5 Ways to Increase Empathy for Better Accessible Design

Accessibility is Empathy

Today we’re going to cover the Design Principle: Accessibility. Accessibility is usually centered around designing with people with disabilities, so I’m going to expand on the concept a bit more and focus on the core human trait that drives it, empathy.


Objects and environments should be designed to be usable, without modification, by as many people as possible.

  • Can you empathize with the needs of other people?
  • How would you know what people want or need if you don’t talk and observe them in action?

Other names: Inclusive Design, Universal Design, Barrier-Free Design.


We Are All Unique

A small sample of the differences that make us unique:

  • Different ethnicities
  • Different upbringings
  • Different abilities, literacy, language barriers
  • Different bandwidths and technologies
  • How often they engage with the design

* Most important: We are all human.


Four Characteristics of Accessible Design


  • Perceptibility


      1. When everyone can perceive the design, regardless of sensory abilities.
        1. We have different capabilities: some see better, some can’t move in certain ways.


  • Operability


      1. When everyone can use the design, regardless of physical abilities.
        1. Path of least resistance. Remove repetition that could be strenuous in the physical or mental domain…too many mouse clicks.


  • Simplicity


      1. When everyone can easily understand and use the design, regardless of experience, literacy, or concentration level.
        1. Similar to 80/20, find the core design elements that give the highest probability of understanding and usability. Spend the time once those are solid to fine tune the remaining 20% to get as close to including everyone. Know when to stop due to inefficiencies.


  • Forgiveness


    1. When designs lower the chance of causing usability errors or their repercussions.
      1. Reduce human error by building the system to do specific actions that won’t harm anyone.  Ie. don’t have a button that when accidentally pressed crashes a plane without warning or chance to fix it.

Three Things Accessibility Is Not

  • It’s not just about making things work for blind people. Emily Partridge, Accessibility designer extraordinaire, often sees people fall into the trap of focusing completely on screen reader users. It’s important to remember that people have all different kinds and levels of abilities, in a variety of combinations.


  • Always test with multiple combinations of assistive technology and browsers.  Emily states that there are some combos that work best together (like JAWS and IE11) and others that just don’t work (like VoiceOVer with Firefox), but you’ll quickly discover important differences in the way they present information.
  • If you learn to use correct native HTML markup, you’ll have won half the battle of coding accessibility.


Interesting Use Cases


  • Algorithm design:


    • We need to build new accessibility tools to prevent some people from being left behind as our societies advance to communicate through computers and mobile devices.
      • A lot of helpful projects are being undertaken to make the world around us more accessible to people. For example computer vision to read lips to transcribe what people say in videos to help those hard of hearing.
    • The data that’s been gathered – Could be biased based on where it was gathered, with what technology, with what methods, how it was cleaned.
    • Design of algorithms – Unconscious biases of the developer, different techniques put together in certain ways, how they interpret the feedback loop of how it’s used and the results they produce.


Ways to Build Empathy


  • Travel more – get a passport and go on at least one trip out of your home country and one trip within it. Doesn’t have to be expensive, just meet people outside of your bubble.


    • Volunteer – Go to deliver meals to the homeless or help out at a soup kitchen. See the world through another set of eyes.


  • Stay curious – Without curiosity, you’ll believe you’ve seen everything the world has to offer and stay steadfast in your current beliefs.
  • Listen more – If you are always talking, you’re not learning from others. Imagine each person has at least one important thing worth saying that will improve your life. Find it.
  • Challenge current beliefs – This takes practice, but you’ve been conditioned based on how you’ve grown up and what information has entered your skull. Some of these ideas might be outdated or could be further optimized. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Why do I think this way? What evidence still supports this?” If it’s time to change your mind, do it. The smartest people change their mind when better information is presented. Drop the ego, it’s dangerous.



  • Accessibility Wins
    • Marcy Sutton does an amazing job showcasing good accessible design delivered in a short and sweet impactful manner.
  • aXe Browser Extension
    • The aXe Browser Extension makes it really easy to audit pages and learn about how common issues impact people with disabilities. The underlying API is available to leverage in automated testing and other applications.
  • WAI-ARIA Authoring Practices 1.1
    • Essential reference material for web developers, designers, and testers. Provides extremely detailed specifications for many common UI components and design patterns, including expected keyboard interactions, required roles and attributes, and working examples.
  • A11y on Slack
    • Join the unofficial global accessibility slack workspace. It’s a great place to ask questions, discuss solutions, and learn more about accessibility.
  • ISO/IEC 40500 (WCAG 2.0)
    • Guidelines are great, everyone should have a checklist to help remember the key technical best practices…but that doesn’t always cover the human interaction aspect. Go the extra mile to interact with real people and use your senses to observe how the design benefits their engagement.
  • Accessibility Principles
  • Accessibility Heuristics V1.0
  • Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People
  • Universal Principles of Design

Special Thanks

  • Emily Partridge for the great resource recommendations and insight around Accessibility.
  • Kevin Espiritu for making the intro to Emily.