Better conversations about accessibility

Great design includes accessibility. However, a delta can often form between the two, especially early on during the design process.

Without accessibility, you deny equal access to someone, so you can call it a moral imperative. In many countries, the law requires it so minus it, you break the law. If you don’t incorporate it into your processes, you’re uninformed. All true. That’s pressure. No one wants to feel morally corrupt, do something illegal or lack awareness. Yet, those reasons for making accessibility a priority surface often.

Be mindful, we’re all designers. Anyone who makes a decision that impacts how something gets created practices design. It doesn’t matter whether those decisions center on its overall experience, visuals or technical details. Without useful design, no one may use your website or app.

How do we foster better conversations around how design and accessibility intersect, especially in the early decision-making stages? We have to approach accessibility as less of a requirement and more as a constraint.

Use constraints to your advantage

What is design but a solution to a problem based on a set of constraints? Use this to your advantage when talking to designers, developers and stakeholders about thinking accessibility-first. If you suggest one specific solution as the only path to accessibility, the end result will likely end up flawed in one way or another. However, if you restrict people in a box with some room to move, they’ll explore. At least the best ones will. If you’re trying to improve part of an interface, instead of always giving out the possibilities, state the boundaries. You might be surprised what can happen.

Understand the reasons behind their choices

Always assume positive intent when working with anyone. The same design choices often surface during accessibility reviews. Take this classic: light gray text. This will get flagged as a violation because it won’t meet color contrast rules. Of course, to meet accessibility best practices, the designer will need to change the color. While the design improves because the colors become easier to read for more people, the design may be weaker in another area now. Designers often use lighter colors to establish hierarchy within a design. The reason behind the choice was grounded in a good principle. Now, a tradeoff has been made. You should understand this, take your time with these choices and reevaluate other decisions if needed.

Design with them

Which brings me to the next point. Design with them. As mentioned, we’re all designers in some way. Accessibility advocates, myself included, sometimes deliver advice about how to improve aspects of a site or app in a piece by piece fashion. This can get anyone thinking about the details instead of the broader scope. Yes, the details matter, but helping someone make the right decisions during the process will go a lot further when it comes to creating an inclusive design. Dig in, and be a part of the process.

Great design happens when people collaborate to deliver value for real people in whatever gets created. That collaboration can’t happen without honest conversations that push each side to reach for clarity. Clarity doesn’t come through a list of requirements, but shared communication and vision.

Image by Pavan Trikutam.

By David A. Kennedy

I work as a Design Director at Automattic on Jetpack, focusing on the front end experience.