The Ethical Imperative of Inclusive Design

In From Accessible Design to Universal Design, Beth Williamson explores the evolution from accessible design specifically for people with disabilities to universal design – an approach to design that benefits a broader range of people. This shift has had a profound effect on interaction designers, whose work increasingly defines the interfaces and experiences in everyday digital and physical interactions. Today, interaction designers have a core responsibility to not only create usable interfaces, but also to ensure that these designs are accessible and inclusive for everyone, regardless of ability or circumstance.

The primary responsibility of interaction designers is ethical. Design choices can have a significant impact on people’s lives, either bringing opportunities or creating barriers. For example, when a website lacks alternative text to images, it excludes users who rely on screen readers from accessing information. Similarly, a mobile application that does not take color blindness into account may make navigation difficult or impossible for those affected. It is therefore incumbent on interaction designers to take into account the different needs of all potential users in order to prevent exclusion. In addition to ethical considerations, there are legal and regulatory reasons for adopting universal design. Different jurisdictions have enacted laws requiring digital accessibility. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States has been interpreted to apply to both digital products and physical spaces. If the design is not inclusive, the organization faces legal risks and potential financial penalties. As a result, interaction designers must not only be creators, but also guardians of compliance, ensuring that their designs meet applicable standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Universal design is more than just a social or legal requirement; it makes good business sense. By designing for all users, companies can reach a wider audience, increase customer satisfaction, and foster brand loyalty among people who may be overlooked by other competitors. For example, features such as voice control, originally designed for users with physical disabilities, are now more widely available to the general public. Interaction designers play a pivotal role in driving innovation that, while initially focused on accessibility, leads to features that improve the experience for all users. Interaction designers can incorporate universal design principles into their work by following four practical steps. Start with diverse user testing, such as involving people with a variety of disabilities in user testing to uncover usability issues that may not be obvious to those without disabilities. Then stay up-to-date on the latest accessibility guidelines and tools, as well as emerging technologies that can help create more inclusive designs. Consider the full range of human diversity in the design process, including age, ability, language, culture, gender, and other forms of human difference. Work closely with accessibility experts, advocates, and people with disabilities at the end to gather insights and feedback.

The shift from accessible to universal design is not just a shift in the way we think about users with disabilities, but a broadening of our understanding of usability and design aesthetics. Interaction designers play a critical role in this shift. By embracing universal design principles, they can ensure that their work is accessible to everyone, thus fulfilling a fundamental professional responsibility to make technology usable, enjoyable, and accessible. This approach not only enriches the lives of individual users, but also benefits society by promoting inclusion and equality.