Five Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Design

January 21, 2022

Inclusive design is a methodology that considers the different ways that people perceive and interact with your content. When you design inclusively, you provide a better experience for more people — and the principles of inclusive design overlap significantly with the best practices of digital accessibility.

Forming an inclusive design strategy can seem overwhelming. However, whether you’re designing a new product or looking for improvements for existing content, you can adopt better practices immediately by asking the right questions and using the right resources. Here are a few tips to help you get started.

1. Don't design for an "ideal user"

Many designers make the mistake of designing products for themselves. You work with your product regularly, so you know how to navigate to find certain features — and while you might test your content with mobile and desktop views, you make assumptions about user behavior when performing those tests.

To design inclusively, it’s important to understand how these assumptions affect your design choices (and by extension, your users). Ask questions during the early stages of design:

  • What if the user accesses my content without sound?
  • What if the user cannot perceive color? Can they still navigate the product and understand the content?
  • What if the user accesses my content with a screen reader or other assistive technology?
  • Does the content work if my user has large fingers, limited eyesight, or another condition that affects their behavior?
  • What are my assumptions about the user? How would the user experience change if my assumptions are wrong?

Look for scenarios that would affect the user experience, then take steps to remove barriers. Needless to say, this is much easier at the early stages of design and development — don’t wait until your product launches to begin prioritizing inclusivity and accessibility.

Related: Accessibility vs. Usability vs. Inclusion

2. Use a principle-based approach

Recognizing your biases can be difficult. Even if you take steps to avoid assumptions about your users, you might not be able to imagine the wide variety of ways that people will use your product. That’s okay — inclusive design is an ongoing process, not a pass-or-fail outcome.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most frequently cited standards for digital accessibility. While WCAG contains checkpoints with technical specifications for building accessible content, the document also contains four principles that can be extremely useful when making design decisions.

Per WCAG, content should be:

  • Perceivable: All of the site’s components and information must be presented to users in a way that they can perceive.
  • Operable: Users must be able to operate the content’s interface.
  • Understandable: Users should be able to understand the content and interface.
  • Robust: Users must be able to access the content with different technologies.

These principles apply to both inclusivity (designing for a variety of user experiences) and accessibility (designing for people with disabilities). Discuss these fundamentals with your team, then use them during development. Over time, you’ll learn to use the principles more effectively to reach a wider audience.

Related: What Are the Four Major Categories of Accessibility?

3. Test your product regularly

Test early and test often. Remember, the goal of testing isn’t to earn a certain credential: Your goal is to remediate issues before they become a permanent part of your product.

While there’s no overarching test for inclusive design, WCAG audits can identify barriers that affect people with disabilities. Automated tests are inexpensive (or in some cases, free), but while they’re an efficient tool for finding major issues, your testing methodology should include manual tests involving people with disabilities.

Work with your accessibility partner to audit your content from the earliest stages of development. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility uses a four-point testing methodology, which we believe offers the best path for building and maintaining accessible content.

Related: What’s the Difference Between Manual and Automated Accessibility Testing?

4. Use color carefully

For designers, color is a critically important tool. However, the ways you use color will affect your audience.

Some quick tips:

  • Avoid using color alone to convey meaning. For example, telling users to "click the green button" can cause confusion if the user has color vision deficiency, low vision, or other vision disabilities — or if they’re accessing the website in bright light.
  • Ask yourself whether content would function the same if color was removed.
  • Pay attention to color contrast ratios. Color contrast ratio is the difference in light between foreground elements (such as text) and the background. WCAG Level AA requires a color contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text (18 pt font or 14 pt bold font).

Test colors before building them into your design using the a11y® Color Contrast Accessibility Validator, a free instant color contrast analysis tool.

Related: Use of Color for Accessibility Explained

5. Remember the benefits of an inclusive, accessible approach

Is inclusive design worth the effort? In a word: Absolutely.

Worldwide, over a billion people live with disabilities, and most people will eventually encounter a situation that changes the way they interact with digital content. Inclusive design ensures that your product provides an optimal experience for as many people as possible.

Inclusive design can improve conversions, customer retention, and brand loyalty. The best practices of accessibility improve search engine optimization (SEO) while reducing the long-term costs of development, and in most countries, digital accessibility is legally required.

Ultimately, your brand can’t afford to ignore real-life users. By building an inclusive approach, you’ll enhance the experiences of the people who use your products — and with practice, inclusivity will become a fundamental part of your design process.

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