A guide to inclusive design
At KW2, promoting equity in all its forms is a part of our mission to create change that empowers and improves lives. The research we conduct, the campaigns we create, and the digital, marketing, and media strategies we develop all aim to help our clients achieve this goal as well. In today’s digital world, creating an equitable web is top of mind. When it comes to web accessibility, it’s not just best practice—it’s an ethical and legal obligation.
ADA compliance – also known as the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design – applies to virtually all businesses and web developers. ADA aside, there are an estimated 1.3 billion people in the world who experience significant disability. This represents 16% of the world’s population, or 1 in every 6 of us.
So, how do we ensure we’re not leaving behind such a significant portion of potential consumers? In this article, we’ll walk through the concept of inclusive design and how to use it not only as a tool for creating websites that provide an equitable experience, but as a framework that guides your approach to all future work.
Inclusive design allows equal access for everyone and considers the full range of human diversity – ability, language, culture, gender, age, etc. – and how these forms of human difference impact user experience. It’s important to recognize how we define ability through the lens of inclusive design. The Inclusive Design Research Center reframes disability within the design context as a mismatch between the needs of a user and the design of a product or system, emphasizing that disability can be experienced by any user.
Usable design addresses cognitive behavior and ensures users can achieve their goals efficiently and effectively. Usability is about creating environments that are user-friendly and intuitive so that individuals with diverse abilities and needs all enjoy a seamless user experience.
There’s a popular saying (and excellent book) in the UX field about website usability: “Don’t make me think!” Usable design means creating designs where users don’t need to think too much about how the interface works. Elements that are clickable should be clearly clickable. Elements that are not clickable should be clearly not clickable. Language should be clear and concise. Wherever you can lessen your users’ cognitive load, do it.
Accessible design focuses on designing for users with diverse abilities including hearing, motor, cognitive, and vision impairments. This can look like measuring the contrast between text and background colors with tools like WebAIM’s Color Contrast Checker, or making sure headings, images, and links are labeled appropriately within the site code for screen reader use.
In the field of design, we focus on the social model of disability which defines a disability as being caused by one’s environment. The way one’s surroundings are organized, the way services are designed – these are all example causes, rather than a person’s ability. This means accessibility is also the ability of the design or system to match the requirements of the user. But without knowing about the user and their goals, it’s impossible to determine whether something is truly accessible. Accessible design highlights the value of conducting user research.
At KW2, our research department aims to get to know audiences beyond demographics in order to build authentic, accessible communications and experiences. The insights gained from this user research reveal important audience barriers and needs that can then be addressed through accessible design.
It’s important to remember that while accessibility is oftentimes portrayed as contradictory to good design or fun experiences, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Accessible design simply involves doing some testing and refining – just as any good design should. Opening up your website to users who couldn’t previously use it is both 100% attainable and infinitely worth it.
Ethical design involves protecting and respecting an individual’s values, needs, and goals, as well as addressing human rights and privacy. Ethical design gives users control over their interactions, including customizable settings and preferences. This could be in the form of a website translator tool to set one’s preferred language for content, or even allowing users to adjust font size and/or style according to their readability preferences.
Other important ethical design considerations include users’ ability to manage their data and privacy settings. Informed consent and transparency are key. Before engaging in activities that may impact their privacy, users should have the option to opt in or out of data collecting/sharing, and they should be informed about how any data is collected, used, or shared. For those users who consent to data collection, ensuring the security of their data is crucial. Security measures should be implemented to protect against data breaches and to instill trust in users that their data is being handled securely.
Equitable design means designing for historically underrepresented groups and addressing diverse identities. It takes gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, and abilities into consideration. One way KW2 leverages diverse viewpoints when assessing our own work is by working with our DEI Advisory Committee. This team of individuals examines our work through multiple lenses and helps our work be as relevant and actionable as it can be to all audiences.
Equal opportunity is another key piece of equitable design – ensuring all individuals have equal opportunities to engage with, and benefit from, the product. This can take form in optimizing your website for users in more rural areas with slower internet connections, as access to high-speed internet is unfortunately not universal. In fact, this digital divide can exclude many users. Reducing image and media file sizes are one way to make your website more equitable to accommodate for this segment of users.
Making your website inclusive doesn’t need to happen overnight. Adopting a more iterative approach and making small, incremental changes that lead to a more inclusive experience over time is just as valuable. In fact, great, accessible web design is a continuous effort – not a one and done. It involves recognizing that regular monitoring, assessing, and updating is simply part of the process, and never letting perfection get in the way of improvement. Leveraging helpful web accessibility resources and tools like WAVE by WebAIM, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and The A11y Project can help make your journey to equitable web design much more approachable.
Inclusivity in your products and services is an incredibly powerful practice. It will help expand your service reach and create better and relatable experiences for all. It will even help your website rank better in search results. But above all, inclusive web design empowers and improves lives. At KW2, we recognize that we’re a work in progress. We’re not perfect; continuous improvement is central to our goals as an organization. We aim to become better and better at inclusive design every day. We’re sharing this guide with you not from the top of a pedestal, but from one do-gooder to another.
We believe Steve Krug – author of the UX staple, Don’t Make Me Think – expressed it most brilliantly when he wrote:
"Accessibility is the right thing to do. And not just the right thing; it’s profoundly the right thing to do, because the one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?"
At KW2, we’re committed to helping you build an inclusive website that meets the needs of all users. If you’d like support or have questions about accessibility and inclusive design, please reach out to Jen Savino. Together, we can make the web a more equitable place for all.