The foundations of accessible design

Integrating accessibility into design involves going above and beyond mere compliance to craft experiences that are genuinely accessible to all. In honour of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we are shining a light on the importance of accessibility in design, both for a more inclusive user experience and to help drive progress for business, society, and humanity.

The image is a collage of five vertical sections, each depicting different aspects of individuals and their diverse needs. The first section shows a close-up of a smiling woman holding a happy baby. The second section features a child with Down syndrome interacting with a digital device. The third section highlights an elderly person with a hearing aid in their ear. The fourth section presents a close-up of a person's face wearing glasses, focusing on their eye. The fifth section captures a person in a wheelchair from behind, sitting in a park setting.
Stefan Hajek

Bridging automation and human insight

As the world develops an increasing reliance on AI and automation, it can be tempting to relegate accessibility to automated tools – but it has never been more important to recognise the value and necessity humans bring to accessible design. Accessibility tools only detect roughly 25 percent of potential issues. Further, they fall short of the nuanced understanding only human expertise can offer. As a result, when relying too heavily on automated systems, many aspects of design remain inaccessible today despite seeming compliant.

A few of the many areas where automated tools falter and designers excel include examining the logical flow of content, verifying that alternative text is meaningful, and considering content in the wider context of the full user experience rather than as contained within a page. Educated auditing replaces simple ‘testing’ and adds depth to the accessibility review process.

The value of human stewardship goes beyond filling the gaps left by automation. Designers bring empathy, creativity, and a nuanced understanding of diverse user needs, which automated tools cannot replicate. They also often ensure that accessibility considerations are incorporated into every aspect of the design process rather than being an afterthought.

Foundational steps to foster accessible and inclusive design

The underpinning of accessible and inclusive design is a diverse team that is involved from the outset of the design process. This team should include people from various cultural, environmental, and ability backgrounds. Engaging with a broad range of perspectives ensures that designs are not only accessible but also resonate with a wide audience. Not only does this approach enhance the user experience, it also encourages innovation by incorporating a variety of viewpoints and ideas.

Advocating for accessibility within a design team or organisation requires both authority and passion. Educating yourself and your teams about the importance of accessibility involves regular training and fostering a culture where accessibility is a non-negotiable aspect of ethical design practice. Leaders must integrate accessibility into their daily practices, maintaining attentiveness and empathy and never compromising on design misses.

It's important to realise and instill in your teams that accessibility isn’t just something you check for at the end of a project. To be effective, it must be top of mind from the very beginning. Encourage people to stay vigilant, curious, and empathetic. I often remind my teams that accessible design is important for the human experience – it is personal, it is purposeful, and it matters.

Practical steps for integrating accessibility

For the practical application of accessible design, beware of the most common accessibility pitfalls: lack of alternative (alt) text, ineffective calls to action (CTAs), and poor visual contrast. Designers and clients alike often lean towards what’s aesthetically pleasing, but these accessibility considerations are not only crucial, they are also very easily achievable.

While tools exist to help ensure visual accessibility, there is no shortcut to writing effective alt text, alt tags, and informative CTAs. For example, a link that says ‘Read more’ doesn’t provide the necessary context to help a person with visual impairment or low vision understand and navigate the content easily. These additions are a necessity to ensure that people with disabilities receive the full experience they deserve.

Incorporating accessibility into the design process involves more than just adhering to standards, it requires a commitment to continuous learning and improvement. Here are some things you can do to integrate accessibility effectively:

  • Manual auditing: Complement automated tests with manual reviews conducted by trained professionals who can interpret and apply accessibility standards in context. Consulting with and involving certified professionals at every stage of the design process can ensure a more holistic consideration of potential needs within a given experience.
  • Continuous education: Keep up to date with the latest accessibility guidelines and technologies and require your team to do the same. Designers should familiarise themselves with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ensure their designs meet all the necessary standards and conduct compliance checks through resources like WebAim.
  • Diverse user testing: Where possible, regularly test designs with users who have a variety of disabilities to get firsthand feedback on the accessibility of your designs. While this might appear to be the most effective way to ensure accessibility, it can be a tedious and expensive endeavor, and no two people with even the most specific disabilities will have the same experience, so it’s important to do this in conjunction with other approaches.

Why accessible design matters

Accessible experiences should be a cornerstone of any business or practitioner offering design services. By recognising and bridging the gap between automated tools and human insight, you create more accessible designs that not only meet compliance standards but also offer meaningful experiences to all users.

The extent to which you commit to accessible design reflects your organisation’s commitment to a broad audience, including those with disabilities, and aligns with the increasing consumer preference for purpose-driven business. Accessible design is not only a business obligation – it’s also the right thing to do to make progress towards a more inclusive society. As demonstrated in Designit’s Do No Harm framework, the right thing to do also supports better outcomes for your business.

Together, let's commit to making accessibility a core aspect of design philosophy, continuously striving for a world where every digital experience is accessible to everyone.

In part two, dive into the nuances of accessible and inclusive design and why it matters for your practice.