I’ve broken my foot. I wish I could tell you that I hurt it during some exciting adventure or high-octane sport. The truth is far more mundane. I slipped while wearing my sandals on a cobbled street.

As a designer, accessibility is always top of mind; navigating with a broken foot for the past few weeks has made me think even more about it. Suddenly, every staircase and uneven surface has become a challenge.

Accessibility isn’t just an issue for the physical world around us – it’s a key consideration when it comes to our digital lives. This summer’s Digital Exclusion report from the House of Lords’ Communications & Digital Committee highlighted the need for older people, neurodiverse people, and people with impaired sight to be given equal access to services. The rising relative costs of broadband and mobile data mean that as well as physical and mental diversities, socioeconomic factors have an important role to play in accessibility.

Yet accessibility can’t simply be a tick-box exercise at the end of the development process. It’s about much more than complying with WCAG standards. Accessibility is key to creating an inclusive and welcoming experience for users, delivering increased satisfaction and loyalty from customers, and ultimately a stronger bottom line for businesses. According to advocacy organisation We Are Purple, businesses lose around £2 billion a month by not addressing the needs of people with disabilities.

Accessibility is not simply a warm, fuzzy feeling

Building that loyalty begins with design. When designing an app to book an appointment, for example, we need to think about the intricate details, down to the placement of each and every button. If a person only has use of one hand, it’s important to consider the placement of that button which is often near the bottom of the screen, so that they can click it with their thumb while holding their phone in their hand. An accessible design may also provide options where they can utilise the same ‘button’ hands-free by using voice activation.

User-centred design thinking also benefits temporary access needs. A parent who’s trying to book an appointment with one hand while cradling their baby in the other. Or a commuter booking their appointment with one hand while holding onto a safety strap on the bus.

Focusing on accessibility and inclusivity drives loyalty and trust –  which is key to generating revenue and profits in the private sector or securing continuing funding in the public sector.

Our favourite news websites don’t just carry the stories we want to read or watch but also present them in a streamlined fashion, without distracting pop-ups and banners. Our favourite online shops don’t just offer competitive prices but also have quick and easy payment processes. All that loyalty begins with design.

Inclusion is about more than coding

The nitty-gritty of coding – where to put that button, how to design for voice activation and screen readers or reduce information overload– is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to put users at the centre of our digital services and solutions.

Is this combination of colours going to be accessible to people who perceive colour in different ways? After all, there’s not simply one form of what’s often dismissed as “colour blindness”.

Is the language we’re using in our app accessible? Can the broadest possible range of people understand what we’re trying to communicate? If someone’s in a rush or navigating via a screen reader, will they get our key message?

What’s the speed of our user’s broadband? How long will this webpage take to load? Should we opt for lower-resolution images that will load quickly?

The ripple effect from inclusive design

Lessons about inclusion are equally relevant to the broader tech industry. I’m passionate about ensuring women have representation in our industry and have been fortunate to find a network with the Creative Equals Business Leaders programme that helps fellow women imagine themselves in leadership roles – and then helps women and gender nonconforming/nonbinary people to reach their goals through development workshops and networking.

This year’s theme for National Inclusion Week is “Take action, make impact”. The actions we take as designers should strive to always have positive impacts for all users. These actions can be as small as carefully considering image choice and resolution or as large as building a professional network for education and advocacy… they all have a positive ripple effect.

Digital design can borrow from the wider design

In design, we aren’t limited to soaking up inspiration from within the digital sector – we can draw on the experience of wider disciplines. I studied industrial product design and cut my teeth as a product design intern, CAD modelling and designing the user interfaces for machines that were used to make printed circuit boards. I visited the factory floors, conducting what I’d call ‘ethnographic research’ now and observed how they interact with the machinery. It wasn’t acknowledged that the users were wearing gloves on the factory floor so the user interface was adapted to be accessible for this need.

I also gained inspiration from my grandpa and my dad. I caught the design bug while my grandpa was showing me the giant schematics he kept in his shed – he was a shipyard draughtsman, and so had massive diagrams detailing how ships were built.

In a client meeting recently, I unrolled a big sheet of paper on the table and we mapped out their customers’ journey to design and build their digital project. It made me smile as I remembered my grandpa and how his practice of design is inspiring and influencing mine, even to this day.

My dad went from selling fruit and vegetables to restaurants to designing those same restaurants. Not only did I learn computer-aided design (CAD) skills while working for his company that I still use today, but I gained an insight into how my dad always considered the “flow” and “welcome” of a restaurant – were the tables at a comfortable height, could someone using a wheelchair be served at the bar?

That sense of “welcome” is essential when it comes to the accessibility and inclusivity of the apps, websites, and digital systems we use. It determines if the person has an overall positive experience. If we can design inclusion into our digital technology from the outset instead of as an afterthought, then we can create the welcoming products and services that each user deserves and will ultimately trigger satisfaction and loyalty.

About the author

Lynsey Brownlow is Head of User Experience at tech consultancy, AND Digital, in Edinburgh.

Lynsey strives to bridge the gap between people and technology with thoughtful, evidence-based design. Coming from a background in Product Design, she has a hands-on approach to designing connected end-to-end experiences. Her primary goal is to help define the main measure of success in any given task and steer the team towards that target – having fun along the way.
Lynsey is an advocate for accessibility and sustainability in digital. Also, a member of Creative Equals Business Leaders evangelising equity in creative industries.

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