Inclusive Design is a key frontier in web design and may have a significant impact on the number of customers you reach

As the Covid-19 epidemic has forced many of us to retreat to our homes over the last six months, some for extended periods of time, the quality of the digital experiences available to us has become more important than ever. As our world becomes increasingly digitalised, with more products and services migrating entirely online every day, it is crucial that as many people as possible remain able to access them.

One in five people in the UK currently live with an impairment that could make it difficult for them to access websites and apps, experiencing limitations in their vision, hearing, physical movement and dexterity or cognitive processing, and this number is only likely to increase as the age profile of the population continues to get older. Despite this overwhelming need, Inclusive Design remains a relatively niche topic in customer experience discussions, and around 70% of websites in the UK are estimated to be either wholly or partially inaccessible for users with an impairment or disability. Perhaps partially as a result of this, around a quarter of disabled adults in the UK have never used the internet.

While one in five of us has a permanent disability, a third of us will have an impairment at any given point in time – for example from a temporary injury – and everybody will experience periodic situational impairments, such as when we are in a very loud environment or need to interact with content in a language we don’t speak fluently. Despite this overwhelming demand for websites to be accessible to people with a range of impairments, very few are designed optimally, or with inclusivity specifically in mind. That also means that there is a potentially huge untapped market open to any brand that does make their online presence widely accessible. In fact, research shows that products and services designed with the needs of people experiencing poverty, disability or the effects of ageing in mind can reach four times the intended number of consumers, significantly impacting the bottom line. The Papworth Trust found that the people most likely to be living with a disability are those over state pension age, suggesting that as our population ages, inclusivity will become an increasingly important CX consideration for websites.

The Inclusive Design process begins with including people who normally have trouble using products, services or websites in the design process, and having them test iterations before a final version goes live. It involves asking for feedback from customers (as well as those who have previously been excluded) and making appropriate adaptations as a result. It also involves design teams adapting their mindset, so that inclusivity is not considered a bolt-on part of the design process but is instead considered automatically at every stage.

What do inclusively designed websites look like? Firstly, they do not assume that a one-size-fits-all customer experience exists, but target experiences based on the individual customer’s needs. While assistive devices have for many years aimed to remove barriers and enable users to interact with a one-size-fits-all product, Inclusive Design aims to redesign that product so that those barriers do not exist. Sometimes this involves utilising functionality that has already existed for years – Alt text, for example, wasn’t originally primarily used to improve a website’s SEO, but to make non-textual content parsable for screen readers. Sometimes, it involves fundamentally rethinking how information is displayed, to ensure that every page is easy to navigate and understand. An accessible website will rarely have a cluttered design, and will make use of large navigation buttons and text, so that it remains accessible on a variety of devices and screen sizes, as well as to people with a range of physical or mental health needs. It will make good use of keyboard shortcuts and make transcripts available for audio material. In short, it will as a default present information in a manner that is accessible to as many users as possible and will provide alternative formats where this is not possible.

This shouldn’t need to come at the expense of aesthetics, in fact the opposite is the case: an inclusively designed site will often conform to basic design principles better than its overly cluttered counterparts. The Royal National Institute for the Blind stated this well, when they said that “well designed graphics and multimedia are a positive aid to using and understanding websites, and do not need to be sacrificed for accessibility”. The Arts CouncilSkinOwl and Apple websites are some that Inclusive Design advocates have put forward as best practice examples of sites that are both widely accessible and beautifully-designed.

It has been said that CX is made up of three core components – success, effort, and emotion, and that improvements in emotion drive the most significant increases in loyalty. If every interaction with a brand’s website results in frustration or embarrassment, it is easy to understand how this can negatively impact loyalty to that brand. Conversely, a seamless process that makes customers feel truly included is likely to result in significantly improved brand perception.