Product Design

Why Accessible Products Are Better, and How to (Start to) Build Them

Jackson McConnell

December 21, 2017

As product designers and developers, our mission is to build better products. But “better” can mean a lot of things. One way to define it is in terms of a product’s usability; we want to create products that can be used, and enjoyed, by as many people as possible. One of our challenges, therefore, is to build products with accessibility in mind.

But that is easier said than done. As I write this, Connected Lab — along with the majority of product development firms — is a long way from operationalizing accessibility into every product that gets built. To get there requires a deep cultural shift, since it asks us to consider the implications of our decisions as we plan, design, and develop digital products.

In this article, I hope to explain 1. Why accessibility matters so much to building better products, 2. Where accessible products can have the greatest impact, and 3. Some further reading that will enable you to implement accessibility into your practice. This article is by no means a comprehensive how-to guide, but hopefully it will point you in the right direction.

1. Why Accessibility Matters: Deconstructing Disability

The traditional framework for understanding disability is known as the “medical model.” According to the medical model, disability is understood as an impairment located in the human body. Any attempts to treat or mitigate the effects of disability within this framework tend to focus on how to “fix” the body of the individual, rather than on how society might change to reflect the varying needs of its members.

But in the 1980s and 90s, there was a shift towards what is called the “social model.” The social model frames disability as the result, not of individual or bodily impairments, but of the relation between an individual and society. According to the social model, a person is disabled when they encounter a barrier in the external world that prevents them from performing a task or participating in an experience. Barriers can be physical (e.g., a building without wheelchair access), digital (an app that doesn’t support switch access or VoiceOver), or attitudinal (subconscious bias or ableism in a job interview).

If under the medical model the emphasis was on how to treat the individual body, under the social model the conversation broadened to include what we can do as makers and shapers of our environment to remove barriers and include groups of people otherwise unable to participate.

The social model frames disability as the result, not of bodily impairments, but of the relation between an individual and society.

The social model both clarifies and raises the stakes of what we as designers and developers are doing when we make products. If disabilities don’t arise until individuals meet with experiences that exclude them, and the products we create contribute to that exclusion, then as practitioners we are in part responsible for the degree to which people experience disability in our society.

Accessible products are better because, as the social model reminds us, they allow more people to participate in society, act in the world more independently, and live their lives with equality and a sense of belonging.

2. Where to Make a Difference: Connected Devices

Fighting to broaden access to the Internet has been the terrain of accessibility practitioners and disability rights activists since the World Wide Web’s inception. While this work has been invaluable in bringing information and communication tools to those otherwise excluded, the challenge we face as practitioners today extends far beyond the web. Not only are there an estimated 2.4 billion smartphone users globally, but every day more and more physical objects are being embedded with computing power. Without accessibility, the ever-spreading reach of technology into our everyday lives threatens to deepen the digital divide that separates those who can participate in its services and those who cannot.

Yet this challenge is also an opportunity. Connected objects, precisely because they automate interactions between people and their physical environment, are uniquely positioned to facilitate independence for people with certain impairments. Companies that create products at the intersection of technology and our material world have the power to reduce the barriers that exist all around us.

Take HomeKit. HomeKit is an app that enables you to control a suite of in-home technologies such as lights, switches, outlets, plugs, thermostats, smoke alarms, sensors, security cameras, fans, locks, and garage doors. Because it was designed and developed with accessibility in mind, an app like HomeKit is able to dramatically impact the lives of people with varying types of ability. It demonstrates the impact that connected devices can have in enabling a more independent lifestyle for people with certain types of impairments.

The ever-spreading reach of technology threatens to deepen the digital divide that separates those who can participate in its services and those who cannot.

Between web, mobile, new hardware devices, and the integration of technology into everyday physical objects, designers of digital products have a wide field of influence — and with it, a vast opportunity to make a difference. In a world where software is increasingly being used to power physical objects, controllers like HomeKit are the gatekeepers that determine who is able to benefit from them.

3. Implementing Accessibility: Overcoming Ability Bias

Given the significance of accessibility for product makers (and new areas of opportunity to make a difference), why are so few digital products accessible? Aside from a few misconceptions about the business cost of accessibility, a deep-seated and common source of the problem for the product makers themselves is what’s often referred to as ability bias.

Ability bias describes our natural tendency to make product decisions based on our own, individual abilities. It is all too easy to be unfamiliar with the implications of your decisions on people who are different than you. The reality, however, is that people’s abilities are diverse, and when we create products according to our own perspective, we risk excluding others.

As a designer, for example, it would be easy to think that the beautiful grey typography you have designed has enough contrast because you can easily read it. Or as a developer, you might think that the web page you have created is easy enough to navigate. But that text might be hard to read for a user with low vision, and that web page might be impossible to navigate for someone who lacks the dexterity required to use a mouse.

It is all too easy to be unfamiliar with the implications of product decisions on people who are different than you.

Overcoming ability bias means, at the very least, being aware that what works for you doesn’t work for everyone. But, as with any rigorous product development practice, good intentions are only the beginning: it’s necessary to familiarize yourself with the methods, processes, and toolsthat can help you unlearn bias and build inclusivity into your practice. Here are some resources to help with this:

  • The best way to overcome ability bias is to involve the voice of people who experience the world differently than you in the product development process — and to do this from the very beginning. This practice is often called inclusive design, andMicrosoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit is an excellent starting point for incorporating it into your practice. The toolkit contains a comprehensive manual, activity cards, and case studies — all of them solid.
  • The A11y project is a nice, quick, digestible resource that gives web developers a basic rundown of things they can do to build more accessible sites. For those who want to dive deeper, here is a more thorough guide on how to meet Web Content Accessibility Guide (WCAG) standards.
  • For iOS development, Apple has detailed programming guidelines on accessibility (see the development resources section). They have corresponding UI guidelines for designers too.
  • Though not as robust as iOS, Android is rapidly improving their accessibility documentation. Here is an Android accessibility overview, some guides to implementing accessibility on Android, and Android usability guidelines for accessibility. And here is a useful checklist.
  • For checking the level of accessibility of a website, the best tool I’ve come across is aXeCore. While an automated tool like this won’t catch everything, it will definitely help identify some high-impact fixes you can make.
  • Accessibility Scanner is a useful app that identifies problems and suggests improvements that could be made to Android applications.
  • Apple has instructions for using Accessibility Inspector, a debugging and testing tool built into Xcode. Here is a good blog post introduction that goes over how to use the tool.
  • While accessibility for designers goes far beyond colour and contrast, I find that Stark is a very useful Sketch plugin for checking that your designs will be usable for people with low vision and various types of colour blindness.

Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the amount of information out there. Start small, and remember that even tiny changes go a long way. Tweaks like adding alt text to your images, keeping keyboard focus visible, enabling dynamic type, or labelling attributes are relatively easy to do and can make a huge difference in people’s lives.

Accessible products don’t just empower individuals with disabilities; they contribute to a more inclusive society for everyone. If our mission is to build better products, accessibility isn’t a “nice to have.” It’s an imperative.

This is the second in a series of posts about accessibility and digital product development. You can read the first (on the operational and business benefits of making accessible products) here.

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