Design Ethics: Accessibility in UX Design

May 8, 2020
4 min read

Last year, in 2019, I attended Dribbble’s Hang Time - a full day of talks by creatives in a variety of fields, intending to share ideas and inspire. As a creative, I was most looking forward to the visual-heavy talks–colorful illustrations, type design in detail and dazzling UI layouts–but I was surprised to find myself enthralled by a talk from Cat Noone titled “The Irresponsible Designer”. Cat is a prolific designer and innovator and during the talk she was tackling a subject that really informs everything that she creates - accessibility in design.

What I learned that day has been further reinforced by the education I’m getting online at Designlab, where I’m building out my UX skill set on their UX Foundations course. This course reminds me that creating accessible design means taking accessibility into account as part of the product foundation–not a feature to be considered and added later. I think this is something that we as designers often forget. We have big ideas, we’re impatient to create and often we forget to include everyone. In her book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, Kat Holmes has a powerful quote that I think sums it up:

“For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly." 

So, who are we excluding? How can we take responsibility as designers to invite every person, of all abilities, to use and enjoy our products? Over 18% of Americans have a disability that makes it difficult for them to use the internet. And with our lives increasingly moving online, it’s imperative that we act now to make accommodations for this huge demographic in their online experiences. We need to set the standard for each other and make accessibility a given, not an optional add-on.Cat shared these following tips at her talk–it is not an exhaustive list or comprehensive guide to accessibility, but it is the start of a conversation and jumping off point to becoming more responsible designers. 

  1. Take into account these 5 abilities every time you design and, importantly, have people with disabilities in these areas test your product:
    1. Auditory
    2. Physical
    3. Visual
    4. Cognitive
    5. Neurological
  2. Capitalize on design patterns and customize them to make them your own.
    • Design patterns are shared solutions for common design problems. By familiarizing ourselves with them and using them consistently we can help users predict how to interact with our products and move through the experience seamlessly. 
  3. Write good alt text. In fact, just write good text in every aspect of your product. In critical moments, when someone needs guidance, make sure it’s clear. Don’t add to anxiety and confusion. 
  4. Support assistive technology and keyboard navigation
  5. Colors matter and so does contrast. This is important for many people with deteriorating eyesight, but particularly for people who are colorblind.
    • Ensure sufficient contrast between text and its background.
    • Don’t use color as the only visual means of conveying information. For example, always include labels on buttons you design. A subtle shift in color–which may look great design-wise–may not be enough to indicate the purpose of the button to someone who’s colorblind.
  6. Be consistent and clear with layouts and employ a clear hierarchy. Create layouts that lead a user to the content they need. It shouldn’t be confusing.
    • Make the important information big, make the less important information smaller.
    • Label correctly. 
    • Don’t make people hover to find things. People who rely on keyboards or speech recognition tools need any actionable items to be visible on the screen in order for them to choose to interact.
    • Make buttons obvious and consistent. Make sure form fields are well-defined. Clearly defined boundaries for buttons and form fields are important for users with mobility impairments and those with cognitive disabilities. 

Ok, so these things can’t all change overnight, but starting here will enable users of all abilities to successfully use and fall in love with your product. And if it wasn’t enough that you’ll be doing the right thing as a designer for the users of your product, there are countless benefits to the brand as well. For example, avoiding potential discrimination lawsuits. In 2018, website accessibility lawsuits nearly tripled (to over 2250) compared to the year before, and those numbers are continuing to rise. Losing money this way is entirely avoidable if we are proactive in how we design. Accessibility can also help in increasing your audience base and increasing brand satisfaction, trust & loyalty. Not to mention, improving search engine optimization, increasing time spent on site due to increased usability, gaining a competitive edge and getting good publicity for the brand. Where’s the downside?

Accessibility in design is a big responsibility for us to take on, but inviting all people in society to participate is the right thing to do. Becoming more responsible designers starts here.

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