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Inclusive Web Design: What It Is and How to Do It Right

posted by Michael Epps Utley Michael Epps Utley
Inclusive web design

Inclusive web design is an often misunderstood term.

A common interpretation is whether most people can effectively interact with a website. What it should really be about is whether all individuals can use the site. The difference is whether “most” and “all” visitors can navigate your website and be satisfied with the experience.

In today’s highly inclusive cultural environment, is a website accessible to “most” people good enough?

If you design a website for the “typical” or “ideal” user, you could create an unsatisfying, challenging, or impossible-to-use experience for others.

Guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, along with government agencies, have helped web designers and developers close the gap between some people being able to use a site and everyone having a fulfilling experience with it.

Can you afford to lose prospective customers because they can’t navigate your website?

Maybe.

But can you survive having your brand damaged because word gets around that certain people can’t use your site effectively?

Probably not.

This article will explore total digital inclusivity not just for optimizing your sales but also to maintain universal respect for your brand. Plus, full digital inclusivity is the right thing to do.

What to Know About Inclusive Web Design

What Is Fully Inclusive Digital Design?

Inclusive web design eliminates any aspect of a digital experience that could leave users feeling excluded because they’re unable to navigate it due to an impairment, demographic challenge, or another temporary or permanent issue.

Accessible web design and user experience (UX) best practices are required to develop a fully inclusive website.

  • Accessible design removes barriers to entry for people with disabilities and other impairments.

  • UX design tests and validates how real users engage with a website, finding ways to improve digital experiences until they work for everyone.

Because of this, there’s a lot to consider in inclusive design, and it is a more intensive process than normal development. Still, in the end, the extra effort is worth it because it ensures every visitor to your site will have a great experience.

Factors Considered in Inclusive Web Design

Designers must take into account the following issues when developing an inclusive site:

  • Physical challenges resulting from limited vision, hearing, or dexterity

  • Mental problems that impact cognition and speech

  • Situational limits that keep a visitor from fully engaging with all aspects of the digital experience

  • Technical limitations, such as access to certain types of hardware, internet connectivity, and level of computer literacy

  • Language and geographic barriers

  • Demographic issues related to age, education, race, and gender

  • Aging issues

  • Socioeconomic differences

In the end, completely inclusive design should also be thought of as universal design or design for everyone.

How Can Web Developers Achieve Universal Design?

Web designers use many tools and resources to ensure websites are accessible by everyone, including:

Inclusive designers must thoroughly understand the limitations that users face on the web. Universal design requires tools and testing to ensure websites meet the needs of all visitors. However, it takes sensitive and well-informed designers to create them in the first place.

Why Inclusive Digital Design Is Critical

Let’s look at why web designers need to make accessibility and inclusivity central to every website they build.

Non-inclusivity by the Numbers

Last year, WebAIM reported the results of its latest Screen Reader User Survey. Some highlights include:

  • 7.7 percent of respondents say they have to use a screen reader when they’re online.

  • 39.3 percent of respondents said the internet was more accessible than in previous years; 42.3 percent said little or nothing had changed; 18.5 percent reported that the web was less accessible.

According to the American Bar Association, there were approximately 8,000 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III lawsuits filed with federal courts between 2017 and 2020, a four-year period. That number jumped by 14.3 percent annually to 2,352 lawsuits in 2021 alone, according to Accessibility.com. This clearly indicates that every year more disabled people need user-friendly websites.

The World Data Lab says that there are 1.1 billion internet-poor people across the globe. This means they can’t afford a data plan or have a limited one, which means they cannot effectively interact with resource-heavy sites, such as ones that rely on videos to tell the company story.

Seniors are another population businesses need to consider. Many require help getting set up on — or using — the internet. Some have hearing or seeing issues. This could limit their ability to navigate a complex website, one that is too detailed or busy, or a site that delivers important messages or signals through sound.

Think about it: Can you afford to eliminate disabled, disadvantaged, and senior people from your customer base? Or, more importantly, can you risk the damage to your brand resulting from visitors having a bad user experience on your site? The answer to both is probably NO.

