How to make products accessible by design

Getting accessibility right demands an individual, human approach. So argued Christina Mallon, head of inclusive design and accessibility for global advertising firm Wunderman Thompson, at a fascinating session at TechShare Pro 2020. 

Image shows a large transparent bubble with the sky visible behind it. Inside the bubble are wild flowers and butterflies“Everybody deserves the right to express themselves. That is a human right. I believe so,” said Mallon. "A lot of the time, we [disabled people] have been othered. As long as they have just their basic needs, they’re fine. But that’s not true, and that’s not true for anybody.”

Speaking to Rama Gheerawo from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Inclusive Design, Mallon explained why a more human approach is key.

“What ties us all together is we’re human beings, and we all live on this gorgeous little planet of ours. The same sun rises and sets on us every day. But that day can be radically different depending on ability,” Mallon added. 

Building a business case for inclusive design

Driving change means engendering empathy at the top. “Many times, executives don’t recognise they’ll be disabled at some point in their lives. It shocks them."

When they think of disabilities, they think of someone in a wheelchair or has dual-arm paralysis. It takes a lot of education because people don’t want to think about the challenges they might have in their lives when it comes to accessibility and inclusion.”

Gheerawo agrees. “We talk about designing for ability, not disability. It’s not just about disability. It’s an inability. A designed world that actually makes it unable for people to use,” he said. 

So how do you convince executives to embrace inclusive design? Mallon describes a “three-pronged approach”.  

“It is about personal stories. Show that there are people with disabilities right in front of your face. And they are a huge community.”

“And then I talk about, you know, the stats. The disability community has $8 trillion of disposable impact…similar to the disposable income of China. And then, you know, I dropped that legal compliance bomb on them, especially in the United States when it comes to digital accessibility,” she said. 

“Give them reasons why it affects their role if they’re the legal counsel, the CFO, or you’re the chief brand officer. This is not just moral, ethical. This is the right business thing to do, but it takes a lot of conversations,” Mallon said. 

A picture of Wunderman Thompson's Christina Mallon1. Use personal stories
2. Use statistics about the business potential
3. Highlight the need for legal compliance
Christina Mallon, head of inclusive design and accessibility for Wunderman Thompson

Inclusive design: the power of personal stories

Image shows the website for the adaptive clothing line for Tommy Hilfiger. The caption reads "behind the design".Personal stories can influence and inspire, said Mallon. “What is so great being at Wunderman Thompson is we're good storytellers. Great stories around accessibility and inclusive design get people excited.

"So, I've made sure to arm myself with really great case studies to show kind of the impact that investing inclusive design and accessibility has on an organisation.”

One example is Wunderman Thompson’ work helping to launch the adaptive clothing line for Tommy Hilfiger.

“We helped it launch an adaptive clothing line brand and adaptive clothing. Why can't buttons be magnets? Why aren't we looking at better design?"

Just telling those stories about these kinds of aha moments that people have when they're rethinking why things are right about design and challenging that. Telling that via storytelling is so important,” Mallon said.

“I think that's where I've been able to get CEOs and CMOs excited," added Mallon.

Raising the bar on inclusivity

By listening, you create a better product for all, said Mallon and Gheerawo. 

Gheerawo cited an example that is part of the Heen Hamly Centre's origin story. The story involved Helen Hamlyn Centre founder, Roger Coleman. Coleman's twenty-year-old friend has MS and needed to refurbish her flat, so the council would approve for her to stay there.

"They spent the whole day getting things together and making sure it was functional. Suddenly, they realised they needed to ask her what she wanted. She said these immortal words pressed on my brain; she said, 'I want to make the neighbours jealous.' And that was a lightbulb moment."

Mallon agrees. "One thing that is so important in design is co-design, and that's not just what people with disabilities. If you're trying to design something, it can't just be, you know, your personal beliefs or preferences.”

Mallon believes in talking about people "with a range of ability" and has a focus on extreme users.

For example, she said, in looking at a redesign for Heathrow Terminal 5 they collaborated with an eight-year-old Japanese tourist who didn't speak English, a visually-impaired gentleman and a couple in their eighties with minor impairments but who couldn't lift their own suitcases. 

"Some of my biggest successes come from getting the people in charge to focus on extreme users," she said. 

Wrapping up Gheerawo said: "We need to start talking about people. A phrase I like to use is that consumers consume but people live and that's people of all ages, abilities, needs, gender, races..."

It's another reminder of Mallon's assertion that what makes for good inclusive design is a focus on human beings.

How AbilityNet can help with Inclusive Design