Differences in humans are undeniable, ranging from physical appearance to cultures, personal preferences, and more. As one of its core goals, UX design aims to create accessible designs that function for all users regardless of their physical differences.
Too often, designers ignore creating functional assets accessible to everyone. But the internet is a large space that accommodates many groups, and we need to consider everyone when we create new digital products and websites.
Let’s talk about equitable design, clarify how it ties into accessibility and inclusive design, and teach you how to consider equity in your next design project.
Equitable design is the fundamental belief that design should not only be accessible, but inclusive for all individuals regardless of the barriers created by human differences. Such differences include gender, race, culture, and differences in ability, among others.
Through embracing that which makes individuals different, irrespective of one’s origins, ability, or belonging to a minority group, it prioritizes empathy and understanding, thereby ensuring that the needs and perspectives of all individuals are taken into account creating more inclusive and accessible products, designs, and experiences for all.
This further extends to the need to prevent unnecessary hardships simply due having a disability, for example. Creating fair and inclusive experiences for everyone is a cornerstone of equitable design, as much as it is the duty of us designers to create beautiful but functional user experiences for all, and that starts by shying away from conventional biases and adhering to social standards.
While equitable design aims for inclusivity, they are not one and the same, much like how equitable design is not necessarily universal in nature. The objective of equitable design is ensuring that groups that have a history of being excluded have their needs met. At the forefront of equitable design is the disabled community as well as other historically underrepresented groups.
Inclusive design, however, is more general in the sense that it aims to make sure that all groups are appropriately represented equally, not focusing on one group.
Similarly, universal design aims at creating experiences that can be accessed by everyone. All of these concepts share a similar goal; however, their application is different.
Equitable design focuses on righting social wrongs, universal design aims at creating a one-size-fits-all design that everyone can use, and inclusive design’s objective is creating designs where everyone is represented. With a common goal, all three work together to create designs, products, and experiences that everyone can enjoy.
Intersectionality explores the principle that a person’s identity is made up of several factors that affect various facets of their lives. There are eight main characteristics of intersectionality, namely: ethnicity, gender, religion, class, age, culture, sexuality, disability.
The characteristics then intersect in different ways depending on the individual to form their identity. Now you might ask, “How is this related to designing for equity?” to which the answer lies in understanding your target audience and the barriers they face when viewing your content.
Just like how designs are affected by the age of their target audience, so should be the same if those individuals have a disability, a religious consideration, a financial limitation, and so on. Through the proper use of intersectionality, you can reach the core of the issues faced by your target audience, making it easier to create designs that are more inclusive and accessible to them.
Once you’ve established your target audience by using the intersectionality characteristics and researching your target audience, you must then keep in mind the accessibility of your design. Various users have different needs, and ignoring them once you’ve established those needs goes against the core values of a UX designer.
Even once you’ve figured out your target audience, it’s difficult to create a perfectly accessible design as the concept is too broad. In order to do work your way to accessibility, there are various factors to consider. Depending on what list your search online, some will have more than others, however these are the four that I believe to be the most important as a start:
Can someone with eyesight issues read your font? Is the audio adjustable enough for a semi-deaf person to hear? Is the layout easy enough to navigate for someone not good with technology?
Asking questions such as these can ensure that your design is accessible to all, and thankfully measures are being taken to ensure that this happens. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 ensure accessibility for all websites, and countries such as the US, Canada, and The EU have begun to make it enforceable by law. Websites that don’t conform to the principles set out in the WGAC can be subject to a fine of $50,000 or more in the US. You best believe that as an EU resident, I immediately began checking some of my old designs!
Growing up in Europe as an individual with dark skin, I did not feel very represented in common media. Watching TV, all the characters, clothing models, and even cartoon characters were Caucasian.
I didn’t truly understand how impactful this was for me until I saw my first ever black cartoon character on a Disney series called Fillmore. The character was brave, interesting, funny, and most importantly, he looked like me. The fact that I still vividly remember the character to this day shows just how important representation is for design.
Knowing your target audience is important. Why? Because it allows you to know what your audience needs, and representation is one of those needs. If you’re designing a brand whose target audience is mainly from the UAE, having local images and pictures of individuals from the UAE would make a lot more sense than having pictures of individuals from other countries.
In this case, I speak from experience. My first ever design job was creating a website for a Dubai-based health snack. While adding beautiful images of scenery to put the product in real-life scenarios so the client could have a better feel for the product, my supervisor reminded me of the point of doing so: “The point of creating these realistic mockups is so the client can visualize the product in their hands. How would they do that if you’re putting it in scenes that do not represent their country?” I keep this quote in mind to this day, and it has taught me that not only is representation important, but the right representation is even more important.
The best point to implement any of the processes above is during the research portion, before you begin designing. Going through each of these principles and clearly establishing who your target audience is and how your design could be equitable to all is the best way to go about this.
However, we have a tendency to become biased in our perspective, making it hard for us to see through different lenses. After all, how can you design for an issue you’ve never faced?
Moreover, while there are many guidelines and tools for checking design equity such as the aforementioned WCAG, I would implore future designers to take it a step further and involve diverse users to take part in the research process with you.
While this is not entirely possible for smaller scale or freelance designers, getting different perspectives for your design is what can push it from a decent design to a truly great one. Only through inviting a diverse cast of people to the design table can you do your best to create a design that is as equitable and inclusive as possible.
As designers, we create for a wide range of individuals who are all different from each other. Due to this it is even more important for us to make sure that our designs are inclusive and fair to all individuals that come across them. Only by keeping in mind the intersectionality, accessibility, and representation principles during the research portion of the design stage, as well as making sure that the research itself is inclusive and made up of as diverse a cast as possible, can we create as equitable a design as possible.
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