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What Is Inclusive Design and What Does It Mean for the Digital World

Design
14 min
May 10, 2024

These days, we rely on digital technology for so much in our lives — communicating, working, learning, shopping, and more. But for many people, using websites, apps, and online services isn’t always easy or enjoyable. Maybe they have a disability that makes certain digital experiences difficult. Or perhaps language or cultural barriers get in the way. This is where inclusive design becomes so important.

In this article, we’ll explore what inclusive design entails, why it matters so much in our digital age, and how you can successfully put inclusive design principles into practice.

What Is Inclusive Design?

Inclusive design enables you to make digital products usable for as many different people as possible. It means designing websites, apps, and online services in a way that accounts for the diverse range of human abilities, backgrounds, and preferences that exist.

It’s more than just making sure apps are accessible for people with disabilities, though that’s definitely part of it. Inclusive design also factors in aspects like language barriers, cultural norms, age-related needs, and varying levels of experience with technology.

The Principles of Inclusive Design

There are seven main principles of inclusive design.

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1. Accessible for Different Abilities

Being inclusive means making sure your app works well for people across all ability levels — like those with vision, hearing, mobility, or cognitive differences. This could involve offering alternative ways to navigate like voice controls or making the interface compatible with screen readers.

2. Flexibility for Personal Preferences

We all have our own preferred ways of using tech products. Inclusive design builds in customizable options to account for that. Think having adjustable text sizes, high-contrast modes, multi-language options, and settings that let each person personalize the experience to their needs.

3. Simple and Intuitive for Everyone

No matter someone’s background or prior tech skills, an inclusively designed interface should be easy to figure out and use. With clear visuals, consistent layouts, descriptive labeling, and intuitive navigation flows, the experience is accessible for all experience levels.

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4. Conveys information Through Multiple Formats

People take in information differently—some favor visuals, others audio or text. Inclusive design ensures content is communicated through a variety of formats to match diverse sensory and cognitive needs, such as color contrast, image descriptions, video captions, and transcripts.

5. Prevents and Handles Mistakes Gracefully

Even the most user-friendly products can sometimes lead to errors. Inclusive design minimizes confusion by guiding users, validating inputs, offering easy error recovery, and providing clear instructions when needed.

6. Low Physical Effort Required

Many people, whether due to a disability or just their current situation, need to limit physical effort when using digital products. Inclusive design accounts for this through large touch targets, full keyboard control, voice input, and other interaction methods that create low physical demand.

7. Properly Sized Interface Elements

It’s not just about fitting different screen sizes — inclusive design makes sure buttons, icons, text, and other interface elements are adequately sized and properly spaced for vision impairments or limited motor control. The interface works from all viewing distances and angles.

Why Putting Inclusive Design into Practice Is Important

The importance of inclusive digital design can’t be overstated these days. We live in an era where the internet, apps, and other technologies mediate so many aspects of modern life. When digital experiences aren’t built inclusively, entire segments of the population risk getting left out and left behind from full participation.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.3 billion people globally have some form of disability. Not to mention the many more who face challenges related to language, age, or socioeconomic status that can impact digital access and literacy. Inclusive design empowers this vast array of people to engage online as fully autonomous individuals. It aligns with the ethical values of equal access, social inclusion, and human rights.

But beyond the moral and social equity implications, inclusive digital design is also a legal requirement in many countries and jurisdictions that have laws mandating accessible technology, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Failing to meet these standards can open organizations up to discrimination lawsuits and other penalties.

The Benefits of Inclusive Design

While inclusive design is an ethical choice, it also makes great business sense. Here are some key advantages it offers organizations.

benefits of inclusive design

Better User Experiences for Everyone

When you design your digital products to be accessible and usable for the broadest range of people and situations upfront, it ultimately provides a better overall user experience for everyone, not just those with disabilities or impairments. An inclusively designed website, app, or online tool ends up being more intuitive to navigate, with smoother flows, flexibility to match personal preferences, clear communication of information, and less confusion or errors. This enhanced usability reduces friction points and boosts satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty across your entire customer base.

Strengthens Brand Reputation

These days, consumers are paying close attention to the values and social responsibility of companies they choose to support. Brands that demonstrate a true commitment to digital inclusion and accessibility earn major credibility points and respect. It signals an organization that genuinely cares about the customer experience for all and is willing to go the extra mile on delivery.

Expands Your Potential Market

For every person who faces barriers to using your digital products due to lack of inclusive design, that’s a customer or potential revenue opportunity being missed out on. But by making those experiences fully accessible to people across all abilities, ages, languages, cultures, and contexts, you maximize your total addressable market. No segments are unnecessarily excluded when you develop with an inclusive lens.

Drives Innovation

When design practices are centered on accommodating the full spectrum of human diversity, it encourages teams to think more creatively about solutions. Considering the varied needs of users with disabilities, neurodivergence, linguistic differences, and other unique circumstances ultimately surfaces fresh ideas and innovative approaches that a conventional, one-size-fits-all design philosophy might miss. Those diverse perspectives become a major asset for developing novel, adaptable user experiences that create competitive advantages.

