Even before the pandemic, so much of our daily lives had gone digital. Instead of meeting in person, we switched to FaceTime and Webex. Instead of going to the movies, we broadcast the latest movies at home. We have moved our online banking and food shopping.

Today’s digital work certainly rivals the physical world – but not if you live with a disability.

According to WebAIM (We mean web accessibility), more than 97 percent of the one million pages he estimated in 2021 had failed WCAG 2 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). However, it’s not that designers and engineers aren’t interested in affordability – they are. In a 2021 Applause survey, nearly 70% of respondents agreed that their companies prioritize digital accessibility.

So what’s going on? In order for digital experiences to be accessible to all, inclusive design must begin with the software development cycle. This is not something that can be added or designed after the fact. Modern software development – like many other things in our post-pandemic worlds – must begin with empathy.

Design with empathy

In principle, any software development project should start with the widest possible audience. Providing an accessible digital experience requires a constant commitment to designing inclusive experiences, writing code with accessibility in mind, and testing digital properties for key accessibility. Companies need to start with this commitment.

In the same survey, mentioned earlier, more than two-thirds of respondents said their company had not tested for accessibility in the past three months, and almost half said their company had not tested in the past six months.

Accessibility testing is not a one-off situation and requires ongoing commitment to ensure that key digital pathways provide a truly accessible experience. Too often, designers are isolated and work in a vacuum.

In this environment, how could they design a high-quality product for a living person about whom they may know almost nothing?

Inclusive user testing is a key component within the principles of inclusive design. At the beginning of a project, developers must reject any preconceived notions about who their users are. They need to sit down with the audience they are designing for and learn about them first hand. Based on user groups, one-on-one conversation and other forms of direct contact, designers can move away from what is “typical” and what is personal. As a result, they will be able to better identify needs, gaps and decisions.

Starting the design process by directly engaging with people with disabilities is a driver for greater innovation. This type of real-world feedback offers an idea at the beginning of the process – allowing the development of a better digital experience from the beginning. It also ensures that the user experience is intuitive, enjoyable and inclusive for everyone, including people living with disabilities.

Once designers and developers really understand the needs of people with disabilities and understand what may not work in more traditional design principles, they can better develop products that meet the needs of that audience.

Embedding inclusive design principles in the process

For successful inclusive designers to succeed, here are some important components to focus on:

  • Regular vertical training. Involve specific people with disabilities to train your designers and engineers. This is key to creating the empathy I have been discussing. It is extremely important to have this personal or online live exchange and to base training on the team’s own products.
  • Weekly working hours for designers. It is crucial that designers be able to consult with an expert team to develop a front end for inclusion and accessibility while working throughout the week. I’ve seen this work over the years, and it makes a huge difference in efficiency and helps designers avoid unnecessary dead ends.
  • UX research seminars. They are great for expert advice on the subject and iterative exercises to understand the profiles of people with disabilities.
  • Self-service intranet knowledge base. Creating a repository of training documents, frequently asked questions and other useful materials builds a knowledge base and becomes the only source of truth for inclusive design. This can help simplify over time the complex nature of inclusive design and accessibility.

The importance of usability and affordability should not be underestimated. All websites and applications must provide an inclusive experience for all. This starts with shifting the accessibility testing left in the development process and gathering real feedback from real people with disabilities.

Inclusive user testing – and empathy – are core to inclusive design

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