The terms accessible design, usable design, and universal design are all approaches to design that can result in products or services that are easier for everyone to use, including people with disabilities. Accessible design is a design concept in which the needs of people with disabilities are taken into specific consideration. It refers to the characteristic that products or services can be used independently by people with different forms of disabilities. Such as a design concern has a long history, but public awareness about accessibility came with the passage of legislation such as the United States’ ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in 1990, which required public facilities and services be fully accessible to people with disabilities.
If you’ve been around the web, chances are you’ve probably come across of accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1). Accessible design is a cornerstone in modern UX design considerations. Well thought out and implemented accessible designs ensure that people with disabilities and special needs are able to access and utilize products and services at the same degree of efficiency and usability as the typical user. This is especially important for products such as websites and online content such as digital documents.
But why is accessibility important?
Most simply put, it expands the scope of your potential audiences, improves search engine ranking, and makes it easier for people with disability and special needs to access your product/service.
Approximately 15% of the world’s population experience some form of disability according to the World Health Organization. This is equivalent to almost one billion people. All of whom would instantly lose access to your products and services if accessibility features were not taken into consideration. On the grand scale, failure to comply with accessibility guidelines such as the WCAG 2.1 for web resources not only prevents those with disabilities from accessing important information that may be easily available for others, but also hinders your product/service’s ability to penetrate an untapped market of over one billion people.
Accessibility design improves search engine ranking. Search engines such as Google make the effort to rank websites in compliance with WCAG 2.1 higher than their counterparts who are not. This is to say, if two websites had the same exact architecture and content, with their only differentiating factor being that one is WCAG 2.1 compliant and the other is not. Google would rank the former website higher in its search results than the latter. Thus, having a website with accessibility design incorporated out of the box will greatly improve ranking results and make Search Engine Optimization (SEO) processes more efficient and effortless.
Lastly, some countries have strict laws and policies which dictate that certain products/services must comply with accessibility standards to some degree. Such is the case for many governmental websites and public sector resources in North America and Europe, where WCAG guidelines must be followed to ensure that all of the governing body’s citizens are able to access crucial information from the government. In recent years, even a number of private companies like Netflix and Dominos have been sued for discrimination because of the operation of non-ADA/WCAG compliant websites.
While comprehensive guidelines on how to meet internationally recognized accessibility standards such as the WCAG 2.1 are available from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), simply meeting these standards on paper may not necessarily be enough for a fully accessible user experience. One must always take into consideration the real-world user experience when developing an accessible design for products or services. If you are interested in seeing how an accessible website looks like, please feel free to visit our Case Studies page and filter for government websites to see some samples.
In part 2 of this series, we will explore the subtle difference between accessible, universal, and usable designs, as well as usable design. And more importantly, why this distinction is important.