the right thing to do; it’ll vastly help your business by making it available to people who might’ve missed out otherwise. Wherever you might be in your accessibility journey, any progress is good progress. Fully inclusive digital experiences aren’t something you’ll build in one night or one sitting. Rather, they need constant iteration and reevaluation. The fact remains: when you put inclusivity at the forefront of your digital experiences, it benefits everyone. You can read more about how digital inclusion and building digital experiences for everyone is good business.