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    Inclusive Software Design Best Practices

    If the design of your software isn’t inclusive, users are being excluded. Before dismissing this as unimportant or rationalize that the majority of users do not require special considerations for accessibility, start by identifying the users that do. Which one of your customers has a special need that isn’t being met? Chances are good you don’t know, and it may cost more than you realize.

    When a user is denied access to a software application, or faces an identity demeaning experience, they don’t feel included or valued. Ignoring your social, ethical, and legal responsibilities to be inclusive and accommodating is a form of discrimination and shouldn’t be tolerated by any organization.

    Inclusive design methodology strives to create software environments that can be meaningfully used by as many people as possible.

    Also read: Top 7 Trends in Software Product Design for 2022

    Designing Inclusive Software: Tips and Tricks

    Don’t let your bias affect your software design decisions

    It’s natural to let your own stories and experiences impact software design decisions. The best way to combat the impact of this reality is to ensure your design team is diverse. Always try to include individuals with varying abilities, gender identities, cultural backgrounds, ages, and experience levels.

    Choose your words carefully

    Writing inclusive copy for your software application means using simple words and short sentences. Make a screen reader part of your proofreading process, and listen carefully to how words are pronounced, making sure they are clear and easily understood.

    When possible, avoid words with multiple meanings. If context is required to understand the meaning of a word or phrase, be sure to provide it.

    Ideally, your text will never reference images that the user may not be able to see clearly or at all.

    Review the information being collected by forms

    Aside from the privacy and legal considerations surrounding the information being collected, and using the data only for the intended purpose, it’s important to think about every field within every form.

    Labels matter. Sex and gender are two very different things.

    Always separate ‘need to know’ from ‘nice to have.’ In many cases, fields are added to forms just because we are so used to seeing them. Always ensure that you have a good reason for asking a particular question or requesting specific information. 

    Give users power over personal details. If your application requires that users provide their full given names, consider an additional field that lets users specify a preferred or alternate name. It may seem obvious to provide drop-down lists for questions such as gender, but many individuals who do not identify as ‘male’ or ‘female’ find it demeaning when forced to select ‘other’. If it will not impact the functionality of your software application, allow users access to open text fields to indicate their preferences.

    Don’t make assumptions. Just because a user indicates they identify as female, does not mean their preferred pronouns are she and her (but it might).

    When information is being requested that could be considered sensitive in nature, personal, confidential, or seemingly unusual for the context, provide users with information inline to the form that briefly explains why it is necessary and what will be done with it.

    Always ask for consent

    Asking a user to provide their email address does not give you permission to send unsolicited correspondence. Requiring a phone number for a user to access a free trial version of your software application does not mean your sales team can automatically start dialing. 

    Asking for consent is critical and a sign of respect for boundaries and preferences. It should always be clear what users are agreeing to, and the right to revoke consent at any time should be maintained.

    Personalize and customize where appropriate

    This may be easier said than done, but can sometimes offer significant advantages. Let’s say your software application has users around the world. Offering the ability to translate text into different languages, provide demographic-specific imagery, or eliminate offensive content, will always be appreciated.

    Be careful; always make sure the personalization and customization options meet the expectations of your users.  

    Before you commit to any personalization or customization options, remember that every feature you add to a software application requires ongoing support and may need updating. Always ensure you have the resources and the capacity to maintain every variation of your software application. If you need to hire a language translator for each small change, it may not be sustainable (and no matter how tempting it may be, automated online translation tools are not sufficient to ensure context is maintained and doesn’t cause unintentional offense).

    Also read: The Importance of Usability in Software Design

    Look for points of exclusion

    Think about the goals and tasks accomplished using your software application and start asking questions like:

    • Could a visually impaired person successfully use every feature?
    • Can every feature be accessed using alternative input devices?
    • Are there any pop culture references or slang terms that may create language or geographical barriers?
    • Are you accommodating users who may have social anxieties and prefer to avoid activities that require telephone conversations?
    • Are there any features or functionality that may offend or require a user to act contrary to their spiritual or cultural beliefs and traditions?

    Accessibility affects inclusivity

    The types and severity of disabilities are incredibly diverse and can be overwhelming and difficult to accommodate. To assist with this task, accessibility is typically broken down into four primary categories: visual, motor, hearing, and cognitive.

    Addressing the deficits related to various disabilities is well documented and there are many options and strategies for creating inclusive experiences. 

