In 2019 I published my thesis called Exclusive Design. In it I describe my design research project about designing websites for and with people with disabilities. This whole project was structured around four Exclusive Design Principles: study situation, ignore conventions, prioritise identity, and add nonsense. These principles are based on the idea that people with disabilities have been ignored in the first 30 years of the web, and that we need to actively involve them in the design process if we are serious about inclusive design. Another very important part of Exclusive Design is that it is about tailor made design. It means designing for, and with one single person at a time. Not a target audience, not all blind people, but with full focus on one single person.
First of all, we should study the people we design for, and design with. Before I started with my research I had quite some knowledge about technically implementing accessibility features on the web. But in all those years I had never tested if these features work. I had never observed real people with disabilities using my sites.
When I finally started testing, the results were shocking. The best practices we, as web professionals, have been teaching ourselves in the last decades don’t work that well. In many cases I even found that people who depend on assistive tech hate the way we make websites. Or that it makes them feel stupid. In many cases accessibility features are completely ignored or not understood.
So the first principle is to always, always study the situation. Always test your assumptions, and always observe closely. Invite the person you want to design with over, closely observe how they use their computers, and critically observe how they react to our assumed best practices.
So if, after studying the situation, it turns out that our conventions, our guidelines, our best practices don’t result in a good enough user experience, then we should look for better solutions. This is, weirdly enough, a controversial idea. To some developers certain guidelines are holy. I used to think like that as well. But after observing normal people, not nerds, who depend on a screen reader, struggling with the websites we make I can only conclude that we need a much more critical attitude when it comes to guidelines.
After observing that our ideas about best practices don’t work, we have to come up with alternative, better solutions.
One of the ways to come up with better solutions is to actively involve the person you are designing with in the design process. So it doesn’t stop at observing and testing, that’s just the start. It means actively involving them in the complete design process. And I think this should even go one step further: their identity should be deeply rooted in the final product. This means the design process may become very personal. There is a reason for this. I think that the web has been built largely by a rather homogeneous group of mostly male, mostly young, mostly white, and always nerdy people with above average computers. This means that the web works very well for this very specific niche. We have given ourselves all this very close attention for decades now: the web is completely shaped by our identity. This means that all the people who do not fit into the web niche have been ignored in all these years that we’ve been building the web.
In order to fix this, it is important to really understand what the person you are working with wants, what they need, what drives them, who they really are. Their identity should be a part of what we’re making. And in the years that I’ve worked with this principle I have found that quite often the unexpected ideas emerge when focusing on this principle.
On the web this may feel a bit weird, to really focus on one single person. We never really design things for one person, the web is for everyone. But in other design fields tailor made design is more common. And these tailored, exclusive designs are often the basis of new, more generic mass produced products. It makes sense to start working with this idea on the web as well.
Designing for accessibility is often seen as a very serious business. The common idea is that we, as designers, are helping people to live a better live, which is pretty serious. While in a way this does make sense, it is also a rather narrow point of view to begin with. Designing with people can of course be serious, but it can also be fun, or frustrating, or uncomfortable, or hilarious.
When you start involving real people with disabilities into the design process, and when you take them seriously, unexpected things happen. It is not just that our best practices don’t always work, our whole idea of disability changes, For instance: many people I’ve worked with have told me that they are not disabled, but that we are.
So in order to break out of the antiquated idea that designing for accessibility is a form of charity, I always use the principle that you need to add nonsense to the design process as well. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to do silly stuff, it means that you should research the unknown, and allow ideas that may sound a bit silly. This is a very common design attitude in early stages of brainstorming. I consider the field of designing for accessibility to still be in its very early stages, it is largely uncharted territory. We need new ideas. So by allowing new insights, by researching nonsensical ideas, and by exploring the unknown, designing for accessibility can finally grow into the serious, grown up design field that it should be.
What can you do with these principles?
You can read them. And then you can start experimenting with them. Start inviting people over to your design studio and test the things you are working on. Closely observe what does and what doesn’t work. A next step could be to invite them over more often for repeated tests. Then, once you get to know each other it makes sense to make the design more personal. And once you experience the added value of closely designing with someone with a completely different perception of the (digital) world, hire them and make them a real part of your team. And if for any reason you need help with this process don’t hesitate to contact me. I would be happy to help.