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  • Writer's pictureAriana Shives

Designing for accessibility

Updated: Dec 5, 2023


image shows two white hands using an assistive screen reader to navigate websites.
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

In today’s digital world, designing for accessibility is more important than ever. With an increasing number of people with varying abilities using the internet, it is important to ensure that websites, applications, and other digital products are accessible to everyone. Accessibility is not only about designing for people with disabilities — it is about creating an inclusive environment that considers the needs and desires of all users. By designing for accessibility, you can create a better user experience for everyone, including those with disabilities.

People with disabilities, whether they are situational, temporary, or permanent, share the same goals for any given user problem you as a designer are trying to solve. Designing for accessibility means that Jacob who only has one arm, Camille who has a broken wrist, and Meredith who is holding a sleeping baby all have everything they need to successfully use a product. Jacob’s disability is permanent, Camille’s is temporary, and Meredith’s is situational, but they all only have the use of one arm to complete a task or achieve their goal.

It is crucial to understand how a person with a disability may experience a completely different user journey when their needs are not addressed during the design process. Sometimes, not addressing these needs can have dire consequences. For example, people who use wheelchairs are not often considered in fire escape routes that rely on stairs.

When designing products, whether digital or physical, it is important to familiarize yourself with the experience that all users of your product might have, including people with disabilities.

One great way to learn more about how people with disabilities interact with digital products is to research and use assistive technologies. You can find videos of experts using them or tryy them out yourself. Try using your keyboard for everything for an entire day — or even an hour — to learn what it’s like for people who can’t use a mouse, and remember to design your products to support keyboard input and navigation. Not only will doing so ensure that you are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it will also enable all users to have a positive experience on your website.

The Curb Cut Effect

A “curb cut” is the slope of the sidewalk that creates a ramp down to the adjoining street, often at a street corner or intersection. Curb cuts were invented and popularlized so that people with wheelchairs, leg braces, crutches, or other disabilities could more easily navigate sidewalks. But since their inception, curb cuts have benefitted everyone from people pushing strollers to cyclists, movers, and elderly people. Curb cuts have become such a popular example of designing for accessibility that there’s an entire phenomenon named after them: the Curb Cut Effect describes how products and policies designed for people with disabilities often end up helping everyone.

Similarly, closed captioning can help not only deaf TV watchers, but also parents with crying babies, non-fluent watchers, or patrons at a noisy bar. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is the wide, soft grips seen on OXO kitchen products. These were initially designed as products for people with arthritis, but have transformed into a beloved brand thanks to their comfort and usability for everyone.

How to design for accessibility

Now that you understand the importance of designing for accessibility, here are some tips on how to do so in your future projects!

Understand the needs of your users

The first step in designing for accessibility (much like the first step in designing, period) is understanding the needs of your users. This involves understanding the different types of abilities you might be designing for and how they can impact your users’ experience. Some common disabilities to keep in mind as you design digital products are visual, auditory, physical, and cognitive impairments. Remember that any of these disabilities can be permanent, temporary, or situational.

People with visual impairments may use screen readers or rely on larger text sizes to read content. People with physical impairments may use assistive technologies such as voice recognition software to navigate a website. By understanding the needs of your users, you can design an accessible user interface that meets their needs and helps them accomplish the same goals as any other user.

Use inclusive images and language

An important, and very often overlooked, part of accessibility is inclusion. Your site should not only cater to the needs of all your users, but it should look and feel like a place they belong. In order to accomplish this, it is important to include images, icons, diagrams, and illustrations that represent all of your users. This means showing people of all races, genders, and abilities, and showing diverse foods, clothing, and activities.

Inclusive language means making it clear that people of any gender are welcome on your site and using terminology that can be understood by users of any education level. Your language should be easily translatable by web services, or even include native translation options. This is one of the easiest ways to include users, and also one of the most unnecessary reasons that users feel excluded.

Use color and contrast effectively

Color and contrast are important elements in creating accessible designs and are often forgotten in the name of aesthetics. It is entirely possible to use color and contrast in a way that serves all users and is aesthetically pleasing and not doing so is taking unnecessary shortcuts.

It is vital to accessible design that you ensure there is sufficient contrast between text and background colors so that your copy is readable by everyone who visits your site. This is especially important for users with visual impairments who may have difficulty distinguishing between certain colors or shades but often extends far beyond that to users with color blindness, those who are forced to sit far away from a computer, or those who forget or don’t have access to glasses.

In addition, avoid using color as the sole means of conveying information. Instead, add text labels and/or symbols to communicate errors, success, and other details. This will ensure that users with color blindness or other visual impairments can understand the information being presented at all times.

Make navigation easy

Navigation is a key element of any website or application. When designing for accessibility, it is important to make navigation easy and intuitive. This means using clear and concise labels for menus and buttons, as well as designing them according to widely-recognized standards, and providing alternative navigation options such as keyboard shortcuts.

For users with physical disabilities, it is important to provide alternative input methods such as voice commands or mouse-free navigation.

Ensure compatibility with assistive technologies

Assistive technologies such as screen readers, braille displays, speech recognition software, and selection switches are essential tools for people with varying abilities. When designing, it is important to ensure compatibility with each of these technologies.

This means using HTML and CSS code that is compatible with screen readers, providing alt text for all images and videos, and ensuring that all elements on the page can be accessed with a keyboard. By doing so, you ensure that users with disabilities can not only access and use your website or application, but can accomplish the same goals as any other user.

Test your design for accessibility

Once you’ve taken accessibility considerations into account when designing, it’s important to test your design for accessibility. This involves testing the site using tools like screen readers as well as passing your designs through accessibility validator sites like the ones suggested here by WAI to identify and fix any accessibility issues with your design prior to launching your product.

In addition, it is important to get feedback from users with disabilities and take them into account when completing your user testing. This will help you to understand how the design is working for all users and identify any additional issues that need to be addressed.


Designing for accessibility is a critical part of creating an inclusive user experience and its importance cannot be overstated. By understanding the needs of your users, using inclusive images and language, using color and contrast effectively, making navigation easy, ensuring compatibility with assistive technologies, and testing your design for accessibility, you can create a design that is accessible to and effective for everyone. Remember, accessibility is not just about compliance with legal requirements, but about creating an inclusive environment that benefits everyone.

Resources

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is an excellent resource for further reading on web accessibility and is widely considered the gold standard. Their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Resources for Designers should be bookmarked on your computer throughout your design career. Refer to them often and always check your designs against them to ensure accessibility.


Check out my ebook How to Become a UX Designer for a more in-depth look at designing for accessibility as well as tips and information on getting your first UX job!


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