Building Inclusive Digital Products: Going Beyond Accessibility for a More Empowering Experience

  • Article
  • Application Design & Development

According to the CDC, about 25% of U.S. adults live with some sort of disability. This number doesn’t account for temporary injury, illness, or recovery.

As technology and digital products have become essential for day-to-day living, so has the demand for addressing accessibility needs when building digital products. However, it’s not enough to simply ensure those with disabilities have access. Private and public organizations need to make inclusive digital products that everyone, regardless of background or capability, can use without issue.

Accessibility vs. Inclusivity

Before we dig into the how-to, it’s important to understand how accessibility and inclusivity relate to each other and how they differ.

Accessible and inclusive digital products both aim to remove barriers that often prevent effective use of digital products. Whereas universally designed products are built to provide one common experience for the largest applicable audience, accessible and inclusive products assume there is no archetypal user.

However, while accessible products aim to remove barriers for those with sensory, mobility, or cognitive challenges, inclusive products aim to remove these barriers and prioritize product functionality for all users.

In short, inclusive products address all accessibility needs and standards and go a step further to create flexible (but equivalent!), consistent, intuitive experiences for all users and abilities.

Tips for Building More Accessible AND Inclusive Products

1. Design with, not for, Users

Users should be at the heart of and included in each stage of the product lifecycle. All product decisions should reflect the feedback and needs of the people affected by the decisions. By conducting user research and interviews, building user journey maps, holding focus groups, continuous user testing and feedback sessions throughout the product lifecycle, you’re more likely to build a digital product that accounts for specific behaviors, expectations, and cultural needs of your target users. Make sure to obtain feedback from even the smallest sub-groups of users to ensure you make the most inclusive product possible.

2. Strive to Create Diverse Product Teams

To build products meant for everyone, product teams should represent everyone (or be as representative as possible). Relatively monolithic teams often struggle to build inclusive products because they lack differing perspectives, life experiences, and exposure, falling victim to unintentional biases. By forming diverse product teams comprising different backgrounds and capabilities, you increase the potential for building products that meet the widest possible range of user needs.

3. Don’t Forget About Accessibility Standards and Guidelines

This one may seem obvious, but it’s always worth reiterating. Accessibility remains an essential component of inclusive digital products. Follow widely accepted standards and guidelines to ensure you’re addressing key accessibility needs when designing and building digital products. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a great place to start. The WCAG, which serve as industry best practices for accessibility of digital products, are based on four main principles:

  1. Perceivable: Users must be able to identify all information and User Interface (UI) elements in the interface (e.g., use of alternative text.)
  2. Operable: All UI components, content, and navigation must be operable.
  3. Understandable: Users should understand all information and UI operations; and
  4. Robust: A variety of user agents, including assistive technologies should be able to interpret content.

4. Embrace Design Constraints to Benefit More Users

Microsoft’s Inclusive Toolkit Manual asserts that while designing for people with permanent disabilities may seem like a significant constraint, it can actually fuel innovation. This often results in a scalable product that benefits a much larger segment of users with related temporary or situational limitations. Per Microsoft, “Inclusive design should work across a spectrum of related abilities, connecting different people in similar circumstances”. To gain a broader view of how addressing the needs of one user group can benefit others, you can use persona spectrums to better understand motivations and needs across permanent, temporary, and situational scenarios.


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