When we talk about accessible design, we often think of a single element, like defining color palettes—but accessibility goes much deeper than that. Accessible design is about being considerate of all people with different ability levels and designing for those people. When we build software, we are creating a place of community regardless of audience or industry. The design of this space should strive to be inclusive and accommodating towards those it serves.
In theory, everyone is on board with accessibility during the inception of a product. As time progresses and budgets tighten, accessibility shifts from a focus to an afterthought. This is a fundamental failure in design, driven by accessibility not being the default. We should push to change this. There are great examples of emerging accessible design on display, for instance, Config 2021 putting ASL front and center or Google’s Impact Challenge.
As design evolves, we would like to suggest some guiding principles when thinking of accessibility:
You Are Not Your User
When creating design, one must keep in mind that they are not the user. It is crucial to learn about other people's experiences, understand how they use technology, and consider those things when making a product. No one will use a product exactly like you, and the more you can take that in, the more considerate and caring your product is going to be. If you build these guardrails initially, seeking diverse perspectives, it's much easier to create a healthy experience throughout.
The Term User Doesn't Apply Here
We have an aversion to the word user; it is depersonalizing, and it desensitizes us to the fact that there is a human on the other end of our work. We try hard to frame it as “people who use the site.” Sure, it's four more words, but it's human-first language. The language we use and how we frame these ideas influence everything that we do. This depersonalization was brought about through the concept of edge cases. We shouldn't be designing in a way that ignores edge cases because, in this context, those edge cases are people. This depersonalization becomes dangerous as it leads to exclusion.
The Medium Is the Message
Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message.” The form through which we communicate holds more value than the message itself. To design websites and apps with accessibility in focus speaks to our values and intentions. The way in which we design something shapes how or even if someone will be able to use it. Our design directly impacts the scale in which people can receive and interact with media. If we don't build an equitable experience for everyone, we will have an inherently flawed system that defines and limits access instead of unlocking it.
All of this comes back to our profound psychological need for autonomy, competence, and belonging. People need to be able to use the web in a way that is meaningful to them. We need to feel like we're a part of something and that we have a choice in how we interact with it. The web has become an enormous point of gathering for our community. It needs to be treated as such.
Here is a list of shared resources for learning more about accessible design:
- Josh Mauldin