Why accessible design is better design

By designing products, interactions and websites for people with a disability, we’re not just designing for a minority – we’re actually designing for everyone. Before I try to convince you that accessible design is better design, let me begin by correcting some myths about accessibility.

Lady texts with one hand and holds a coffee with the other
Lady texts with one hand and holds a coffee with the other

There are two myths that I want to bust; the first one is that being accessible means that a design must be boring, daggy, clunky or boxy. And the second myth I want to debunk is that you need to shelve your big ideas when ensuring that what you are doing is accessible to as many people as possible.

MYTH number 1: Accessible design is ugly.

Accessible design does not need to be ugly. In fact, most measures you need to implement to make a website accessible don’t change the website’s aesthetic appearance. The main design consideration involved in making a website accessible is colour contrast. Good colour contrast is essential to making your text readable, especially for users with low vision. This doesn’t restrict you to black text on a white background. But it may mean you can’t have light grey text on a white background, and frankly, nobody will care how pretty the colours are if they’re hard to read.

MYTH number 2: You need to compromise on big ideas for accessibility.

There is a common misconception that fun, custom-made interactive interactions, which deviate from standard HTML5, cannot be used if you’re creating an accessible website. But this is not the case. However, special care does need to be taken when building custom interactions. HTML5 is inherently accessible when used correctly – JavaScript is not. If you’re building custom elements, you need to consider how they will be used by individuals using the keyboard only or a screen reader.

Now you’re hopefully entertaining the thought that accessible design can be beautiful and can include all of your big ideas, I want to prove to you that it’s actually better.

Accessible design is actually better design.

It’s a bold assertion, but I plan to prove this by presenting three pieces of evidence:

  1. Everyone has disability
  2. Limitations drive innovation
  3. Historical proof of accessible products that are better

Everyone has disability

Often when people think of designing for accessibility, they think they’re designing for a minority – the one in five people who identify as having a permanent or ongoing impairment. Yet what we often don’t consider are the many contextual and temporary disabilities that everyone encounters on a day-to-day basis.

Our surroundings, activities, temporary illness and other people can all temporarily prevent us from performing certain tasks. In these situations, accessible designs allow users the option to interact in alternate ways, providing a better user experience. For further discussion on this idea read the article ‘Everyone has disability’.

Limitations drive innovation

Historically, a one-size fits all approach has been used when designing products, relying on the assumption that all users can interact with a product in the same way. But of course, this is not the case, and ultimately leads to poor design.

By considering users who are unable to perceive information in a certain way, or perform a particular task, we are driven to create innovative products which can be used flexibly. As well as being accessible to people with disability, this provides all users with the flexibility to choose how they interact with the product, depending on their context or preference for use.

Historical proof: Accessible products that are better

With the emergence of universal design, the approach of embracing limitations to drive innovation is more frequently being harnessed to create better products. Here are a few examples:

Text Messaging

Text messaging started off niche, but then it grew widely popular as an alternative communication method to telephone calls, enabling individuals to communicate without needing to speak or hear. By 2007 it was the most widely used mobile data service.

Mixer Taps

Mixer taps allow users to easily turn a tap on and adjust water pressure and temperature by moving the tap’s handle, which makes using the tap significantly easier for individuals with a motor impairment in comparison to turning taps.

Rotating taps and a mixer tap

Door Handles

Modern door handles are another example of a design which has been improved and been made easier to use for individuals with a motor impairment. Door handles which can be easily pushed down are significantly easier to use for many individuals, compared to doorknobs which need to be rotated.

Siri

Siri and other voice recognition mobile technology has been an incredibly popular innovation over recent years, changing the way we can interact with our mobile devices. In allowing users to interact more flexibly, using their voice rather than their hands, this technology has made interacting with these devices easier for users with a motor impairment and vision impairment.

Audio Books & eReaders

Audio books and eReaders have become hugely popular over recent years. eReaders are lighter to carry than books and can easily be held with one hand only, making them ideal for users with a mobility impairment as well as people who like to read on their work commute but don’t like the weight and physical size of a book or it’s just too crowded to do so.

eReaders also allow users to enlarge the text and can have backlighting, making them easier to read for users with low vision. Audio books have allowed people who are blind easier access to books and are preferred by many people who find them easier, more relaxing or just enjoy listening to Stephen Fry narrate Harry Potter or Bill Nighy’s narration of the much-loved children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

 

In conclusion

Accessible design isn’t an obstacle to good design – it’s an opportunity for designers, developers, inventors and all other ideas people. By embracing the limitations of disability, we are driven to improve existing designs and create something that is a whole lot better to use, for all users.

 

For more information on how to ensure what you’re doing online meets WCAG 2.0 guidelines for accessibility, use the Contact Us form on the Media Access Australia services website, email the Media Access Australia team or call (02) 9212 6242. The team can assist your organisation with usability testing, annual web audits, digital accessibility maturity assessments, document remediation, accessibility training and more.

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