The Benefits of an Inclusive Website

Here are some of the pluses of having a universally accessible website:

  • Inclusive web design results in better digital experiences. It forces designers to return to the basics of sound empathetic design. It prevents them from resorting to flash, dazzle, and the latest design tricks.

  • Brands reach bigger audiences. Businesses with universally accessible sites attract people who value inclusivity and equity.

  • Users prefer interacting with inclusive websites. These sites are typically easier to navigate and interact with than non-inclusive ones.

  • Inclusive web design helps sites rank higher on Google. It’s one of the key factors Google considers when determining its rankings.

Update Your Consumer Personas to Reflect Inclusivity

Most businesses have personas that provide vital information about the different types of people they’re targeting. They help marketers and salespeople make better decisions about how to interact with consumers.


Typical personas include:

  • Demographics (e.g., age, gender, occupation, etc.)

  • Personality

  • Voice

  • Goals

  • Motivations

  • Frustrations

  • Fears

  • Media use

  • Education

  • Location

  • And more

When it comes time to develop an inclusive website, your personas will also need to contain information about:

  • Ability, including physical and cognitive restrictions people may have in their ability to use and engage with your website.

  • Aptitude related to digital literacy and the ability to interact with digital properties.

  • Attitude toward website safety, security, and other concerns.

  • Access, including any issues that could prevent someone from fully engaging with a web experience.

  • Localization, including anything that could cause someone to interact with a website differently because of the location they’re in, such as language, cultural influences, and urban/rural life experience.

The Principles of Inclusive Design

Once you’ve updated your personas, leverage the following principles to make your website universally accessible:

Flexibility

There’s no single way to build a website that’s right for everyone. However, that doesn’t mean you must create several websites or landing pages for users with differing needs and abilities. Instead, you must add features to the user interface that will close the gap between the requirements of different visitors.

For example, include a transcript near a video. That way, visitors who can’t or don’t want to hear or watch the video can read the text.

Simplicity

Minimalism is a popular web design trend. And it’s for a good reason. A simple interface makes it easier for people to move intuitively through it.

Treat your website as a minimum viable product (MVP). Only include the essential elements and features that make it a usable and valuable product. Then, only add extra elements that provide value to every visitor’s experience.

Consistency

A consistent website is one where features and elements are consistently placed and used on it. It removes the frustration and confusion caused by the same component or feature presented differently or with varying functionality on the same digital property. It reduces the confusion seniors and others with limited and compromised abilities have when navigating websites.

Perception

Perception is the most empathetic part of universal web design. Empathy and understanding allow a designer to select the right mix of images, typefaces, and other factors to move the most people comfortably through a web experience. Designers might not find the perfect blend the first time out, but over time and through testing, the ideal mix to engage all visitors can be identified.

Equity

Equity in web design ensures that no matter who a visitor is, they can complete all tasks comfortably.

This is where UX design and testing are helpful. Getting first-hand user input helps designers create smooth interactions and user experiences for everyone.

Prevention

Designers must take steps to prevent human error — across all types of people — to make websites universal. They also must provide an acceptable response to errors that happen. By reducing the frustration or shame associated with making simple mistakes, an inclusive design builds trust for all visitors.

Accommodation

Website designers must ensure that everyone can read, navigate, and engage with a website, no matter who they are or their abilities.

Accommodation means different things to different people — plenty of white space, predictable layouts, suitable typefaces, and more. Inclusive design forces designers to confront how comfortable users will be with the website’s overall experience. They should use images that resonate with visitors, navigations they’ll understand, and explicit, jargon-free language.

Inclusive Web Design: The Bottom Line

Returning to where we started, inclusive web design is a broad term covering UX, accessible, and responsive design. However, it goes well beyond these things to ensure that the site is usable and positively experienced by all visitors.

This approach to web design requires a complete understanding of the challenges different people face when engaging with websites. It takes more than design to achieve ultimate success. It takes genuine human empathy to create digital experiences that are right for everyone.

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