Bob Farrell, Vice President of Solution Delivery and CX Practices for Applause imageToday, it’s vital that organisations can build and foster diverse workforces and inclusive cultures while driving accountability. Inclusivity also extends to their digital channels. Bob Farrell, Vice President of Solution Delivery and CX Practices for Applause, looks at principles of inclusive design for digital products, and how to create holistic design programmes that conform to accessibility standards.

Inclusive design is an approach to design which intentionally removes barriers that may otherwise hinder users’ meaningful interaction with products or experiences. Essentially, when software is inclusive by design, it allows for users across a broad spectrum of capabilities to interact with it and accomplish necessary tasks in the ways best suited to them. Simply put, the more inclusive a digital experience is, the more people can and will use the product effectively.

However, without involving your user voices throughout the planning, development, and testing process, there’s no way to truly understand their needs or to understand whether they can use the product as they need and want to. Building and designing digital products is very detailed and exacting work, and it is easy to lose sight of the broad spectrum of users’ needs. To gain necessary insights, putting people at the forefront of the software design process is critical. Testing the user experience with real people in real-life scenarios – like when using screen readers or other assistive devices – is crucial to ensuring that the product or experience will work for all. This feedback loop needs to be built into the process.

Understanding the principles of inclusive design

For digital products, special care and attention should be focused on the experience of users with low vision, blindness, deafness, neurodiversity, and upper body mobility issues, among others. These personas are intrinsic to any digital inclusive design programme because they specifically will struggle to use digital products if their needs and voices aren’t considered during the product development process. Every type of organisation can foster a culture of inclusivity by evaluating its current inclusivity status to understand how to design a holistic programme tailored to drive outcomes.

In developing an inclusive design programme, the first steps should include reviewing conformance standards, evaluating existing products, and ensuring that your organisation complies with basic accessibility laws and standards. It is important to take stock of where you are currently to define the best path forward.

Evaluate your knowledge base and engagement

Transforming the culture of your organisation is the cornerstone of any inclusivity programme, and educating your staff is vital to this process. And as with any learning experience, it’s a good idea to start by asking honest questions. What is your current knowledge base around inclusivity? How engaged are your colleagues?

According to a recent annual survey of more than 800 digital quality testing professionals across Europe, a third of respondents stated that they have very basic knowledge of digital accessibility with a further nine percent saying they had none. This lack of knowledge can inadvertently result in companies developing and releasing products that exclude groups of people from using them effectively.

Also, designating a person or team who is accountable for accessibility standards and legal requirements, and who are also the champions for the programme, will improve the programme’s sustainability over time.

Incorporating a holistic programme into the product lifecycle

Once the programme is established as a cultural imperative within your organisation, it’s important to gain knowledge and feedback from the disability community. As you begin the planning process for designing or redesigning, ask Persons with Disability (PwD) for their input into existing or potential challenge points. This can be done through workshops that allow designers, developers, and QA professionals to observe how PwDs use an existing product or can ask the appropriate questions to make needed improvements. Experiencing interactions in real time removes any existing knowledge gaps and enhances the team’s empathy and understanding. This empathy building is a key ingredient in designing for all users.

In addition, testing the user experience with real people in real-life scenarios – like when using screen readers or other assistive devices – is crucial to ensuring that the product or experience will work for all. This means all users can achieve their goals naturally and reasonably in the design and have an equitable experience. Lab-based testing with less diverse testers and limited devices may limit your access to insights that are imperative to providing great user experiences for all.

Compliance with digital accessibility laws

The need for inclusive programmes that ensure digital accessibility has come into sharp focus recently with the onset of The European Accessibility Act. This legislation is a new directive that establishes a common set of accessibility rules for software, digital services, and hardware sold or used in the EU. In doing so, the act aims to remove barriers created by divergent accessibility rules in the EU member states and improve the functioning of the internal market for accessible products and services.

The current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the main point of reference on accessibility best practices for European companies. The guidelines, although often the basis of civil actions in the U.S., have no legal standing in and of itself, and are not legally enforced. However, the European Accessibility Act will be legally binding.

Businesses and public sector organisations have until 28 June 2025 to comply with the European Accessibility Act. While this may sound like a long time, the reality is that organisations need to start preparing now. Until the directive is implemented, it’s not entirely clear what compliance will look like in detail. However, many pieces of accessibility legislation worldwide take inspiration from WCAG, and while the European Accessibility Act doesn’t directly name WCAG as a standard, its accessibility requirements for digital products are based on the same accessibility principles. So, organisations that strive for WCAG compliance will likely find that they have already achieved many of the European Accessibility Act’s requirements.

Putting digital accessibility into practice

User accessibility benefits everyone, whether intentional or not. Rather than thinking of digital accessibility as a benefit solely to people with disabilities, it’s better to understand it as a benefit to all end users. Organisations that strive to be inclusive through the implementation of digital accessibility best practices and accessibility testing are more likely to improve the user experience for everyone. Although organisations in Europe have made progress in improving digital accessibility since the 1.0 version of WCAG was first published in 1999, there is still work to be done. Following the principles of inclusive design, organisations can develop holistic programmes that accommodate PwDs, and in fact all end-users, to create a culture of equity and inclusivity.

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