Accessible design and inclusive design are distinct concepts. While the exact definitions of each term may differ depending on who you ask, inclusive design seeks to create equivalent experiences for users of all backgrounds and abilities.
Accessible design has a more specific focus: The goal is to create content that works predictably for people with disabilities, including those who use assistive technologies (AT).
But while inclusive design is a more comprehensive methodology, you can’t have inclusivity without accessibility. Here are a few important concepts to keep in mind when planning your project.
Without accessibility, “inclusive" projects aren’t truly inclusive
Accessibility is laser-focused on the actual experiences of individuals with disabilities.
Designers often have preconceived ideas about how users will interact with a website or mobile app — which is totally understandable. If you’ve never used AT, it’s difficult to know how screen readers (software that converts text to audio) or other technologies interpret content.
An inclusive design process should consider all users, including people who might not use a product with a keyboard and mouse. But in order to build a truly inclusive process, you’ll need to understand how your decisions affect real-life outcomes.
The four core concepts of accessibility are extremely helpful here. Instead of guessing about your users' behavior, you can ask simple questions based on the four principles of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility:
- Is the content presented to users in a way that all users can perceive? Does the content rely on a certain type of sensory perception?
- Does the product’s interface require a type of interaction that some users cannot perform?
- Is the content robust enough to be interpreted by a variety of user agents, including assistive technologies?
- Is the content robust enough for optimal capability with current and future user agents?
These basic questions can inform your inclusive design strategy. However, WCAG goes further: The guidelines contain dozens of success criteria, pass-or-fail statements that can be used to determine whether content is accessible.
Accessibility focuses on outcomes, which allows inclusive processes to take shape
By providing a framework for testing your website, app, or other digital product, WCAG gives you outcome-focused insights. Each success criterion identifies a barrier that may impact actual users.
That’s essential for determining whether your project is on the right track. In an inclusive design process, your developers and designers will intentionally consider the needs, expectations, and preferences of every possible user.
But without a thorough understanding of accessibility best practices, this is quite difficult — when you have tools for testing outcomes, you can understand the real-world impact of your decisions. That helps you plan processes that are more effective.
In other words, accessibility provides benchmarks for inclusive design, allowing you to gauge whether you need to change your processes. This might mean adding user experience (UX) personas with disabilities during the design phase, providing accessibility training for your team, or testing for accessibility barriers more frequently.
When your team focuses on accessibility, inclusive design becomes a natural goal
As we’ve discussed in other articles, accessibility is a team effort. Many organizations make the mistake of assigning WCAG conformance to a single designer or developer, which puts those organizations at a tremendous disadvantage.
Even if the accessibility lead has significant experience, they’ll need help when addressing accessibility barriers. And if the accessibility lead leaves the team, the entire accessibility initiative might need to be restarted.
But when every person learns about WCAG and discusses potential outcomes, there’s a natural focus on diversity and inclusion. Your team will look for ways to design solutions for more potential users. They’ll ask better questions about each decision and treat users as the primary stakeholder.
In other words, inclusivity won’t be an afterthought.
Inclusivity and accessibility work hand-in-hand
Changing your design culture isn’t always easy, but it’s important to remember that the world of accessibility has clear rules and standards. Those rules can act as a framework, giving you the principles and feedback needed to establish a more inclusive strategy.
By discussing WCAG from day one, you can create a long-term strategy for digital compliance — and go much further. To learn more, download our eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.