Our digital design choices are excluding disabled people
A view from Hilary Stephenson

Our digital design choices are excluding disabled people

Brands have a legal and moral obligation to make sure the designs of their websites and digital platforms are accessible to everyone.

In recent years, people and businesses have woken up to the importance of accessibility.

Disabled Access Day – which takes place tomorrow, Saturday 16 March – was established in 2015 to celebrate and encourage "good" access and has since triggered organisations such as Barclays to help stress the importance of accessible spaces by hosting #AccessDay events. Just last year, National Rail received a £300m funding injection to help make train stations across the country more disabled-friendly.

Much of this has, quite rightly, been focused on physical access. But there is another force at play in the fight for equal opportunity and one that is often neglected: digital inclusion. 

Too many websites still have barriers to access that make it difficult – even impossible – for people with disabilities to use. Our latest report highlighted worryingly low levels of accessibility awareness across the UK. For instance, 41% of organisations questioned showed low or basic understanding of what is required to accommodate for someone with severe autism.

A recent investigation discovered that a third of council websites in the UK are not accessible for disabled people. From booking travel to accessing vital health services, poor digital design is leaving millions of vulnerable users confused, alienated and often severely isolated.

While efforts are being made to resolve this situation, with government funding set to help disabled and elderly individuals develop their digital skills, more needs to be done to make the online world accessible to all.

This can be achieved in a variety of ways:

  • In search results, make it easier for people to make a choice by using groupings to simplify how the results are presented

  • Consider the digital skills of those accessing a website, removing any barriers to engagement. Ask them for feedback regularly to ensure any alterations are fit for purpose

  • Constrain choices and actions so that people aren’t overwhelmed by too many options 

  • Use those popular or common search terms to tag different relevant pieces of information

  • In navigation, give people quick routes to the information they need and minimise the number of steps needed to complete an action so that people can achieve their goals quickly and easily

  • Make content easy to understand. Try to use the language that people use themselves to describe their situation or challenge

  • Make design choices in the typography and use of colour that make content more legible, easier to digest and scan quickly

  • Living with an impairment, disability or health issue of any kind should never exclude people from accessing the same online and digital services as everyone else. Therefore, going forward, more businesses need to take the above changes into consideration and start implementing them throughout their digital platforms as soon as possible.

    The recently approved European Accessibility act will also be a major step forward in encouraging people to think about inclusion when they procure and build new digital tools and online services.

    However, it is important that designers do not just copy and paste accessible features over the top of a previously existing design. This will never be as effective as tailored coding and will suggest accessibility is an afterthought as opposed to a necessary element of design. If this is taken into consideration, we can expect to see the country’s level of digital inclusivity greatly improve.

    Hilary Stephenson is managing director at user experience design agency Sigma