someone working on a screen which says "designers should always keep their users in mind"
PHOTO: fauxels

Today, May 21st, marks the ninth annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day. The day serves as a reminder that everyone, regardless of ability, should be treated to an inclusive, enjoyable and intuitive user experience, wherever that experience takes place.

This year’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day comes at a time when the coronavirus has forced people to isolate within their homes, which placed increased emphasis on digital experiences and how well they address the needs of all users. Just think about how daily activities have changed in the past few months, with more and more restaurants and grocery stores selling food through order-ahead and delivery models, and many healthcare providers recommending telehealth services.

But the problem goes back even before the push to stay at home. The truth is that many of society’s core functions have moved online and our digital infrastructure now rivals that of the physical world. Everything from banking to booking travel to learning new skills has moved online — virtually every industry has been transformed to make it easy for us to interact with them digitally through an app or website. The issue is many of these digital experiences aren’t accounting for the 15 to 20% of the population who live with some form of disability.

In 2020, WebAIM analyzed one million homepages for accessibility issues and found that 98% had at least one compliance failure, and there was an average of almost 61 errors per homepage. The problem isn’t that designers and engineers don’t care about accessibility (I can attest from my experience with customers that they do care), it’s that if accessibility isn’t considered at the beginning of the software development lifecycle, it often falls by the wayside.

This is because once accessibility issues are in the app or website, they are often very difficult, time-consuming and expensive to fix. That’s why it is imperative that accessibility for all is considered at the very outset of a digital experience.

Related Article: We Need to Build Accessibility Into Our Digital Workplaces

Inclusion Starts at Ideation

A change of mindset is required in order to build accessible experiences. Inclusive design and user experience as a whole must shift left in the software development lifecycle. Designers need to apply accessibility design principles to their initial designs and free tools, assessments and plug-ins can help companies get a head start on identifying accessibility issues, but inclusive design studies are the best way to ensure that everyone’s experience is intuitive before a product goes live.

Inclusive design studies use both UX researchers and people with disabilities to help companies understand the overall usability of their products, and how they will be used by those with conditions that range from vision, hearing and cognitive impairments, to those with motor disabilities. Led by the UX researcher, the study participants go through a digital experience and rate the ease of use for all aspects of the experience, highlighting areas that were difficult, or even impossible, to complete for a person with a disability using a certain type of assistive technology. Based on the user feedback gathered in the study, the UX researcher can make recommendations in order to provide an accessible experience.

This type of real-world feedback offers insight that, otherwise, would likely not be caught until it’s too late … and brands find themselves spending massive amounts of time, resources and money either fixing problems that could have been identified early on, or defending themselves in legal battles because their experiences don’t meet accessibility guidelines. By shifting accessibility left in the process, teams can reduce risk, costs and development time. More importantly, they can ensure their user experience is intuitive and enjoyable for everyone. And it’s important to remember that inclusive design is for everybody, not just people with disabilities.

Related Article: Web Accessibility Serves Everyone: Here's How to Get Started

Don’t Wait Until Next Global Accessibility Awareness Day to Shift Left

The importance of usability and accessibility cannot be understated. Especially now, when there are so many eyes and such a reliance on digital properties to complete daily activities. Global Accessibility Awareness Day is a reminder that 15 to 20% of the world’s population — or around one billion people worldwide — have some form of disability, and all websites and apps should provide inclusive experiences for them and for everyone. That all starts at the beginning, by shifting accessibility testing left in the development process and gathering real feedback from real people with disabilities through inclusive design studies.