Blog – Inclusive design: why it matters to everyone

All the fuss about the new European privacy legislation (received many emails?) would have almost made you forget about the introduction of another important law last year. Since 2017, the amended Equal Treatment Act has come into force in the Netherlands and everyone involved in the development of digital products should know this, argues Maaike de Laat, senior UX designer at SILO.

The new law states that “accessibility is the norm”. This means that products and services must be as accessible as possible for people with a disability or chronic condition. Think of people who are deaf, cannot use their hands, or are visually impaired.

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

– Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web)

What does this mean in practice?

Let’s go back in time. The rise of the web was seen by many as a promise. The obstacles faced by people with disabilities in the ‘real’ world, don’t need to exist online. The technological foundations of the web (HTML and CSS) are, by nature, very accessible. With or without the use of tools – text to speech software, alternative input devices, etc. – websites can be just as useful for people with various limitations as they are for the rest.

But those websites need to be designed and developed in the right way.

That doesn’t have to be difficult – certainly not for websites containing mainly textual information. On the other hand, it can be (technically) challenging to make an existing site accessible. Think of interactive applications that depend heavily on javascript. To make such an application useful for everyone after the initial development can be a lot of work. It is easier if accessibility is taken into account from the very start.

Off to a good start!

Wishful thinking is a common pitfall when designing and building for the web. It’s easy to start from the most ideal situation: the prospective user has the latest devices, is young, fit, tech-savvy and completely immersed in your product. A user, in short, who looks suspiciously like the average digital designer or software developer.

Of course, in reality, this does not apply to most people.

Taking accessibility into account is part of the broader method of inclusive design. In inclusive design, the starting point is to not shut anyone out. Technology should be adapted to human needs – and not the other way around.

Awareness is key. When developing digital products you must be aware that the design and technology choices you make, may also hinder people. And vice versa: that paying attention to accessibility makes your products better for everyone.

For example, people who are visually impaired may not be able to read low contrast texts. Taking this into consideration will help those people. And in addition, it will also help everyone who wants to view your website on a cell phone in bright sunlight.

Another example: captioning your videos will help deaf and hearing-impaired visitors. But it is also useful for others, who are in a quiet office space or have no earplugs at hand.

The point is that we all have limitations. Inclusive design simply means taking everyone into account. Besides, doing so will make your target group as big as possible.

How can this be done?

Making accessible digital products is teamwork. Designers, developers, and editors must work together. Of course, each discipline has its own points of attention. For example, designers must ensure that the texts are legible, the layout is clear and the color contrast is sufficient. Developers must write semantically correct HTML, make certain that the site can also be operated with a keyboard and use WAI-ARIA. Editors need to take into account the reading level of their audience.

For the government and public entities, there is a list of all accessibility guidelines. This is also a good basis for businesses to use. The list may seem intimidating, especially if you’re just getting started. In that case, have a look at this introduction by gov.uk.

Some requirements are clearly delineated and can even be tested automatically. In other cases, it can be more difficult to find the best approach. The team of gov.uk has developed posters which point out what is helpful to people with different limitations.

The best strategy is to test your product with actual disabled people. Especially when you are not limited by a certain condition yourself, it can be very difficult to estimate what the people who do, actually need. Design teacher Vasilis van Gemert gives a good example of this on his blog.

Not just for websites

All this applies not only to websites but to everything we create. Wayfinding designers know that. They take color blindness into account and never ask people to follow the red or green route. Or do they?

At other times, it’s less obvious. Is your brochure readable for someone with dyslexia? Will your video cause epileptic seizures?

Obviously, it’s not always possible to serve everyone equally. Time and budget restrictions can limit the extent of inclusivity. But you can already achieve a lot by simply realizing from the very start that your product has to work for as many people as possible. Including those who are different from yourself.

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