How to Design for Accessibility
In April 2017, Apple Park, the new Apple campus, was unveiled to the world. Designed by British architecture firm Foster + Partners, the $5bn site claimed a multitude of architectural ‘firsts’: circular glass panels, a carbon roof and a circular elevator, to name but a few.
It’s a great example of both innovation and beauty, but also an example of what can go wrong if accessibility isn’t considered thoroughly enough within the design process. A number of people physically hurt themselves the day the campus opened, by walking into glass walls and doors – at least two people had to have emergency medical treatment because of their injuries.
Form is highly important within the design and creative industries. However, function should not ever be forgotten. Considering equality and openness is key, and therefore accessibility and inclusivity are fundamental to creating good design.
What do we mean when we say ‘accessibility’?
The word ‘accessibility’ is defined as:
- Being able to be reached or entered
- Being easy to obtain or use
- Being easily understood or appreciated
Accessible design should allow users of all abilities and disabilities to successfully navigate both digital and physical interfaces – anything from app screens to wayfinding around a space. It’s those interactions between the person and the interface at which exclusion can occur. It’s our responsibility, as designers, to know how design can affect these points of interaction.
“Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”
World Health Organisation
Aspects of design that can help improve accessibility
Below are just a few things that can be considered when it comes to ensuring accessibility within both digital and physical design:
Creating differentiation is vitally important for accessibility. Colour can be one way to do this (so be sure that your brand colours pass accessibility guidelines), however colour alone might not be the most robust way of ensuring contrast. Shape and size should also be considered. Using a combination of these contrasting techniques will help cement understanding and accessibility for users.
Typography, language and white space are a few ways to make sure designs are clear. For example, certain typefaces have been specifically designed to be more legible at larger or smaller sizes, so consider the environment or your users and how they’ll be viewing content.
Order and Hierarchy
Try to prioritise placement and content in terms of importance. Creating order and a clear hierarchical system will aid navigation and ultimately be easier for users to understand – road signs are a great example of how a strong systematic approach can aid accessibility.
People with impaired vision often use screen readers to help make sense of digital content – it essentially enables users to ‘hear’ web pages. Images require ‘alternative text’ in order for a screen reader to ‘see’ them, so ensuring your alternative text supports what the image is visually showing is also important.
Principles of inclusive design
Inclusive design aims to make your products more accessible. It is not a process for meeting accessibility standards. Practising inclusive design with accessibility in mind allows us to create usable, compliant experiences for everyone.
It’s worth noting that exclusion isn’t necessarily always permanent. A short-term injury can dramatically change the way a user interacts with a product or service – a broken arm, for example, means that tasks will mostly be done one-handed. Loud crowds can dramatically reduce hearing. Cramped spaces remove full mobility. Harsh sunlight can be visually impairing, and ordering a meal in a different country can be incredibly restrictive if you don’t speak the language.
There are a few key principles that can help when designing for inclusivity:
Using simplistic, clear layouts and informative call outs will aid user navigation. Language and tone of voice can also help with clarity.
Putting products through robust and rigorous testing will allow you to test for problems that might come up in future. Consider all possibilities that might affect your users, including situational changes.
Be specific in what exclusive issues your product or service could encounter. When you look to improve accessibility for a specific user, you tend to enhance and improve the overall experience for a number of others.
Practising inclusive and accessible design will help to highlight opportunities where innovative ideas that benefit all, especially those who need it most, can flourish. When it comes to people, there is no such thing as ‘normal’. Human diversity is an invaluable resource for breaking through barriers and producing better design: assuming that everyone is fully able at all times means you are potentially ignoring the vast majority of your users and their needs.