In the 1989 sports fantasy drama, Field of Dreams, the protagonist, Ray Kinsella, walks through his Iowa cornfield one evening and hears a voice telling him “If you build it, he will come.” At the same time, he sees the apparition of a deceased baseball player, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, appear before him. Taking a staggering leap of faith, he builds a baseball field, and – spoiler alert if you’ve not seen the film – eventually, a full team of ghost baseball players from the past appear from the surrounding corn fields and join together to play. The field and phantasmic phenomena draw crowds from far and wide.
This great film shares a similar fantasy with many of today’s companies that build new technologies with the hope they will draw in enthusiastic crowds. While many build with the assumption that their technology will work for most people, they are missing an opportunity if they do not think about serving people with disabilities (PWD) from the start. Without the input of everyone who will consume their products, firms make assumptions and try to meet the basics of WCAG standards. The reality of this approach falls short in many ways, as it:
Puts companies in a reactive mode and misses the opportunity to design delight for the broadest set of users, including those with disabilities
Means that companies will inevitably need to correct for accessibility and inclusive design oversights later in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), an expensive and inefficient way to build digital products
Spotlights brand clumsiness where an opportunity for customer loyalty once stood
There’s a simple way around all of this. It takes courage, the willingness to take that first step of a long journey, and a sea change in organizational attitude.
Design for “wow” now
In The Return on Disability Group’s “2020 Global Economics of Disability” report, author Rich Donovan drives home several impactful points about PWD and their friends and family. Worldwide estimates put the PWD community around 1.85 billion people. Include their family and friends and that adds another 3.3 billion potential customers who may consume products due to their emotional connection with PWD. Together, disability touches approximately 73% of consumers.
Users experience your products and services through their individual lenses of how they interact with people and objects. Donovan goes on to say that companies and organizations have the opportunity to make users – all users – say “wow” when they experience your product. When companies pay attention to the experiences of PWD in terms of how they interact with their products, they tap into a gold vein of product and process design insight. Insight that can lead to wow.
Move from an audit mentality to proactively embrace disability’s gift to product development
Twenty-three years ago in his book “Nothing About Us Without Us,” supporting the disability rights movement, James Charlton, backed by substantial research, made the emphatic point that people with disabilities know what is best for themselves. Today, we know that they not only know what is best for themselves, they know what is best for companies attempting to serve them. This is why companies must change the way they think about their entire development process, and before that, change the way they think about disability. Just as we appreciate our friends and colleagues who bring unique points of view, even direct challenges to our way of thinking, so should we openly invite the opportunity for product and service improvement offered by involving PWD in the design process.
Innovation that flows from PWD’s input into the SDLC and back into the market improves the product experiences for all users. Why? At some time all of us experience a disability, even if just temporary. A consumer without hearing loss is on a noisy train and requires captions, for example. Beyond the issue of temporary disability, innovating through PWD input helps everyone all the time. For example, if you remove pop-ups at the end of a checkout process to aid a neurodivergent person’s user experience, everyone benefits from the elimination of annoying distraction – particularly at a critical point in the shopping experience.
Companies that succeed in shifting away from thinking about accessibility and inclusivity as a compliance audit start by understanding that it is an ongoing process, one that does not happen overnight and where progress reigns over perfection. Most importantly, they understand the point that James Charlton promoted years ago. Don’t design for people without involving them in your planning.
Inclusive design is gaining traction with leading brands
The “2020 Global Economics of Disability” report makes the point that design has overtaken compliance as the focus for leaders in disability markets, changing which actions are prioritized and which teams own success. We see this at Applause, as we regularly work with major brands who have shifted their thinking, culture and processes toward inclusive design. Beyond just meeting WCAG requirements, firms are beginning to understand that compliance does not mean delight. Compliance rarely makes a user say “wow,” and it doesn’t require that companies involve PWD in the planning and design phases early in the SDLC.
Donovan ends his report with the key point that insights must be incorporated into design and that design is an ongoing, iterative process. Based on what we do every day at Applause with our clients working in inclusive design, nothing could be more true. In addition, one of the most poignant things we witness in our inclusive design work happens when development staff sit face-to-face with a person who struggles to use their product. The user’s anonymity is transformed into a real person. Developers regularly report how difficult it is to watch what you have built create such frustration for a customer.
Disability focus in all we do
As March is National Disability Awareness Month, it’s important that we consider how what we contribute to the world impacts everyone. We cannot make broad assumptions about how people interact with our products. Gaining direct input and creating empathy in development teams is key to accessing the massive global PWD population, building experiences that make them feel the wow, and establishing new and lasting relationships and loyalty.
Our inclusive design clients offer advice to organizations that want to build a culture of inclusivity. They say start small, but start. Get executive buy-in, then reach out thoughtfully to other groups. Train teams and develop inclusivity champions. Celebrate the small successes with a renewed conviction to understand disability. Know that major change takes time, but progress can happen every day. Most importantly, it is only through understanding how all people use your product that you can create delight.
Learn more on this topic in our ebook, “Shift Left and Build Empathy Through Inclusive Design.”