Accessible design of consumer products sounds like a complicated, time-consuming and potentially expensive optional extra. Accessibility experts often start by saying that adding accessibility does not have to be any of those things. It is possible to include wider access without investing a lot of time or money and without extensive knowledge on the subject. I agree. A good place to start is at the beginning.
What makes a product accessible?
A small team of universal design and accessibility experts outlined 7 concepts that make a product accessible.
Step one: Design something good. A bad accessible product is still a bad product. The primary purpose of any product is do something useful and beneficial for the user. Before even thinking about accessibility, inclusion or universal design, aim to make something useful.
Step two: Design something that works well. Usability is about how easy, efficient and satisfying it is to use and learn how to use a product within a set context. It is a design that takes into account both psychology and physiology, making use familiar, intuitive and pleasant by excluding things most people do not enjoy doing, like waiting for something to load or be ready and including things that are familiar, like following standard design norms so users can utilize past experiences and know for example where the “on” button probably is on a new product they have never used.
Step 3: Think about your users and how they will want to use your product. Adding accessibility to a design is about expanding its usability to include a wider audience. Think about how people with varying abilities will be able to use a product and try to include features that will allow everyone to use it without needing to change, modify or adapt it. Will children with small hands be able to use it? Will older people with reduce grip be okay? Will a parent with a baby on one arm find it easy to use?
Imagine as many different users as you can and don’t just think of the extremes. Aim to include blind users, but also think about people who are colour blind, have reduced vision or blurred vision or those who cannot tolerate bright or flashy lights. Think about varying hearing impairments as well as those with hypersensitivity who struggle to tolerate beeping, shaking and noisy things. Consider wheelchair users as awell as anyone who uses aids like crutches, a stick or a guide dog. Make it accessible for both the youngest and oldest users, left and right handed or different language users.
Include those who may have difficulty reading or understanding complicated language as well as young children who aren’t able to read yet. Think about using your product when you’re tired, stressed or haven’t sleep for a while. Will it still be easy to use? Will it be usable by someone who doesn’t have a good memory, can’t concentrate well or struggles with organization or planning?
Also think about various circumstances. Day time and night time use, indoor/outdoor use, sitting down, standing up or lying down. Solitary environments, crowded and noisy environments, places with high or low connectivity. Think about as many scenarios as you can come up with and try to adapt your design to work well in as many of them as you can. Don’t forget that many people have multiple impairments on top of changing circumstances. Will a person who has reduced vision and use of only one arm with a tremor be able to use your product at night whilst lying down? Will a parent with a baby in a sling and a child in a pushchair be able to use your product on a sunny day in the park whilst walking?
Accessibility is not about making your product accessible to everyone at all times. It is about really thinking about what your product is designed to do and allowing it to do just that for as many people as possible in as many varying situations as possible.
Step 4: Make something cool. There are many reasons why people want things, including functionality, aesthetics, cultural influences and social factors. Make something that people not only need, but want to own.
Step 5: Successful products have to be viably priced, but once the baseline is established, there are many factors that effect how much something cost. Market price, perceived value and desirability, available income of potential customers, predicted sails, product availability and many more factors combine to determine the price put on an item. Where possible, it is a more accessible choice to sell more at a cheaper price instead of charging as much as possible.
Step 6: Make something that will withstand the test of time. Viability “is the extent to which the sale and maintenance of the product achieves success for the corresponding company”. If a product is not viable, it cannot be commercially successful and a product that isn’t commercially successful will not remain on the market for very long. It is vital to have a viable business strategy. No matter how accessible and inclusive a product may be, if there is no company to manufacture, distribute and sell it, there will be no product on the market to buy.
Step 7: The goal to aim for is to include accessibility in the initial design so that there is no need to modify or adapt your product for use by a wider audience. However, no product can be made accessibility to all under all circumstances. Be aware when making decisions about which features to give a higher priority to, that there is also the option available to individuals who may not be able to use the product as is to easily adapt it to meet their complex, specialist or specific needs. Make sure that you share information about compatibility (and incompatibility) with potential users before purchase.
Making products accessible to everyone is a lofty, mostly unobtainable goal, but making them as accessible as possible isn’t. Accessibility has to be considered and included early in the design process. It can’t be an adjunct added onto a finished product and it shouldn’t be something separate kept compartmentalized from the rest of the process of making cool things. I would also add a Step 8: State on the box who your product is made for. Let people know whether they will be able to use your product.
The above concepts are from The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs (G3ict)’s e-Accessibility Policy Toolkit for Persons with Disabilities lists in an article, “What is an accessible product?“