We researched and identified several design and engineering accessibility principles based on existing practices to help create more equitable products, systems, and services.

Justin Porcano, Senior Industrial Design Manager, Accenture Industry X

March 8, 2023

4 Min Read
Businessperson turns wooden cubes and changes the word possible to accessible. Business and possible or accessible concept
Dzmitry Dzemidovich via Alamy Stock

Products and services are moving from physical to digital experiences. This tends to make life easier, but it also creates accessibility issues for the more than one billion people around the world with disabilities.

Take a TV remote -- an everyday device but a constant challenge for those with low vision. It crams information into a small space displayed in small font, without much contrast on the device itself.

Currently, there are almost no accessibility standards for common physical equipment we interact with daily, whether it’s a thermostat, a printer, or a TV set. Connect these products to a digital ecosystem of other products and services and you add complexity -- notably not addressed in any current accessibility guidelines, like the American Disability Act and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

These common regulatory standards provide a baseline for accessible design, grounded in government research, organizational best practices, and compliance checkpoints. But compliance doesn’t necessarily ensure a well-designed user experience.

Going Beyond Digital Connections

So how can we ensure the products, services, and systems we create aren’t just compliant and digitally connected, but are also connected physically, cognitively, and emotionally to support people with disabilities? 

We researched and identified six design and engineering accessibility principles based on existing practices to help create more equitable products, systems and services for our clients and our client’s customers:

1. Co-create with your community and accessibility experts

Recruit people with disabilities and invite them to consult on all aspects of the product. View them as stakeholders and involve them in the entire decision-making lifecycle.

Microsoft recently created an Accessible Tech Lab, an inclusive design incubator where Microsoft and disability communities can ideate and evaluate product design to inspire and facilitate inclusion into the product. Microsoft also launched the Surface Adaptive Kit, a collection of labels, indicators and openers that empower people with blindness, low vision, or limited mobility to customize Surface devices for individual use.

2. Design for disabilities is design for all

Products designed for individuals with disabilities often are adopted by a broader demographic for their ease of use. This can be true for connected and non-connected products.

For example, OXO originally designed their potato peeler for those with arthritis. The OXO design team sought to understand and address the anatomical constraints associated with arthritis and then created a product that became preferred by a broader demographic. Prototyping and co-creating for people with permanent disabilities was critical for understanding and translating feedback into meaningful solutions.

3. Add communication redundancy

Create interactions that communicate and engage with users via multiple senses; applying visual, audio, verbal, and physical/tactile communication methods support our natural intuitive assumptions as users. For instance, watches are no longer just for telling time. The Apple Watch provides users the opportunity to track their fitness, make calls and send messages through the device. It sends both visual and sensory alerts to the user when a message comes through or a fitness goal is hit, thereby creating a watch that’s accessible to everyone.

Adding redundancy increases the effectiveness of communication and ensures users with impaired senses have access to critical information. Take a crosswalk: it includes a button with braille, a sloped curb, flashing lights, an arrow pointing which direction to walk, crosswalk lines, and a voice guiding users in multiple languages. Redundancy is valuable in product systems that provide safety features to their users, like crossing the street.

4. Create clear interaction language

Consistent, simple interaction language is a “must” for all connected products and services. For example, a sound representing the completion of a task versus a sound representing a prompt to finish a task should be different. This language should be obvious and consistent across the entire experience, through sound, color, shape, size, and texture. It enables interactions and experiences that are obvious and consistent.

5. Understand the users’ journey

Follow the users’ experience before, during, and after using a product. Documenting the journey of those with disabilities allows companies to identify and prioritize pain points to guide tailored design solutions.

Through thoughtful diagrams, interactive prototypes, and communicative illustrations one can better understand the concerns of consumers and identify potential technical and business challenges. For instance, think about all that occurs before buying a car: conducting research, seeing the car, talking to someone about the car and driving the car. This process builds empathy and helps reveal opportunities for solutions.

6. Balance function and aesthetics

Don’t comprise one aspect for another during the design process. Currently, when designing products for people with disabilities, many companies compromise aesthetics when meeting needs. Hence, traditional assistive tech often feels like rehabilitation equipment, ignoring what most users want from a personal, intimate product. When it comes to mainstream products, however, they keep the product presentation top of mind. Inclusive design for accessibility requires balancing functionality with aesthetic appeal.

Xbox helped blur the lines between assistive and mainstream technology for their 46 million players with disabilities. The company puts as much design aesthetic consideration into its specialized assistive technology as it does its mainstream.

It’s clear that when companies design with accessibility, they unlock greater value -- and may just create the next household staple like bendy straws, electric toothbrushes and elevators. Accessible design makes life easier -- for everyone.

About the Author(s)

Justin Porcano

Senior Industrial Design Manager, Accenture Industry X

Justin Porcano is a Senior Industrial Design Manager at Accenture Industry X. His interest in design for accessibility has followed the course of his own life – and that of his daughter. As a preschooler, she was diagnosed with Usher syndrome type 1B, which causes profound deafness, severe balance issues and vision loss in early childhood. It is essentially an attack on the senses. His daughter’s disease has fundamentally transformed his personal life and how he approaches his work as a designer. Justin is also the co-founder of Save Sight Now, a parent-led organization that funds research benefiting those with Usher syndrome Type 1B.

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