Digital inclusivity is a crucial part of experience design, but how can brands get it right? Issy Everett has some pointers.

Brand owners and designers share a common mission: to contribute positively – and, if possible, improve – the lives of all the people who use them. Success depends on being inclusive to and accessible for all. And the good news in today’s digital world is that there have never been so many tools to be so, and inclusive and accessible brands benefit us all.

Awareness of the importance of a digital world accessible to all is growing, fast. This is thanks in part to the pandemic, which accelerated many organisations’ digital transformation, made many people familiar with conducting more of their lives digitally, and highlighted the importance of bridging the digital divide and combatting digital exclusion.

The digital divide

In the UK, an estimated two million households struggle to afford internet access. Some 10 million people lack the most basic digital skills. However, digital exclusion is not just a question of internet access.

While the number of older people online significantly increased during the pandemic, many older people struggle online to do what they want or need. Some 31% of older people struggled to know what links to select online, for example, and 63% found the visual design and layout of websites confusing.

Many websites remain inaccessible to disabled people. In the US, 8,000 Americans with Disabilities Act Title III lawsuits filed with federal courts between 2017 and 2020 – a number that jumped 14.3% to 2,352 lawsuits in 2021 alone, one US accessibility campaign group claims.

Some 98% of the million most-visited web pages didn’t conform to international accessibility standards, according to one recent study. And when asked how they felt about the state of internet accessibility today, only 39.3% of people said it was more accessible than in previous years, while 42.3% said nothing had changed and 18.5% said it was worse.

As important as people’s access to the internet, then, are digital products’ inclusivity and accessibility, and responsibility for both sits squarely in the lap of brand owners and the designers working with them.

Inclusive design and accessible design

Digitally-inclusive brands are inclusive and accessible to all irrespective of users’ age, ethnicity, or disability. They consider inclusivity and accessibility not as an afterthought or a nice-to-have but, where possible, as an integral part of the entire design process. In short, they are inclusive by good design.

Inclusive design removes bias and assumptions so that users don’t feel excluded due to disability or other impairment, demographics, or other long- or short-term circumstances. Accessible design removes barriers to entry for people with disabilities and other impairments.

Digitally-inclusive brands are those that apply this both to their brand or product design and the design of any and every associated user experience. And they do so by focusing on four broad areas: imagery, copy, interaction methods, and visual design.

Four areas of focus

Inclusive brands ensure diverse representation in imagery – photography, illustrations, and artwork – across their web sites and apps, working hard to challenge negative stereotypes, as Airbnb did in 2018 when it overhauled its image bank to better reflect the diversity of its worldwide users.

They also pay close attention to the language. For example, they favour simple, clear and easily understood words and phrases – an approach neatly demonstrated by Monzo’s approach to the wording it uses, including its personal account terms and conditions.

Being concise also has other benefits, however – for everyone.

These include being easier to understand when in a language other than a user’s native tongue; when a user is having content read to them by a screen reader or audio transcription – an approach championed by Procter & Gamble; or when someone simply opts to listen not read because they’re multitasking or on the move.

Inclusive brands also pay close attention to how users interact with them, using this knowledge to make available a variety of interaction methods.

They include rather than exclude those who are visually impaired, for example, or who are unable to use a mouse, button, or touchscreen swipe. This can be by offering additional modes of interaction including braille readers that translate a screen, text-to-speech tools, and eye-tracking.

Finally, inclusive brands work to make their visual design accessible – optimising the contrast of different visual elements, such as colour of copy against colour of background – in accordance with standards such as 508, ADA and WCAG, which are intended to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.

The five principles of digitally-inclusive brands

Any brand can become more digitally inclusive by adhering to five core principles:

1. Diversify internally

Make your internal teams as diverse as possible to understand the wants and needs of all segments of your audience.

Ensure all inclusion and accessibility considerations are factored in from the design stage.

Trial your designs with test groups that are as diverse as possible – and do so simultaneously, rather than prioritising the able-bodied – and across as many devices and different interaction modes as possible.

2. Educate

Ensure all within your organisation understand why it is important to make a brand or design inclusive and accessible to get the maximum buy-in that’s needed for the effort required.

Employees are less likely to engage if they don’t understand why. At the same time, consider testing your employees’ internal and unconscious biases to identify weak areas and then address them.

3. Tool up

There are many tools now available to gauge the inclusivity and accessibility of the brands and products you design – tools to check the accessibility of colours and contrast, for example, or to show how a design would look to someone who is visually impaired.

Use them.

4. Do what you can

While the ideal is to design to be inclusive and accessible from day one, doing even just a little bit is better than doing nothing.

Pledge to be accessible from the get-go when designing your next product, for example. Then go back and retrofit where you can, as and when you have the time and budget to do so.

5. Adjust your mindset

Don’t assume inclusive and accessible design is necessarily clunky. Or, indeed, that design is either beautiful or accessible. It can be both.

A brand owner or designer’s mission to make brands and products more digitally inclusive and accessible forces all involved back to the basics of good, usable, and empathetic design that will ultimately lead to better design – a design that’s universal – a brand for all. And this, in turn, will attract a more loyal base of users.

For this reason, brands and designers that prioritise a universally positive experience for everyone, not just the average or ideal user, are showing us what should now be everyone’s goal.