ARTICLE: Julee Peterson

Inclusive design: why EdTech companies should go beyond compliance

EdTech companies are currently scrambling to design products that meet the needs of people with a range of abilities.

This push toward inclusivity comes in the wake of a rash of ADA lawsuits in 2018. (As we reported in a recent white paper, the EdTech industry saw a 700% increase in legal suits around ADA compliance in Q4 of 2018 alone.) Clearly, ADA compliance is a necessary first step when it comes to creating EdTech products that are functionally inclusive. But ultimately, mere compliance is just that—the first step toward truly inclusive UX design.

Truly inclusive product design aims to create products that work seamlessly for all people, in all situations. This may seem like a tall order, but it really should be your company’s goal. Not only is it an ethical imperative, but it’s good for business, too. That’s because inclusive design yields globally usable, accessible, and compliant products that have the potential to elevate your brand and give you and your organization a competitive advantage.

Inclusive design is the right thing to do — not only for your users, but for your business.

Defining Inclusive Design

Inclusive design goes beyond ADA compliance and looks holistically at users’ needs, preferences, and contexts as they relate to their use of a product. In doing so, inclusive designers recognize that there are plenty of “situational impairments” that have an effect on users regardless of disability status.

Situational impairments include all the ways a user’s experience with your product might be temporarily impacted by the particulars of their present situation. This includes everything from the hardware and software they use to the environment they are in (indoors in low light vs. outdoors in bright light, in a loud cafeteria vs. a quiet study hall) and the activities they may be doing while simultaneously using your product (sitting at a desk, walking across campus, riding on the subway, or holding a sandwich in one hand).

Other examples of situational impairments include reduced screen brightness (for example, when a device is in low-battery mode), limited mobility (due to an injury or even an activity, such as holding a baby in one arm), and using a computer without a mouse or functioning trackpad.

Situational impairments like these can and should be addressed in product design and testing to ensure that your product is truly ready to meet users where they are. Properly doing so will touch on every level, stage and process of a product’s design, from the visual design to user workflows and the content itself. For example, inclusive UX design for an ecommerce clothing site may mean including models in wheelchairs so that wheelchair-bound users can see what the clothing looks like in that context.

The beauty is that improving products from the more narrow perspectives offered by these impairments ends up improving the experience for everyone. And a better experience means happier users—and a more successful product.

Inclusive UX Design Begins with Empathy

So what’s the secret ingredient to successful inclusive design? It’s not just having a checklist of possible impairments at the ready. And it’s not just about doing the right user testing that draws on a diverse group of users in multiple environments. Those things are good and helpful, but inclusive design must first and foremost be grounded in a strong sense of empathy for your users.

In that regard, having an awareness of the problem is half the battle.

You see, it’s easy for folks to get caught up in their own biases without even noticing it. We often make the assumption that if a product works well for us—with our particular set of abilities and limitations—then it must be user-friendly.

For example, a young, able-bodied product owner may not be inherently mindful of how to treat colors in a visual design so that there is a high enough contrast for users with poor eyesight or color blindness to find the content legible (or to discern an information hierarchy if color is the only signifier).

You must have empathy for your users in order to throw away biases and embrace inclusive design.

The good news is that there are many ways to build empathy. Observe users with impairments using your product to see how usable (or unusable) it is for them. Put yourself in their shoes; “blindfold” yourself and turn on your computer’s screen reader and try to use your product effectively. The information you glean from these studies will guide the way toward greater empathy and inclusivity.

Or, for more in-depth advice about bringing inclusivity into your product design process, check out Microsoft’s Inclusive: A Design Toolkit.

Inclusive UX Design Principles: What Does Success Look Like?

Ultimately, inclusive UX design is simply good design that takes all of a product’s potential users into consideration. But there are a few key components to keep in mind:

  • Inclusively designed products shouldn’t remind people that they have an impairment. That’s true whether the impairment is a permanent disability or a temporary issue, like walking from a bright courtyard into a dimly lit coffee shop. Rather, inclusive design should allow users to forget their impairments or—in the case of some situational impairments—never even notice them in the first place.
  • When it comes to workflows, separate but equal won’t cut it. Creating separate or alternate workflows isn’t inclusive—nor is it likely to lead to a seamless user experience. The needs of all users should be considered from the outset as a product’s workflows are designed.
  • Successful inclusive design starts with your team’s mindset. When we stop thinking about accessibility as a box we need to check, but rather as an inherent part of product design, that all but ensures success. This may look like having regular conversations about how to design the “not-so-important” subtext on a page for all user types, or team members bringing inclusively designed benchmarking examples to the larger group as models for flows and patterns.

Get Ahead of the Curve: Inclusive Design as an Opportunity for EdTech Companies

From a philosophical standpoint, EdTech companies should be all in on inclusive design. After all, EdTech companies know the value of education, and our products are meant to facilitate the instruction and learning of a diverse body of instructors and students. If we want education to be accessible to everyone (a lofty and important goal), then EdTech products need to be fully accessible, too.

Paying special attention to inclusivity is a meaningful way to set your EdTech product apart. In the end, inclusive design is the right thing to do—not only for your users, but for your business.

  • Photo of Julee Peterson
    Julee Peterson

    As Senior UX Designer / Accessibility Lead at Openfield, Julee brings a tireless dedication to creating stellar user experiences that work for ALL users by leading our efforts to stay at the forefront of ADA compliance and inclusive design practices. She holds a Master of Science in User Experience Design from Kent State University. Outside of the office, Julee enjoys cruising on her motorcycle when the weather’s nice, gardening and furthering her love of cooking and baking with challenging new recipes. She is currently satisfying her thirst to learn new things by teaching herself to play the cello and speak Korean. 반갑습니다!

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