How Designing for Users With Disabilities Enhances UX for Everyone

Being left out sucks. As the people building technology, we must create solutions that are accessible and pleasantly usable for everyone.

Written by Andrew Gosine
Published on May. 23, 2024
How Designing for Users With Disabilities Enhances UX for Everyone
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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Last summer, my old friend Mark mentioned he’d be in Vancouver and wanted to catch up. Excited, I immediately began searching for the perfect spot to eat. We’re both foodies, after all.

When I met Mark in front of the restaurant, though, I was surprised to find him in a wheelchair. I knew Mark had a lifelong illness, but it had been so long since we last met that I wasn’t aware his mobility had changed.

Likewise, Mark had been using a wheelchair for so long he didn’t think to mention it. Although this wasn’t a problem in itself, we faced a significant challenge: The only way into the restaurant was up a large staircase.

As a principal product designer at Slack, I’ve been at the forefront of setting industry standards for accessibility. My approach to design extends beyond aesthetics. It involves a deep understanding of and commitment to the diverse needs of our users.

By prioritizing inclusivity and accessibility from the outset, we not only dismantle barriers but also empower all users to fully engage with and enjoy our products.

What Is the Curb Cut Effect?

Originally, curb cuts were designed to facilitate wheelchair access on sidewalks. It quickly became apparent, however, that they were also incredibly useful for a wide array of people including cyclists, parents with strollers and travelers with wheeled luggage. The curb cut effect demonstrates how accessible features are helpful to people with disabilities and people without disabilities alike.

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Talk About Accessibility Early and Often

In many organizations, accessibility is often an afterthought, a checkbox to be ticked only at the end of the product development process. If your workplace values accessibility, it often falls to the accessibility team to enforce standards, sometimes delaying product releases or necessitating significant redesigns and engineering efforts.

This scenario can create a frustrating experience for everyone involved. It could be worse, though. Some companies disregard accessibility entirely, releasing products that are unusable for those relying on assistive technologies.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb uses a compelling metaphor to illustrate this point: Imagine you’ve baked muffins for your niece’s birthday party but forgot to add blueberries. If you try to push them in afterward while on your way to the party, they won’t be the same as if they were baked in from the start. They might technically be blueberry muffins, but they won’t be good blueberry muffins.

Just like in baking, you must consider accessibility from the start to ensure a truly inclusive and effective design.

To embed accessibility into your design culture, discuss it early and often throughout every project. As a designer, I try to discuss accessibility after every layout revision, as even the simplest of layout changes can have major impacts on usability.

As long as we keep things top of mind by talking about accessibility after each iteration, at each stage of the product development lifecycle, we can shift from treating accessibility as an afterthought to making it a core component of our design process and philosophy.

 

Lead With Empathy to Remove Barriers

As designers, we often fall into the trap of designing solutions that work for ourselves, mistakenly assuming all users share our abilities and experiences. But our users are diverse, each with varying levels of ability and expertise, necessitating designs that accommodate a wide range of needs. You’d be surprised at the diversity of user experiences and how standard design choices can exclude some people.

Take, for instance, a recent user study I conducted, which brought to light the challenges faced by a participant who used an eye tracker for navigation. They shared their frustration with the common Jigsaw captchas encountered on many shopping websites, which require users to drag and drop pieces. Tasks like these are impossible with an eye tracker, as it lacks the capability for click-and-drag actions.

This insight was a stark reminder that what may be a minor inconvenience for some can be a complete barrier for others.

It’s essential to lead with empathy and to continuously seek out and consider diverse user perspectives in our design process. By doing so, we ensure our products are not only functional but truly accessible to everyone. I try to constantly engage with our users, understand their challenges and do my best to anticipate their needs — all critical steps in crafting designs that are genuinely inclusive.

 

Design for Users With Disabilities to Enrich UX

The curb-cut effect illustrates a fundamental principle in accessible design: When we make environments more accessible to people with disabilities, we create benefits that extend far beyond that initial focus.

This phenomenon is not limited to physical infrastructure. In digital design, similar principles apply when we consider features like captioning for videos, new activity sounds and adjustable text sizes.

Each of these features, while designed to aid users with specific disabilities, has proven immensely beneficial for the wider public. They enhance usability and convenience for everyone, proving that accessibility features can significantly enrich the user experience universally.

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Good Design Is Accessible and Delightful for All

Our journey through design must be driven by the principle that nobody should be left out. From personal experiences with friends to professional projects at Slack, the need for inclusive, empathic design has never been more clear.

We’ve seen how accessibility, when integrated from the outset, enhances usability for everyone. Let’s commit to making accessibility a routine part of our design conversations, not as an afterthought but as a cornerstone of our practice. By doing so, we ensure that our products are not just technically accessible, but a delight for all.

Maybe one day, we’ll get to go back to that restaurant and there will be a ramp. 

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