Better Search Visibility

Since major search engines prioritize websites and digital content that adhere to recognized accessibility standards and best practices, investing in inclusive design for your online presence directly pays off in improved search rankings, visibility, and organic traffic. Google and others actively incentivize accessible online experiences through their ranking factors. An inclusively designed web presence simply gets more digital real estate in today’s search landscape.

The benefits speak for themselves. Inclusive design isn’t just good ethics — it’s a good business strategy in our modern, consumer-conscious landscape.

Best Practices for Inclusive Design

So, with all these potential benefits in mind, how do you actually go about successfully implementing inclusive design for your digital channels? Here are some key strategies.

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Start With User Research

You can’t design for diverse user needs if you don’t first understand what those needs are. Conducting in-depth user research like interviews, surveys, and usability testing with people across different abilities and backgrounds is critical. This foundational research informs your entire inclusive design approach from the very start.

Account for Different Abilities and Situations

Map out the different visual, hearing, motor, cognitive, and other capabilities you need to design for when planning user experiences. But also consider the varied circumstances and contexts your users might be in, from temporary impairments to multitasking on the go.

Bake in Accessibility Standards

Establish company-wide guidelines that make accessible content and UX a default requirement across teams. Things like descriptive text, logical heading structure, keyboard accessibility, screen reader support, proper color contrast, captioning multimedia, and other inclusive practices should be fundamental rules.

Design for Adaptability

With the proliferation of devices, your experiences need to seamlessly adapt to different screen sizes and input methods like voice and gestures and provide an optimized experience in any context.

Make It Cross-Functional

Inclusive design isn’t just a job for designers or developers. It requires the right mix of UX skills, technical chops, content best practices, legal guidance, accessibility expertise, and participatory input from people with disabilities themselves. Make it a collaborative, cross-functional team effort across all product phases.

Examples of Standout Inclusive Design for a Digital World

Many top brands and companies are already showcasing what’s possible with inclusive digital design across industries:

  • Microsoft has emerged as an inclusive UX design leader by baking accessibility into products across its ecosystem. From the Xbox Adaptive Controller for gamers with disabilities to built-in screen readers, captioning tools, and high-contrast modes in Windows and Office apps, its “Design for people’s difference” philosophy sets a high bar.
  • In e-commerce, Sephora has done stellar work making their website and mobile shopping experiences accommodate diverse visual, motor, and cognitive needs. Highly descriptive product details, adjustable text and display settings, and intuitively structured navigation optimized for screen readers provide an inclusive experience.
  • Even media companies like Vox are getting it right with accessible editorial design. Their website shows how modern, image-rich digital storytelling can be made to work seamlessly for people with disabilities through smart UX patterns and inclusive content practices.

These examples prove that no matter your industry, it’s possible to creatively solve for accessibility and design truly best-in-class inclusive digital products and services. With the right commitment and approach, you can craft online experiences that are usable, engaging, and delightful for everyone.

The Future of Inclusive Design

As new technologies emerge, inclusive design will only become more vital. Digital experiences are becoming intertwined with our everyday lives. Each new frontier — AI, voice interfaces, and augmented reality — presents fresh challenges and opportunities for universal access.

For AI to be ethical and fair, an inclusive design process must address algorithmic bias, data transparency, and user control options. Voice assistants and conversational platforms need to seamlessly adapt to diverse languages, accents, speech abilities.

As these innovations progress, an open dialogue is key. Designers, developers, legal experts, and diverse communities must collaborate. This is how inclusive design standards and best practices will take shape. It’s the only way to ensure no one gets left behind.

Ultimately, Inclusive Design Is Human-Centered Design

Design inclusive for everyone represents the evolution of technology becoming truly centered on diverse human needs by default. While certainly an ambitious goal with challenges ahead, it’s a shared responsibility we all have to help shape a more equitable and innovative digital future through inclusive practices.

Uitop is a digital design agency that specializes in helping companies across industries embed inclusive design principles into their online channels. Our team of UX/UI experts will work closely with you to conduct user research, map out unique needs, and design digital products that delight all users, regardless of ability, language, age, culture, or situation.

Contact us to start your inclusive design journey!

by Ivan Klyzhenko
UX Startup Advisor, Uitop

FAQs

What's the difference between inclusive design and accessibility?

Accessibility focuses specifically on making apps usable for people with disabilities. Inclusive design takes a broader view. It accounts for all types of human diversity — disabilities, language, age, culture, situations, and more. Accessibility is one part of inclusive design’s holistic approach.

Why is inclusive design so important now?

Digital technology plays a huge role in modern life — for communication, work, learning, accessing services, and more. Inclusive design ensures these online experiences don’t leave entire segments of the population behind due to disability, language barriers, age, or any other factors. It’s about equal opportunity in our digital world.

How can companies implement inclusive design practices?

Start with in-depth user research into diverse needs. Establish accessibility standards as default requirements. Design adaptable, multi-modal experiences. Make inclusion a cross-functional team effort involving designers, developers, legal experts, and users with disabilities. It takes a holistic, integrated approach.

What's the future of inclusive design?

As new technologies like AI, voice interfaces, and AR emerge, inclusive design will be crucial for ensuring ethical, equitable adoption that doesn’t leave people behind. Open collaboration between various disciplines and communities will shape inclusive standards for digital innovation.

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