Inclusive Design: A better experience for everyone

Last year, I wrote a post about easy first steps for working accessible design into your process. Recently, I’ve been thinking more about accessibility and wanted to discuss a related topic, inclusive design.

Inclusive design is a way of thinking about your design process that makes your products usable to a wider range of people in different circumstances, and with different abilities. When we include a wider range of people in our design process from the start, we end up with experiences that are better for everyone.

Inclusive design is not quite the same as making your products accessible, although it should have that outcome. When we talk about accessibility, it entails making sure people with disabilities can have access to the information somehow. Sometimes that is implemented by making a separate experience or by adding fixes at the last minute. With inclusive design you ensure that those needs are addressed throughout the design process, giving one solution for all.

Accessibility: Making your site/product accessible to people with disabilities by meeting certain criteria.

Inclusive Design:

A design methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity (Microsoft).

The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible…without the need for special adaptation or specialized design (University of Cambridge).

I think it is also useful to talk about how we think about and define “disability.” In 1980, the World Health Organization defined disability as a personal attribute:

“In the context of health experience, a disability is any restriction or lack of ability (resulting from an impairment) to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.”

In 2001, they updated their definition to be context-dependent, not an individual problem:

“Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”

Why inclusive design

If we make this shift to thinking about making our products usable to a wide range of people with a wide range of abilities, we will be excluding fewer people by making our designs work for people with permanent, temporary, or changing disabilities. This includes people with disabilities, but it also includes a parent holding a baby with one arm and using a phone with their free hand, people in a loud room, someone at work who can’t turn on sound, a person wearing a cast, and even ourselves as we age.

When done properly, you can end up with exciting features that make the experience better for most of your users and possible for some. Let’s take some real world examples:

  • Curb cuts were created for people with wheelchairs, but they are useful for people with strollers, cyclists who need to get off the street, shopping carts, etc.
  • OXO brand utensils were created by Sam Farber, the founder, for his wife with arthritis and were originally marketed towards people with disabilities. Today, many of their products are international best sellers because they are easy and pleasant to use for everyone.
  • The Washington Post and Medium both upped their body copy font size to 20 and 21 respectively. Larger font sizes increase readability, scannability, and usability. At Cloudberry we are starting to recommend 18-20px as the base font size.
  • Handicap door openers is another one that was first put in place to give access to people in wheelchairs, but they are useful to everyone! Whether you are carrying a large box, wrangling your kids, or just don’t like touching door handles, they are a great invention.

Implementing inclusive design

Inclusive design is not as simple as adjusting colors to ensure high contrast, or adding meaningful alt tags to images (although that’s part of it). It is really a different way of approaching design. It is important to incorporate inclusive design in all stages of your product lifecycle:

Research – Include people with different levels of ability in your research. Include questions about that in your interviews. Actually having an active conversation with people with disabilities (people who might interact with the world differently than you) is very different than reading about it. Not only do you gain a better understanding through dialogue, but it also helps create the empathy for groups who are different than we are which we need as UX designers.

Analysis – Create diverse personas. In all of your personas, have a section dedicated to diversity that can include areas such as; Ability, Aptitude, Attitude, and Assistive Technology. If you need somewhere to start, check out Barclay’s diverse personas.

Design – Make sure to refer back to your research findings and personas when making feature, interaction, and design decisions. When you do your user testing as part of the design process, try to include people with different levels of ability in your sessions.

Development – Make sure to follow all the best practices for accessibility while doing coding.


Our understanding of disabilities has evolved over time, so our design process should evolve to allow better accessibility as well. Making inclusive design part of your process will inherently make your products more accessible for people with disabilities, and at the same time, it will make your products easier to use for everyone else.

Categories: Experience Design, Visual Design
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