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Design

Three basic principles for getting started with accessible digital product design

4 min read
Jake Underwood  •  Jun 18, 2019
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Roughly 36 million people worldwide are blind and an estimated 89% of people with a disability use a screen reader. You know that design should be inclusive and accessible. Knowing exactly where to start, though, can be tricky, and making the right choices can require a significant amount of work. Thankfully, you’re not alone.

To learn more about what it takes to get started with implementing meaningful accessibility changes, I spoke with three industry experts who have made accessibility a focus in their products and asked them where newbies should start. If you’re ready to take the same journey, here are the three steps toward getting started.

Step 1. Immerse yourself in the community

To avoid what Wayne Thayer of TWG, a Canada-based software development firm, called “technical debt”—an excess of work after the product has already been launched—it’s important to do accessibility research early in the product cycle. “It’s shocking how bad apps are at accessibility,” mused Thayer. “But it doesn’t take a lot of time to research and implement.”

In other words, get it right when you begin and you won’t have anything to fix down the road. Starting out, it’s all about learning rules, standards, and common issues that you need to consider when making your product. There’s lots you can do here, including:

Of course, there have also been designers in positions similar to yours, so it can be helpful to read up on the experience of industry experts and how they’ve meaningfully made accessibility an important part of their design. (One suggestion, start with: catching up on conference talks, like Laura Savino’s 2015 Layers presentation, a recommendation by Lickability’s Matthew Bischoff)

When it comes to creating accessible software, accessibility expert Steven Aquino is a must-follow. For years, Aquino has been offering advice and experience on accessibility across the web, including on his own blog and his podcast Accessible.

In an article for TechCrunch, Apple invited him to interview a team of executives, including CEO Tim Cook. If you want practical day-to-day advice on accessible designs, Aquino is a go-to.

Step 2. Test your ideas

After your early research, the next step is often up to you. Thayer’s team at TWG will analyze competitors, whereas Bischoff will jump straight into testing a design with tools provided on the device. However you choose to go about it, both Thayer and Bischoff made it clear: it’s all about putting your ideas to the test.

Testing a design’s accessibility should be done in two stages. The first is internally, using on-device tools like Apple’s VoiceOver, which acts as a screen reader for users with visual impairments. If you’re developing for mobile, it’s critical that your team gets an understanding of how VoiceOver works and how users with visual impairments will navigate and interact with your design.

If it fails VoiceOver, it’s likely an inaccessible design—and it’s time to go back and try again.

Apple’s VoiceOver feature, which acts as a screen reader for users with visual impairments

If you find that your app is starting to pass internal tests, the next step is to put it in front of users with the types of accessibility needs you’re trying to include. Although you’ve done your research and own testing, it’s unlikely that you’re in the exact mindset as users who live with these tools daily. Just because something is trendy in design circles or something looks cool doesn’t mean it’s necessarily accessible,” said Aquino. Instead, designs needs to be checked constantly to make sure they are compliant with various needs.

For example, rather than only implementing small text on a light background, consider offering contrasting colors and text size options.

Step 3: Take advantage of available tools

Even with the proper accessibility knowledge, it can still be tough to put your plan into action. That’s where plugins, apps, and other tools come in, and they can make your design and development processes much easier. Here are some recommendations from designers and developers I spoke with:

  • Contrast, a Mac app for identifying contrasting colors that fit the WCAG.
  • Stark, which offers quick ways to check the accessibility performance of your designs.
  • VoiceOver, for constant testing of screen readers.
  • Dynamic Type, which Aquino describes as “an iOS accessibility feature in which users can adjust text size system-wide, as opposed to fiddling with sliders in individual apps”
  • Wave, to validate your web design
  • iOS’ “Accessibility Shortcut” feature, which gives quick access via a triple button press to a variety of accessibility options
Matthew Bischoff’s “Accessibility Shortcut” setup. He uses this to test his apps’ accessibility support

Accessibility in practice

When it all comes together, exceptional iOS apps get noticed. For Aquino, there were immediate standouts: podcasting app Overcast, Twitter client Twitterific, and puzzler Blackbox. Bischoff said that Twitter itself does quite a bit of work in its own app and is incredibly responsive to developers and users with specific needs.

Overcast and Twitterific, two of Aquino’s examples for apps with good accessibility support

Take this advice from Aquino: “Try to be as concrete as possible. Use buttons and navigational tools that look like real buttons; meaning, give these elements definition in terms of shape and contrast. Use Apple’s stock UI as much as possible and where it’s sensible, as they are VoiceOver-ready labels out of the box.” At its core, what Aquino is advising here is that implementing accessibility doesn’t take a redesign; instead, it just means giving thought to how your product interacts with accessibility software.

All about empathy

Each of the three professionals—Thayer, Aquino, and Bischoff—I consulted used the same word during our conversations when talking about accessibility: empathy. By having empathy with the end user, you can be more understanding of their needs and desires, both now and in the future.

Empathy starts with putting yourself in the right mindset to develop for all needs; then, it’s about executing on your designs using the tools and research in place.

Whether you’ve had experience creating for accessibility or this is your first instance, the first step is to care about your users. Aquino puts it best:

“Be more empathetic in your design, and not just your envisioned audience, but your possible audience. By making their apps accessible as possible, developers are ‘widening the net,’ so to speak, in terms of customer base. Accessibility makes your app better because it diversifies your audience and distinguishes it from the rest by doing so. Don’t overlook it.”

Want to learn more about accessible design?