News & Views

Opinion / Open For Business

by Contagious Contributor
Ralf Gehrig, chief experience officer at design and product studio, Brilliant Basics, on why good accessibility is good business. He shares some of the company's learnings for creating accessible digital products

If you don’t consider good accessibility when creating a digital product, you are probably missing around 20%* of the potential audience. With an ageing global population, the challenges of mobility, vision and hearing will become majority rather than minority concerns. This is especially true as older users become more comfortable with technology. 

Accessibility has received a lot of attention in Europe and North America recently with legislation and organisations like The Digital Accessibility Alliance set up to ‘address the issues disabled and older people face in accessing digital services’.

But good accessibility is not just about going through a checklist to avoid being sued. Good accessibility is good usability: designing to tick the boxes of accessibility compliance usually goes badly, but if you design things people can use, there are often only a few tweaks to make things accessible.

Brilliant Basics has amassed a great deal of experience in creating globally accessible digital products, particularly in our work with HSBC – which won an award for its outstanding accessibility. We have learned that almost every interaction can be made accessible.

Here are some of the tips we use to create a great accessible, usable digital product.

1. Designers need to get involved early to deliver great products
Often designers get brought in too late and key decisions that will affect the final digital product have already been made. Designers will strive for simplicity and they should be aware of what makes digital products widely accessible, for example, the use of appropriate familiar patterns can provide progressive enhancement. They should be involved in the process from as early as possible.

2. Design for your users and not for your clients or yourselves
Unfortunately the digital design and development industry is made up of a lot of young, able-bodied people. Understanding your users and how and why they use digital products will inevitably lead to great usability via great design. The best way to do this is via user research and testing with a sample of the population that your product supports.

3. Make access to your digital product as easy as possible for the user
You might have to consider dial up internet access for lower income users or voice input for people with decreased mobility. Understand who your users are and how they access digital products. Your user research should also help to uncover this information.

4. What happens on day two?
Great products require on-going investment, but projects are usually about minimising cost. No digital product is ever perfect at launch. Products need to evolve and be fine-tuned to how people are actually using them over time to become great. A product mind-set favours an on-going engagement, where agency and client work in partnership to not only lay the foundations of a great product, but to make sure it reaches its full potential. We all rejoice about getting products live, but how is it performing? We always get excited about adding new and exciting features, but are we ensuring that the accessibility of the product we’ve created is also keeping up with people’s habits and expectations? Accessibility standards have to keep pace with actual usage.

5. If you do nothing else, do use the available checklists. But think of these as guides to specific details while designing for people. If you get into the checklist mode, your product may be legal, but it won’t be brilliant
Almost every interaction and design can be made accessible these days using the ARIA standards for websites and apps, and Google and Apple’s respective guidelines for Android and iOS apps. But accessibility is about so much more. Make sure these tips are part of your checklist.

Where Europe and North America are moving ahead with legislation and policy, there are parts of the world where accessibility is often hardly considered at all. As designers and developers, we should be responsible for focussing on designing for the inclusion of people every time we design, rather than just ticking lists.

*UK figures 2012 census, WHO global population estimates