Why a design system is the key to scaling accessibility

4 min read
Tom Lucido
  •  Jul 22, 2020
Link copied to clipboard

One in seven.

That’s how many adults, at minimum, the World Health Organization estimates live with some form of disability—a number rising every day as the global population ages. And that doesn’t even include many more people with limitations not traditionally classified as a disability, like speech impediments or hearing difficulties.

Many of these limitations impact the digital product experience, so it’s not surprising accessibility is now getting more business attention. And with the new European Accessibility Act requirements, leading organizations look to design systems to leverage these best practices at scale. To understand what designing for accessibility looks like in the digital world (and explore how it makes sense and money for product companies), we hosted an InVision Talk with Jake Abma (accessibility lead at ING, UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ambassador, and Accessibility Guidelines Working Group member), Tom Smith (design lead at Aviva), and Soren Hamby (InVision’s design advocate, who is completing their masters in UX with a focus on diversity, inclusion, and accessibility.) Couldn’t make the panel? No worries. Here, we sum up the best takeaways:

The business of accessible design

Not only is designing for accessibility the right thing to do, but it also makes good business. People with disabilities and impairments make up around 15% of the population—a significant customer base underserved by companies, especially in the digital realm.

That’s one reason Aviva’s design team emphasizes building accessibility into the product from the start. As Tom mentions, “The financial services industry is dripping in jargon and terminology that to any common user is impenetrable. When you double that up with specific needs, you can easily see why a huge portion of our user base might get frustrated. We’ve taken measures to bring these user groups into user sessions and shined a spotlight on what it means to be accessible in this day and age.”

Aviva understands how baking these principles into the experience benefits their product’s legacy and longevity, giving them a competitive edge.

“It’s a basic human right to be able to perform duties or services in a digital context.”

Tom Smith, Design Lead, Aviva
Twitter Logo

Putting accessibility into practice

“We’re trying to make products so that everyone can use them,” says Soren. “It’s taking design and looking at it with a microscope. It’s not creating something that isn’t already there, but looking at it harder and deciding that we’re not going to have bad accessibility.”

Jake mentions two common misconceptions when designing for accessibility. The first: It can be an afterthought, or a retrofitted feature. However, accessibility must be considered when building the initial requirements at development, so it’s intrinsic to the functionality. Redesigning a product for accessibility after it has already been built is inefficient and expensive. Second, accessibility and aesthetics are separate. Form must follow function.

He mentions the ING team continually adapts their accessibility practices, ensuring their design requirements align with customers’ evolving needs. Rigorous early user testing with real people who have disabilities plays a critical role.

“If an experience can be either articulated to or used by my five-year-old daughter or my eighty-year-old grandmother, then you know you’re catering to a lot of the encounters that users will face,” Tom says.

Scaling accessibility

Both Aviva and ING are huge global brands. ING in particular has over 10,000 people designing digital products around the world. In such large organizations, scalability is a hurdle in achieving accessibility, but two tactics have helped.

The first involves education. Jake created ING’s Design Accessibility Champion program to educate employees in all roles and responsibilities across the company. In this program, volunteers receive training, then become ambassadors—sharing knowledge, helping define requirements, and testing for accessibility. By attending workshops and growing their knowledge, ambassadors can gain more responsibility. Teams around the world now use the program as a model.

Second, Jake and Tom both found design system investment plays a pivotal role in designing inclusive products and establishing best practices. Once a team has designed solutions for accessibility, a design system creates a single source of truth for those assets, which can be easily accessed, providing consistency at scale.

It’s here: The new InVision DSM.

Start, craft, and evangelize your design system with an improved onboarding experience and more flexible documentation on the web.

Get early access

“The most important part of a design system is that you can explicitly secure accessibility in one place, and it can be reused by so many other teams,” Jake says. “You take away the burden of (reinventing) best practices for accessibility, since not everyone is acquainted with everything you built into your design system. It’s a big plus when all people can just ‘take it off the shelf’ and use it.”

Of course, a design system must have a solid foundation, too. When designing and prototyping design system assets, “You want to be breeding good principles,” Tom says. “You don’t want (your design system) to replicate and magnify issues.”

Though, he adds, once the assets are built and stored, the work is only halfway done. A design system still needs proper documentation to ensure everyone uses the building blocks in the right way.

The financial services industry has made strides towards accessibility, but more work needs to be done to guarantee all digital products meets every customer’s needs. For more details and great insights, check out the full Talk:

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard