When thinking about accessibility, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of unique and complex requirements that some people have, just to get them through the average day. It can also, unfortunately, be easy to pigeon-hole all disabled people together and assume that they are some sort of minority user group that you can ignore in favour of the fully able-bodied majority. This is wrong, and we hope to demonstrate the importance of inclusive design.
The truth is that a large percentage of your potential users will have some condition or special requirement that will impact how they use your application. Considering this while creating your app is the basis for the design of inclusive apps. By making your app inclusive from the very start of the process, you’ll ensure that you appeal to the widest market possible. Here are some of the reasons why an inclusive design is better for everyone.
1. It is not about disability
According to a government study in 2014, some 11 million people in the United Kingdom were classed as disabled. However, many more people will have issues that affect how they interact with the world around them to varying extents. Here are a few examples:
- Being slightly smaller or larger than average
Is that last point surprising to you? Apple was recently criticised for making their phones unusable for people with smaller hands, simply because the screens have become too big. “People with smaller hands” includes most women, which is a large chunk of the available market to potentially alienate!
A few simple design tweaks can cover most of these issues (see below), but as always when designing an app, the key is to have a clear idea of who your users are and what problem you are trying to solve for them. Don’t assume you know what is “normal”, get feedback from real people; there may be something you’re missing that will be blindingly obvious to the woman who works down the hallway, or to your six-year-old son.
2. It’s all about the environment
We tend to think of disability as an official label that has strict rules and guidelines attached. Remember that the most basic definition is to not be able to do something, and you’ll see that anyone can be disabled, at any time, and for any reason.
If you think of disability as something that the environment does to people, rather than something that is inherent to the person themselves, this quickly becomes much clearer. A person using a wheelchair is not disabled by the cast on their broken leg, but by a world full of staircases and out-of-order lifts. Someone with an autism spectrum disorder is not disabled by the way their brain is wired, but by loud, crowded locations. I myself have a form of photosensitivity that causes me to get a severe headache when exposed to certain frequencies of light. Old CRT computer monitors were a problem for me, so I could not have had a career that involved working on a computer without the invention of LED screens; I would have been disabled by the average 21st century work environment.
Otherwise completely able-bodied people can be temporarily disabled by carrying a heavy box with both arms and needing to open a car door, watching a toddler while crossing a busy road, or just by having the sun right in their eyes while trying to read. The same inclusive design features that will help someone who is blind read your white paper, will help someone with a long driving commute catch up on the latest developments while they sit in traffic.
3. The basics aren’t even all that hard
There are a few very simple things that you can do to make sure you are design and building inclusive apps.
- Never use colour alone to show a status or an effect
- Never use sound alone without some sort of visual signal
- Keep all your font sizes above 14pt
- Don’t have anything on the screen that flashes more than three times per second
- Never ask a user to remember information between screens
- Make sure your website is responsive for mobile phones
Something that all these points have in common is that they are much easier and cheaper to put into your app as you build it, rather than having to go back and make corrections later. If you’re feeling a little more technical, try adding the following:
- Make sure that your app is set up to allow keyboard-only controls
- Use ARIA attributes when laying out your page to help screen-reader users
- Add alt-text to all images, and make sure it actually describes the image
- Allow the user to set a font size, and/or select a high-contrast white-on-black mode
Again, each of these is easier to do as development progresses, rather than trying to bolt them on at the end.
There are several resources available to ensure that your app is as inclusive as possible. W3C even has a grading system if you like to actually score points! If you don’t have the expertise or resource to aim for a AAA rating, you can at least get off the starting line with a few simple tweaks here and there.
If you’re designing an app and need help with how to make it accessible, why not get in touch and tell us about your project.