‘Women over 55 don’t cook!’

Obviously, women over 55 years old do cook.  

So, when I was asked my thoughts on user experience and the role of web accessibility, my first thought was of a meeting that we at the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC) had with a chief designer of a global white goods manufacturer. He (which feels important to mention) told us that they only use women between the ages of 25 and 55 years old in their usability tests for cookers. 

Title 'Understanding user experiences to move beyond accessibility' with a headshot of author Gordon McCullough from RIDC

You might argue that they are just reflecting their market. Nevertheless, I was struck by the seemingly narrow focus of users in their testing. What about everyone else; older women, people with visual impairments, those with dexterity issues, or even men? I could go on, but it is worth remembering that 20% of the UK’s population is disabled. So, what happens is the product is designed for the mass market, but it excludes 20% of its potential users. Once this realisation kicks in, the company then retrofits the product, tests it with a different cross-section of users, and launches a marketing campaign to blow the trumpet of their new, accessible and inclusive cooker. 

Doesn’t that sound like a waste of time and money? Wouldn’t it be easier to start with the 20% at the very beginning and design something that works for everyone? 

Now, I hear you asking, what has cooker design got to do with websites and digital experiences? 

On the surface not a lot, but when you consider the creative processes, the same focus around usability and function should exist. At the core of the development process for both products and websites should be an understanding of the market and thoughtful consideration about the needs and expectations of diverse users.

Over the last 50 years, RiDC have been helping businesses to put disabled people at the heart of their product development and user experience. From the insights we have gained, here are three things we think are important when it comes to creating accessible and inclusive digital experiences.  


Too early isn’t early enough

Involving users early in projects helps you to understand real-world accessibility issues, such as how people with disabilities use the web with adaptive strategies (for example, increasing the font size in a common browser) and assistive technologies (software or equipment that people with disabilities use to improve interaction with the web).

Having this information early on helps you to implement more effective accessibility solutions. In fact, many of our clients have commented that involving users with disabilities early on helps to improve the overall usability, for free. That’s because it also broadens your perspective and can lead you to discover new ways of thinking about your digital experience that makes it work better for more people in more situations. To put it into basic terms, the better you understand your users, the better the website or experience.

A rising tide lifts all boats

When developers understand users, more effective accessibility solutions can be created. Making websites and digital platforms more usable for disabled people improves usability for everybody.  And that’s a real benefit for businesses in our fast-paced mobile-first world. Small mobile screens require the flexibility to be able to increase font size, or the ability to zoom in to web pages. As we multitask through our daily lives, it often means we’re texting as we’re walking to that next meeting, laptop in hand. The way we use digital devices today increases the necessity for inclusive design. 

One size doesn’t fit all

Disabled people have diverse experiences, expectations, and preferences; this isn’t a neatly defined group. People have different disabilities: auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual. Almost 75% of disabled people have more than one disability. Even within one category, there is extreme variation (visual impairment being one example). 

It is important to try and include users with a variety of disabilities. We all have limited time and budgets and cannot include everyone. And I know selecting the optimum number of users with the best suited characteristics can be difficult. But asking Daniel from the office who has a cousin who is disabled about whether a website is accessible, doesn’t really cut it either.

Organisations like RiDC can take that headache away. We have a UK wide, pan-disability panel of 1,600 people who have signed up to do this type of work and are committed to improve accessibility and inclusion for all. 

Just one final thought...

‘Inclusivity’ is often interchanged with ‘accessibility’, but to me it’s so much more than that – being inclusive is not about being accessible. Accessible websites and digital platforms should be a given. Being inclusive is the next level up. Inclusivity is about feeling welcome, equal, and most importantly, about not feeling different. If we achieve that then we will be cooking on gas (sorry). 

To find out more about web accessibility and how you could become more digitally inclusive, visit our dedicated web accessibility resources section- you'll find more information along with links to some useful resources.

About the author

Gordon joined RiDC in February 2019. He has worked in senior management positions in the voluntary and community sector for over 20 years. He has day to day responsibility for running RiDC and helping to drive the future ambitions for further growth and development.

Prior to joining RiDC was CEO at Community Southwark and was deputy director of the Institute of Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) and head of research for the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA). Gordon has also held a number of trustee positions over the years; he is currently chair of the 999 Club, a homelessness charity in Deptford.

Headshot of Gordon McCullough, CEO, RIDC