Social Inclusion: Disability, Accessibility and Universal Design

by: Visual Room
March 21, 2018

Slowly but surely, inclusivity has become a key focus for organizations across the corporate landscape. From recruitment to marketing and customer services, senior executives [i]in every industry are looking to make their internal and external processes more accessible to a wider range of people. Not that they have much choice. As public scrutiny surrounding issues of equality and diversity continues to grow, businesses can either adapt to these rapidly evolving sentiments or be left behind.

Accessibility and Designing by Averages

A great design is measured on the basis of its form, functionality and accessibility. If a product or service cannot be effectively utilized by any user, in any location, at any time, then this goal has not been achieved. Interestingly enough, designing for the needs of many might actually involve designing for the needs of the few, before all else.

The Sidewalk

Consider the sidewalk. Before the American Disabilities Act came into full effect, sidewalks were built without a slope to separate the edge of the structure and the road. Of course, this significantly restricted the movement of wheelchair-bound individuals, and over time the classic sloped sidewalk became industry standard. While this certainly aided mobility for the disabled it also benefitted a range of non-disabled individuals including: parents with strollers, delivery men, and even distracted walkers.

The Cockpit

The same concepts can easily be carried over to the world of digital user experience.  By employing a universal approach to UX, designers ensure that their apps, websites, and tools become more than just average, they become exceptional.  When the US air force first began designing airplane cockpits back in 1926, they did so by measuring the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots. These measurements were then averaged out to arrive at a standard measurement that was then utilized for all cockpits.

By the late 1940’s a clear problem was becoming apparent, pilots just couldn’t control their airplanes anymore, and fatal crashes were increasing as a result. After initially attempting to blame newfangled jet technologies, and then the pilots themselves, the government finally decided to throw the problem over to military engineers. The researchers assumed that problems were arising due to physiological changes in the average pilot, so they decided to engage in another measuring contest, this time bringing in around 4000 pilots to get a new average for their design efforts.

Everyone was convinced they were on the right track, apart from a young physical anthropology major by the name of Lt. Gilbert Daniels. Daniels had a sneaking suspicion about the air force’s methodologies and he went about proving that suspicion right. One by one he compared each air force pilot’s physical measurements against the newly identified average to determine just how many people was in fact, average. The answer was not a single one. By designing for everyone, you serve the specific needs of precisely no one.

UX for the Disabled

The WHO defines disability as any physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairment which can limit your ability to perform day-to-day functions.  In other words your condition makes it more difficult to interact with your environment and the people around you. Currently, around 60 million Americans fall under this definition. That’s 20% of the national population dealing with issues relating to vision, mobility, cognitive functions, emotional regulation, fine motor skills, hearing, or social relationships. It just goes to show that even disability can’t be constrained to an average representation.

So how do you service the needs of such a diverse set of disabled and non-disabled people at the same time?

Start With Personas

Empathy is a great skill to develop for any designer, but it’s especially important when you’re developing inclusive user experiences. To truly understand your visitors’ perspectives you will need to develop specific personas that can authentically represent the needs of a larger group of users. Each persona should involve a one/two page description that details the behavior, goals, skills, attitudes, personal history, and context-specific scenarios that create fully-fleshed view of your hypothetical user. As you engage with this persona throughout the design process, you will begin to shed some of your internal biases and assumptions. Make sure that each aspect of your chose persona relates to real data to ensure reliability, and create as many of these personas as possible.

Wireframe and Prototype

Like any UX project you have to put your research into practice before its ready to go live. Map out the data and navigation points required for your digital architecture and focus on making content understandable for every user. For example:

  • Make sure that color schemes and contrast ratios are optimized for color blind or visually impaired individuals.
  • Make text content clear and understandable. Individual letters should be differentiated, and both headers and bodies should be written in a larger font.
  • All interactive elements should be clearly marked out in a consistent manner. Buttons should be easy to tap or click from any device. Images should be visible from all vantage points.
  • Be careful with animations and videos. While they do add interactivity and engagement to your website, they can also slow down browsing speeds.
  • Users should have enough time to read all text, in animated headers or videos.

Get Feedback

Feedback has to go beyond your design team and even your clients. You need to test your working prototype against a diverse group of users that include all genders, ages, cultures and ethnicities. Make sure to include both disabled and non-disabled individuals. Use this user feedback to further iterate your design assumptions and work to improve the overall user experience in the most inclusive manner.

Want to Learn More?

At Visual Room, we bring a strong focus on universal design to each of our projects. Over the years we have helped to develop more inclusive digital interfaces at a number of government agencies, including the USCIS Immigration Attorney Portal, as well as various webpages for the US Justice Department, and the Dept. of Labor.  Click here to find out how we can help you.

[i]Over two-thirds (69 percent) of executives rate diversity and inclusion an important issue (up from 59 percent in 2014)” – Deloitte