Three Steps To Start Practicing Inclusive Product Development

July 7, 2023

The way we build digital products is broken.

Mass digitization of the economy has afforded many people improved access, comfort, convenience, speed and much more. Whether that’s working remotely, shopping for groceries from the comfort of your home or accessing healthcare, it’s all possible because of the innovative companies that are making our lives better every day.

Unfortunately, over a billion people with disabilities don’t benefit the same way. Digital products serve as the backbone of the modern economy. But, often, these tools don’t work for people with disabilities—they reflect the people who build them more than the people who use them. This isn't a problem of intention but of outcome. Product teams aren't intentionally designing products that exclude users, but a lack of team diversity, specialized knowledge and access to feedback from people with disabilities results in users being left behind.

A big part of the problem is the fragmentation of research and how companies learn about customer needs. Often, interaction with customers or prospects is limited to a handful of researchers who then relay the findings back to the rest of the product team. Every person on a product team influences and contributes to the end-user experience, yet meaningful engagement with users is limited to a siloed group. Research teams tend to focus on understanding the experiences and challenges of existing customers better, rather than focusing on those who've been excluded. If the sign-up flow for your product isn't accessible, you won't have many users with disabilities.

The tools that researchers rely on are also generally not fully accessible, meaning people with disabilities are excluded from participating in the conversation. As a result, product teams aren't exposed to the problems that many users face.

When you don’t experience the problem, you don’t solve for the problem. As a result, companies are excluding people with disabilities from full participation in the digital economy—and leaving $1.9 trillion on the table.

Building inclusive products is good for business. It leads to new customers, increased retention, stronger brand loyalty and easy-to-use products for all. Over 1 billion people—15% of the population—live with a disability. More than 46% of people over 60 have a disability, and with the number of seniors growing faster than the number of people in all younger age groups, the need for inclusive products is only going to increase. To serve this population segment, here are three ways your company can begin to focus on making its product development more inclusive.

1. Understand that accessibility is usability.

We need to shift our understanding of what it means to build accessible products. Accessibility isn't just about checklists and compliance—it’s about product experience and ease of use. By designing for the needs of those at the margins—the 15%—we inherently build products that are more usable, adaptable and a better experience for all.

Every one of us will experience disability at some point in our lives. Whether that disability is permanent, temporary or situational, it will dictate the way that we interact with technology. Whether through typing, speaking or listening, products need to adapt to our preferred method of interaction, not the other way around.

2. Build awareness and empathy within the team.

Do you know if your products are usable for people who use screen readers? What about those with motor impairments? There's a huge spectrum of disability and assistive technologies that people use, and it’s important to understand if your products work for everyone.

Building awareness and empathy within product teams through training and education is an essential part of the process. Ensuring every member of a product team—not just researchers—has the opportunity to engage with people with disabilities is a powerful experience. When a designer or engineer sees a person with a disability unable to use a product they built, it’s impossible to forget. These "aha moments" change the way teams think about building products.

3. Benchmark usable experiences.

Accessibility is a journey. Just like with security, there's no finish line. Start by focusing on understanding the current accessibility of your user experiences. Test with various assistive technology users, leverage automated solutions and benchmark where you're at before planning what needs to be done. With a starting point in place, you can continually revisit and reevaluate the experiences of people with disabilities as you start to make improvements.

As the economy becomes increasingly digital-first, the need for accessibility is only going to increase. In a world that's user-driven, finding ways to make your product easy to use is a shortcut to adoption. Organizations that are on top of this will help position themselves more solidly, compete better and win more users.

Alwar Pillai
Forbes Councils Member
Forbes Technology Council

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