Designing with empathy: the cost of human exclusion
A view from Richard Neish

Designing with empathy: the cost of human exclusion

Every one of us is susceptible to impairment. This isn't 'their' problem. This is our problem.

As the recession creeps from front pages to bottom lines and isolation dramatically increases screen time, many businesses remain ignorant to the lost commercial opportunity from inaccessible platforms and experiences.

The spending power of disabled households (known as the purple pound) is worth £249bn to a recovering economy, with 20% of the UK population having a disability. One in five UK adult consumers are impaired, yet we measure the value of a market blinkered to the activity of its buyers, ignorant of the audiences unwittingly excluded.

If the commercial cost can be measured, so too can the human cost.

Cognitive overload (excess processing) takes a sobering toll on at-risk audiences. Poor interaction design is the cause of considerable anxiety and intimidation – a recent Kin & Carta testing study observed the crippling reaction to a user experiencing excess cognitive load: "Imagine being so stressed that you can’t deal with anything else going on that day. It’s an information explosion. You’ve reached your limit. You can’t and won’t process any more information."

Many impairments worsen over the course of a day. Each new, unique interaction can cause stress, frustration and information overload for the user. The more extraneous cognitive load a user experiences, the harder it is for them to absorb new information and keep track of their goals.

Learned behaviours are important for any user, but participants with specific conditions show a strong reliance on easy-to-use, easy-to-remember pattern recognition. Using globally consistent layouts for navigation and ecommerce baskets, such as the metronome design cues of Amazon, removes barriers. Performance matters too: slow load speeds with intrusive, lazy loading can create aural clutter on screen and confuse users.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which were initially a step forward, have exacerbated the problem by creating a compliance culture. If compliance had a name, it would be Nigel (forgive me, Nigels) – resplendent in beige Farah slacks with the power to stamp "Pass" or "Fail". Nigel isn’t there to embrace and understand the problem. He’s there to police the lowest common denominator; the MOT of platform accessibility. Responsibility is abdicated.

To move from compliance to compassion and understand inclusive design, we have to start from the premise that each and every one of us is susceptible to impairment. This isn’t "their" problem. This is our problem. 

If you have one arm, you are permanently impaired. Clear case. If you have an injured arm, your impairment is temporary; and if you are carrying luggage, you have situational impairment. In each of these cases, the provenance of the problem is different, but the symptoms are consistent. Likewise, you may be colour-blind, viewing from distance or in bright sunlight. If we can remove the stigma that associates accessibility with niche audiences, we can more readily value environments that can be accessed and used by as many people as possible, regardless of age, gender or ability – the very foundations of inclusive design.

Action is a choice best taken. 

If your brand’s commitments to inclusion are more than filler content for your company report, you have an obligation to educate and challenge your teams to value inclusion as a business outcome. You have a duty to understand the value of the audience you are excluding.

Create a seat at the table. Not to govern the application of accessibility guidelines (sorry, Nigel), but to pursue the commercial benefit of inclusive design, understanding that fixing a problem for a restricted customer fixes a problem for all. Google, as an example, ranks websites with accessibility techniques included in metadata, content, visual design and development higher in its organic search. 

Brands have the power to influence. You can change the behaviours of your partners and suppliers by standing for inclusivity and insisting on the behavioural change that will deliver it.

So solidify that commitment. The growing ranks of B Corp-certified businesses stand testament to the increasing value consumers and employees place on inclusive and sustainable business. Positive impact and the equal value placed on people, planet and profit is a powerful framework for change. 

Then evolve the workplace. No-one understands a mental or physical disability more than someone who has experienced it. Our tech communities are enriched by high levels of autism in developers – brilliant minds working in brilliant ways. But how brilliant are we at championing this inclusion and embracing it in our offices and studios? How malleable are our workplaces and cultures to the simple adjustments that make a huge difference? Noise-cancelling headphones for our autistic colleagues is the difference between inclusion and exclusion, cognitive paralysis and creative productivity. The smallest measures go a long way.

What we value physically, we must value virtually. Inclusive design is a brand’s ability to access audiences they didn’t know they were excluding. Choose inclusion and choose it now.

Richard Neish is managing director at Kin & Carta Connect