inclusive interfaces jmind article

What are inclusive interfaces, and why developing them benefits everyone?

The idea of inclusive design is quite simple. The interface should be as accessible as possible to meet the needs of people with individual differences, both permanent and temporary.

Hanzhenko-business jmind

Michael Hanzhenko

Design Department Lead
21 April 2021ux, ui, design

Everyone is familiar with this situation. You need to use your smartphone with one hand because you hold your purchases in the second one. But it is uncomfortable, and your thumb does not reach so easily to the desired icon on the screen. The reason is that the manufacturers designed the interface for the "average person."

As a rule, this user is a 30-year-old white man weighing about 70 kg. Most goods are developed for this person: starting from household items and interfaces and finishing with some medicines. As you have already understood, this method does not work for a vast number of users. In IT, inclusive interface design solves this problem. 

What is the essence of inclusive design?

The idea of inclusive design is quite simple. The interface should be as accessible as possible to meet the needs of people with individual differences, both permanent and temporary. Here you might have a question: what are temporary needs? Let's go back to the example above. Let's say you broke your arm, and you can only use one for a while. For some time, your needs will be the same as the needs of the person who doesn't have one arm. Consequently, the product designed for him or her will work for you as well. 

If we take an example for our theme, we should consider fonts. Lately, many designers have chosen to use a gray font on a black background. Of course, it looks beautiful, but only a user with good eyesight can appreciate it, while others can't see it. And this includes both people with poor eyesight due to age or health condition and your colleagues, who just may have -2 or -3. 

That is, inclusive interfaces don't just solve a problem for a group of people with special needs — they make the product universal, meeting many people's needs at once.

The concept of universal design is by no means new. It was first formulated by the American architect Ronald L. Mace. According to him, designers should not make different versions of the product for other groups of users but should initially develop it, not focusing on one average person. For example, if any user who enters your site understands what and where to find on it, and this process does not make them uncomfortable, you have done your job well and created an inclusive product.

Here's another example to reinforce this idea. Let's compare the Dot Watch and the Apple Watch Series 4. The first one uses Braille and is suitable exclusively for blind or visually impaired people. Yes, it is certainly a useful device. But only for one category of users, who also can read Braille. In turn, the Apple Watch Series 4, designed for everyone, can notify the emergency service if the user has fallen or is immobilized. This feature is ideal for the elderly or those with limited mobility. Still, any of us can find ourselves in such a situation, making the watch universal for all users. I.e., inclusive.

Inclusive interface design principles

The World Wide Web Consortium (aka W3C) in its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines proposes four main inclusive design properties — perceivable, understandable, robust, and operable. Let's elaborate on each of them. 

  • Perceivable

All users should have access to the product in the most convenient way, taking into account their individual needs. For instance, people with hearing impairments need subtitles to watch videos comfortably. Automatic subtitles on YouTube, for example, are not very helpful because they lack the accuracy of the translation. At the same time, Netflix orders them in different languages and allows playing videos at various speeds if the user does not have enough time to read.

And voice assistant is very helpful for people with visual impairments. It can both read out the news and make purchases using voice commands. 

  • Understandable

The content of the interface should be understandable without additional research. The ideal text is one that a fifth-grader can understand. You should write it as simply as possible, without trying to make it sound like an outline from the penal code. To check if your content is understandable, you can use the Gunning fog index and Flesch-Kincaid tests. With the former, you can determine how easy it is to read your text. The second tells you how many grades of education your potential reader needs to have to understand the text on the first try.

  • Robust

The product must remain stable and usable regardless of updates. Many ordinary users do not update applications or operating systems because they think they will work worse, and some features will disappear. Now imagine how people with special needs might be scared of this. Let's say you updated your navigator with the voice guidance feature and found out that its usual pre-installed "voice" has disappeared completely. It takes much effort for you to activate it, but it can be a real ordeal for someone else.

  • Operable

The developer should always allow people to use the interface in any way that is convenient for them. Thus, Siri helps ordinary users access the necessary content faster and solves the problems of visually impaired people and those who cannot fully use a smartphone with their hands.

Of course, some might think that developing an inclusive interface is expensive and not worth the resources. Compliance with W3C recommendations alone can take a very long time, and an expert's work to comply with these standards can cost a lot. But suppose you divide the areas of responsibility between experienced developers and designers and conduct full-rate research. In that case, you can save much money and end up with a product that will significantly expand your target audience and, therefore, your profits.

How inclusive interfaces are implemented in the world

Around the world, many large companies already use inclusive design when developing their application interfaces. Google, Microsoft, and Apple remain the unchanged leaders in this, of course. 

For example, Google often releases updates for people with special needs that can be useful to everyone. Thus, the Live Edits feature in Google Docs was initially designed for users with visual impairments. This option allows you to stay aware of changes made to a document by other people. It is also compatible with different screen readers and Braille displays, the sidebar of which can describe all edits in real-time or read those made by other users.

In addition to the aforementioned watch example, Apple is also trying to diversify its devices' input methods. The company adds more accessible input actions — voice commands or the movement of a human body part — as a bonus to the already available button presses, touches, or clicks. 

The entertainment industry is also keeping up with inclusion trends. Perhaps the most striking representative here is Netflix, whose interface is ideally suited for visually impaired users due to its contrast and convenient and understandable layout. And even more: in many videos, it is possible to select a voiceover with an audio description so that the viewer can listen to the dialogues and know what is happening on the screen.

In the banking sector, the British Barclays was the strongest performer. Accessibility for many categories of users is written into the bank's strategy. For this, Barclays has been recognized many times by AbilityNet, a British organization that provides consulting services to promote inclusivity. The Barclays mobile app allows you to customize the colors on the screen, supports Voiceover technology, uses multiple login methods, and allows you to make video calls to the support service directly from the app. In this way, mobile banking becomes accessible to many people with individual needs at once — both permanent and temporary.

  The bottom line: is it worth it?

In its guide to inclusive design, Microsoft reminds us that one of the most important tasks of a designer is to anticipate how their work will affect human-society interactions because it is at their intersection that disability is born. Failure to think through these interactions can lead to physical and social isolation, and it is this problem that inclusive interface design addresses. It should not be a point for consideration at future meetings of your team — it should be your philosophy. Of course, implementation will be complicated and time-consuming. But over time, everyone will learn to consider all possible use cases in the product concept. 

Inclusive design is already becoming a trend — don't miss your chance to stay in demand. After all, by observing the principles of inclusivity, you do not just help people with disabilities but show them that they are equal, just like everyone else. 

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