Better than good: how universal design helps widen your reach

2 min read

As Steve Jobs told us, design is not just what it looks like and feels like, but also how it works. If we’ve created something with an interesting aesthetic that’s also intuitively functional and helps users solve a real problem, it’s a good design. If it’s novel and sells, it’s even better.

People with disabilities make up almost 15% of the population. That’s something like a billion people — one of the largest user groups on the planet. Why aren’t we actively including those users in every design?

That number grows when we think of our aging population and different types of impairments. Decades from now, your senses will not be as sharp as they are today. You might have a temporary impairment where you break your hand and can’t use a computer, or a situational impairment where you’re in a loud bar and can’t hear the breaking news on the TV. Accessibility touches everyone at one point or another.

When designers don’t focus on how to make design accessible there is huge lost opportunity. If we fully open up to people in different situations and with different purposes, we can create more positive experiences for all users to benefit from. Our designs will not just be good, but universal.

Rather than thinking how to make a design meet “special” needs that require separate solutions, we can consider these requirements as inspiration for building versatility and diversity into our existing designs. Accessibility is not a barrier to innovation; it’s a catalyst.

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Here are a few ways you can extend the benefits of your design to more users:

Think accessibility first

Build in accessibility from the very beginning. Start with this question: How will accessibility make your product or service a better experience for your team and stakeholders? It’s also critical to understand the work involved in making content accessible. Accessibility is not a quick project sprint, but a marathon of practices woven in at each step of the design process.

Build adaptable solutions

By making fewer decisions in design, users can make more decisions for it. For example, if a user needs larger font or to zoom in, they’ll break the design if you’ve exacted it to precise dimensions or positioned elements just so. Instead, think flexibly. Simpler interfaces with less code prevent rigidity and create a more accessible design.

Ensure equal meaning

A clear layout and concise content is important for any user experience. For those who use screen readers, it’s just as critical to structure your code logically and write markup that delivers the same meaning. This consideration extends to sensory characteristics as well. Don’t rely on sole indicators like images, sound, size or shape to understand context. Instead, always use a combination of color, positioning, and labeling to ensure multiple ways to interpret information.

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At HWC, we use Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle to think about our ethos. One of Sinek’s main points is that great leaders inspire action by telling us what motivates them and what they believe in, not by describing what they do and how they do it. In other words, we focus on the why. Whether we’re talking about accessible vs. universal vs. inclusive design, the why remains the same. It’s not just for the sake of design, but to accommodate a variety of individuals, experiences, and ways of interacting with the world as all of our needs shift with time and circumstance.

Check out our Accessibility Toolbox for resources and tools to help make your work accessible!

Graphics by Parul Agarwal and Kaitlin Hileman

Kaitlin Hileman Kaitlin Hileman specializes in data analysis and visualization, visual and graphic design, and market research and strategy. She likes to use data to visualize insights and tell stories to help improve decisionmaking. Kaitlin thrives in work environments that value innovation and collaboration.