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Inclusive Design Vs. Accessible Design: Understanding the Differences

Feb 22, 2022

For designers, great content begins with the right mindset. Two design philosophies can help you reach the widest possible audience: inclusive design and accessible design.

While inclusivity and accessibility have intersecting principles, they’re fundamentally distinct: Inclusive design focuses on diversity of use cases with the goal of ensuring that users of all backgrounds, abilities, and experiences can enjoy an equal user experience. Accessibility focuses on outcomes — whether the content is useful for people who have disabilities. 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the consensus standard for digital accessibility, and the WCAG framework is useful for developing a better design philosophy. Here’s how your team can use WCAG to reach a wider audience.

The Differences Between Inclusive Design and Accessible Design

Inclusive design is a comprehensive methodology for approaching the design process. The goal is to provide a user-friendly experience for everyone, regardless of how they choose to access the content. Inclusive designers recognize that their choices will affect the experiences of all users, regardless of their abilities. 

Accessibility is more focused on how design decisions can discriminate against people with disabilities. The goal of an accessible design methodology is to prevent or remove barriers that affect users who are blind, deaf, or have other conditions that change how they interact with the internet.

To put that another way: Accessible design focuses on outcomes — for instance, whether a website conforms with WCAG Level AA — while inclusive design focuses on processes. Your organization should use both methodologies when building content. 

Why Accessible Design and Inclusive Design Are Necessary

You might assume that accessible design is a component of inclusive design. This isn’t the case: The world of digital accessibility has established rules and best practices, which need to be considered throughout the design process — and the experiences of people with disabilities need to be consistently prioritized. 

Likewise, focusing solely on the “checkpoints" of accessibility won’t always result in an optimal experience for every user; inclusive design and accessible design work together to accommodate the full spectrum of human diversity. 

Here are a few examples of inclusive and accessible design practices that might leave out certain users' experiences: 

  • A design team takes an inclusive approach to a mobile app. They consider the experience of a commuter when developing their content, and make sure that the app will function without sound; however, they don’t include semantic markup to identify interactive elements to people who use screen readers (software that outputs text as audio or braille). 
  • Content creators include captions and transcripts for videos. However, the media player has poor keyboard accessibility, which causes frustration for real-life users.
  • A design team includes screen reader support for their mobile app. However, they do not include features like font choices that might help people with temporary vision disabilities who might not use a screen reader.

Building an Inclusive and Accessible Design Methodology

Users will access your content in a variety of ways, and each user may have different limitations and capabilities. To provide the best possible experience for every person, you’ll need to use inclusive design processes, then check your outcomes with established accessibility guidelines like WCAG. 

Here are a few tips for creating an inclusive and accessible design strategy:

Consider Every User

Start by considering how environments and user preferences could affect the experience. Could a person enjoy your content without sound? Can they navigate with only a keyboard? Can they read text in bright light? 

Try to find situations that might exclude certain users, then build your content to prevent barriers from occurring. Don’t design for the “ideal user.” In reality, that user might be a small portion of your audience.

Related: Addressing Problematic Trends in Web Design

Prioritize the Principles of Accessibility

Make sure your team understands the principles of accessibility. WCAG requires content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (abbreviated as the POUR principles). These fundamental concepts can provide guidance for creating an inclusive approach. 

If content isn’t robust — it isn’t compatible with every user agent, including assistive technologies — that’s an obvious area for improvement. However, building in support for other user agents may be difficult at the later stages of development. By focusing on the POUR principles early, you’ll be able to address issues before they affect users.

Related: What Are the Four Major Categories of Accessibility?

Use WCAG for Guidance

WCAG is the most widely cited set of accessibility standards for a reason: The guidelines contain excellent information for designers, developers, and every other member of your team. 

Before designing your product, read through WCAG principles and checkpoints. Try to understand the purpose of each recommendation; remember, your goal outcome is to design content for real-life users, not to meet a certain level of WCAG conformance.

Test Your Content Throughout Design and Development

Regularly check for accessibility barriers. Work with an accessibility partner to set up an audit schedule for your website or product, and don’t rely solely on automated tests — while automated tests are useful in auditing, they can report false positives and false negatives. Expert analysis (and manual testing involving people with disabilities) will provide more accurate results. 

If you’re ready to improve your design processes, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. Contact us today to connect with an accessibility professional.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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