    What if a particular disability is not permanent, and your users require situational or temporary accommodations? Consider the following scenarios.

    Situational

    • Users in busy or crowded office environments cannot easily listen to the audio included within instructional videos. Be sure to include subtitles or a transcript of the text contained within embedded video content.
    • If your software application is frequently used outdoors, glare from natural light can make low-contrast content difficult to see. Be sure interfaces take this into consideration and also work well with screen readers and other methods of interaction that do not require sight.
    • Is your software application used by individuals to assist or demonstrate things to others? A salesperson may need to show product demonstrations, or a physician may try to explain treatment options to a patient using your product. Accommodating these third-party needs may necessitate increasing the size of on-screen fonts as an example.

     Temporary

    • Can a user with a broken wrist use your software one-handed? What if the injury affects their dominant hand? Be sure users can navigate your software application without the use of a mouse and avoid sophisticated keyboard actions that may require more than one hand (such as holding down several keys at once).
    • Users experiencing unusually high anxiety or stress, or having had a recent concussion, may have difficulties with focus or need frequent breaks. Where possible, allow users to save their progress during lengthy tasks so they can return later when they need a break or have to step away (which may not be at the bottom of a screen or end of a form).
    • Regular users of your software application may have had to begin working remotely. It may be critical to ensure functionality is maintained regardless of available bandwidth, or using unknown devices with a variety of configurations and specifications.

    The critical message here is that you can never make assumptions about your users or their abilities. In fact, it may not even be your users with a disability. You may have a user whose spouse recently had a stroke, or a child diagnosed with a learning difficulty, or now care for an aging parent who needs additional assistance. These individuals are affected by the deficits being experienced by loved ones, making them increasingly aware of the difficulties they face. Your organization will be rewarded with brand loyalty and enjoy a good reputation by standing out as an option that shows compassion and consideration. 

    Employ inclusive and diverse imagery

    Society is increasingly aware that photographs and videos should include people of different races, ages, ethnicities, abilities, and body types. Showcasing this diversity is important, but that consideration should extend to the buttons and icons being used within your software applications as well.

    Outdated stereotypes can be perpetuated when you make choices like pink buttons for traditionally feminine selections or using a masculine clipart image by default for a login profile. If these seem obvious to you, consider that showcasing extremely slim or muscular individuals within a fitness-related application may shame those with less seemingly idyllic body shapes. If you are building a web application for a restaurant to facilitate online ordering, and every image displays youthful individuals (no matter how diverse), older users could feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

    When choosing imagery for your software design project, always default to authentic representations. Users love to see real people that they can relate to. Some inclusive design experts will recommend utilizing a diversity checklist, but be careful you aren’t making choices that will seem contrived as it will appear disingenuous.

    It may also be wise to use abstract images in certain situations. Many brands choose to use animals or objects—just be careful that the images add value to your software application and aren’t just there to take up space. The biggest caution with this strategy is to avoid using images with a culture or demographical context that may add confusion for users that aren’t familiar.

    Revisit and review your software applications regularly

    Doing the best we can today to design inclusive software may not be the best we can do tomorrow. As we learn and evolve, so should our software applications. Don’t discount that demonstrating your ongoing commitment to being inclusive has value to users and won’t go unnoticed.

    As you know more, do better.

    Define your project guidelines based on inclusive design principles

    Creating a series of guidelines for your development team can make following inclusive software design principles easier and provide more consistent implementation.

    This is particularly important for industries that may have to adhere to strict regulations or additional governance. 

    Always Designing Software With Inclusivity in Mind

    The easiest way to design inclusive software is to constantly remind yourself that you may not know the struggles or challenges your users are facing. Even if you somehow were able to spend the time and truly get to know each and every user, and even if they were fully transparent about every consideration and accommodation they required, their needs can change in an instant.

    Quality, considerate, inclusive design, is ready for any user at any time in any situation.

    By designing your software applications with inclusivity in mind, the experience of every user is improved.

    Read next: Using Journey Maps to Understand Your Software Users

    Jillian Koskie
    Jillian Koskie
    Jillian Koskie is an experienced software developer, writer, business analyst, and usability design expert. With over 24 years in these roles, Jillian has enjoyed applying her considerable skill-set to assist clients and users across a wide variety of sectors including: legal, health, and financial services. Combining these professional opportunities with a love of technology, Jillian is pleased to act as a trusted advisor, contribute articles, voice opinions, and offer advice to numerous organizations, news outlets, websites, and publications.

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