In the digital age, more diverse people are utilizing tech for everyday actions, and organizations have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can navigate their products. A human centric approach in design thinking matters because it facilitates both improved accessibility for people with disabilities, as well as enhances the overall user experience.
Human-centric products also make good business sense. One in four adults in the United States has a disability, and not designing products for them means missing a huge potential market. And, as accessibility regulations become stricter, the cost of non-compliance is nearly three times higher than complying. Baking accessibility into product flows early on therefore reduces the likelihood of expensive retrofitting, and shapes more inclusive products.
But exactly what is a human-centric approach to design? And how can it be used to advance accessibility efforts? We answer below.
Understanding user diversity and needs
Human-centric design starts with having a representative understanding of the people using products, specifically what their needs and preferences are. Not having this information means that foundational UX research won’t be accurate, and teams could miss valuable opportunities to improve accessibility and products in general.
Barriers to accessibility are nuanced. They can be permanent, temporary or situational, and can be mobility, sight, hearing, cognitive or speaking based. For example, a user may be deaf, or have an ear infection or be in a particularly loud place. Without subtitles, none of these people can access content.
User personas are useful here, as they segment audiences based on their needs and context, and highlight what one user group may require in contrast to another group. Personas also put designers into users’ shoes, where they can tap into users’ emotions, thoughts, and decision-making. Such empathy encourages designers to think about why a person needs certain features and functionality and lets them pinpoint product areas where users aren’t being served.
Of course organizations need to speak with real users too, which can be done via surveys, interviews, focus groups, user testing, and data analytics. These conversations should concentrate on users’ opinions about their interactions with products, plus any product changes or new features. Touchpoints with users have to be regular to foster spaces where people can give honest feedback.
Along the way, businesses should consciously aim to understand the needs of diverse users – encompassing people with visual, audio, and mobility impairments or cognitive disabilities. Part of understanding user diversity is identifying people who could benefit from products, but currently don’t have access to them.
Incorporate inclusive design principles and guidelines for accessible products
There are a number of tools to assist organizations in their human-centric approach to accessibility. While these resources are helpful, they are parameters, not fixed rules, and organizations should apply them knowing that accessibility is constantly evolving. Teams subsequently have to attend trainings and update themselves on the latest accessibility practices.
Some of the most commonly referred to guidelines for design are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, and Android’s guidelines. Other communities on Reddit, Stack Overflow, and Slack have accessibility news and discussions that can inform tech teams.
Generally speaking, baseline accessibility includes assistive technologies like screen readers (which read text aloud through speech synthesizers or display text as braille), keyboard navigation (which allows users to move through digital elements using buttons), and adaptive interfaces (where page layouts change according to users’ behaviors). More recently, artificial intelligence has been promoting accessible products through speech recognition, where users can control devices, receive information, and communicate without relying on keyboards, mice or screens.
Elsewhere, generative AI is helping blind users interpret images, AI-driven sign language is helping deaf users move through digital experiences, and virtual dressing rooms are helping people with mobility restrictions try on clothing.
As the technology to optimize accessibility becomes more sophisticated, organizations should remember that the maximum potential of tools should be the minimum standard for their accessibility efforts.
Testing and iteration for accessibility
Accessibility, like any component of product building, has to be continually tested and iterated to confirm that it’s having the desired impact. Organizations should have clear, specific accessibility objectives and success criteria that direct their accessibility push and keep them human-centric. For example, ‘the e-commerce branch of the website will achieve WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance within the next six months’ is an effective goal.
Throughout the product life cycle, organizations have to thoroughly test the product with users to address any accessibility barriers, as well as test with digital tools to catch any technical issues. Fable is a great platform for finding diverse users who can test assistive technologies alongside general product flows. Meanwhile, accessibility testing toolkits should feature the likes of WAVE, Google Lighthouse, Linters, and a11y add-ons.
As much as possible, testing should be conducted by teams that include individuals with different capabilities. The more diverse perspectives are placed on a product, the more comprehensive the evaluation of it will be. Likewise, organizations have to be transparent when reporting around accessibility outcomes – documents should be shared with internal teams and the user community, expressing what has and hasn’t worked, and what the next planned steps are.
Conclusion about accessible products
A human-centric approach places people at the center of design-driven development. It prioritizes empathy and forming products that genuinely cater to everyone and to a high quality. Human-centric design thinking goes hand-in-hand with accessibility because it fosters inclusivity, bringing more people into the digital fold and simultaneously making better products, for good.
Prioritizing accessibility is essential in all industries, and it becomes even more crucial in the EdTech field. Discover how to enhance UX for more inclusive education by reading our Whitepaper on Accessibility in EdTech.
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