A future shaped by accessibility-first design

Have you heard of the Apple TV+ show ‘See’? It’s set in a dystopia where all of society has lost its sense of sight. For a moment, imagine what it would be like if humanity lost sight in the aughts, when the first iPhone was created. In a world without vision, what would an iPhone be like? How would you imagine mobile websites or apps? Would there even be a touchscreen?

Image to represent accessibility with smiling man, child on playground, person in wheelchair, hands holding, close-up eye
Abhimanyu Sirothia

If you can think about designing for such a scenario, you’ve stopped thinking ‘vision-first’. Only then can you create an experience that is accessible – and enjoyable – for people without vision. As a designer, you truly embrace accessibility when you craft beautiful experiences for everyone, including those with disabilities.

The accessible future of user persona design

User personas are fictional, yet realistic, descriptions of a typical or target user of a product. They typically look like this.

Notice what’s missing? Any mention of a disability. And that’s where the problem lies: Designers across industries see persona cards as a standard, and they don’t often stop to think, ‘Does my persona have a disability?’ Accessibility considerations should happen where the ideation begins – not where it ends.

What could an accessible version of user persona design look like? In the future, every time the design process begins, designers could have a list of disabilities to think about as decisions are made, with a mandatory section that would include specific considerations for visual, auditory, cognitive, motor, speech, and other disabilities.

User personas could also include permanent, temporary, and situational disabilities. At some point in life, everyone will be a person with a disability. It might be permanent (speech loss), temporary (a bone fracture), or situational (carrying groceries). Every designer should acknowledge this reality and take time to consider what kind of a future they are designing for themselves and others.

Whether it’s thinking about your future self or the people you care about, it’s helpful to apply accessibility to your own life. Says Alex Gray, Senior Digital Designer at Designit, “When I design, I start by thinking, ‘Would my parents or grandparents be able to understand or use this?’” When you regularly adopt this practice into your creative process, designing for disabilities stays at the forefront of your mind.

The accessible future of web design

In the early days of the smartphone, designers had to create a completely separate mobile website, known as an ‘m-dot’ site, to accommodate users who were beginning to access websites through their phones instead of their computers. Soon, having an m-dot site became crucial because failing to accommodate the rising number of mobile users would result in lost business.

Since m-dot sites took significant time to create and maintain, web technologies matured, and the concept of responsive web design (the current standard) emerged. Today, no one thinks twice about the importance of creating mobile-friendly websites; it’s a basic requirement of any project. Web design completely transformed itself to accommodate the mobile user.

In my vision of the future, the same transformation needs to happen for accessibility. Today, people with disabilities must accommodate companies by giving them guidelines, like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), on what will make sites usable for them. What if the equation were flipped, and companies were required to build ‘acc-dot’ versions of their sites to accommodate disabilities?

Even on an accessible site, a person with a visual disability still must tab through navigation links that are organised for visual consumption. As an alternative, imagine an ‘acc-dot’ site that would allow people who have a visual impairment or blindness to navigate intuitively, rather than needing to follow the layout rules of a site created for people with vision.

Just as the m-dot era changed the standard for how websites are designed, an ‘acc-dot’ site could do the same for accessibility. It would help lead us to a future where instead of needing to think explicitly about accessibility, accessible products and experiences would become the expected standard.

How to create a more accessible future

  • Broaden your canvas. Compliance is essential, but let’s collectively aim higher. Treat accessibility as an integral part of your creative toolbox, not just a chore or checklist. Often, designers prioritise visually stunning experiences, but imagine if equal attention were given to the finer details for users with disabilities. Together, we can re-imagine what a beautiful experience means for a person with a disability and aim for a future where beautiful experiences are universal.
  • Adopt an accessibility-first mindset. Today, many products and services still treat accessibility as an add-on that must be done merely to comply, and the design process typically starts by catering to people without disabilities. It's time to shift our mindset. Accessibility cannot be an afterthought, and by making it a priority from the start, it becomes a reflexive habit rather than a conscious effort.
  • Be intentional. Approach accessible design with the same intentionality as you do when selecting typefaces and colours during interface design. It's not an addendum; it's a fundamental element. Thoughtfully integrating accessibility into your design process ensures that everyone can enjoy and benefit from your work.

In a truly accessible future, there won’t be an isolated ‘accessibility’ section buried deep in your system settings, because it’ll no longer be something that gets considered after the fact. From the outset, the experience will be designed to be accessible for all. How will we know when we’ve gotten there? When it becomes such a standard part of design that we no longer need to talk about it. Until then, we have work to do.

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