Designing with Empathy: Accessibility, usability, and inclusion

Earlier this year, I completed my graphic design program. Three years of eating, sleeping and drinking design like it is air. On the first day my design program, written in big bold letters on the whiteboard at the front of my class:


This definition has become the driving force behind everything I do as a designer. I use images and graphic elements like contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity to guide the eye and use visual cues to give context to a message. 

Although my formal training was mainly focused around print, I was instantly swept away by the human interaction in design. Anticipating how someone will interact with your product and absorb your message can be both intimidating and exhilarating all at once. 

Now, as a Visual and UX/UI designer, I approach most designs with two questions:

What is the purpose of the message? Who is the message for? 

For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on the “who”. 

At the beginning of a design project, I am usually provided with who the target audience is. However, I am not aware of how each of these audience members will perceive and absorb the message that I am designing for. This is where designing with empathy comes in. 

To me, empathy is not only the ability to try to understand and share the feelings or experiences of another. Rather, I define empathy as the ability to acknowledge that I cannot understand someone else’s experience without restrictions or bias, so I have to listen and learn from the source.

Here is a simple example: A 39 year old female who is 6 feet (182.88 cm) tall (that’s me), will never fully understand what a 39 year old female at 5’0 (152.4 cm) (my good friend) experiences. The physical world is very different for me than it is for her.

So, before I design a package for a product that targets 39 year old self-identifying females, I have to go to the source, in this case my friend, to learn how someone with her perception operates packaging. I will look for common ground and see if I can find a solution that will equally impact both her and I, and every person in between. 

When a design team starts developing a new product (digital or physical), they inevitably come to that conversation about making the product accessible, usable and inclusive, so that they can reach their maximum audience. However, they may find that these terms start to get used interchangeably. I know I have done that (before starting this post).

Their focus, intentions and goals start to blend together and these words lose their effectiveness. This is a very common and understandable result because these aspects are closely related, and there is some overlap within them. Some design approaches can address two or three of these aspects at a time. However, by fully understanding each individual aspect at its core, you can plan your design more effectively, therefore further opening up your reach within your target audience. does an excellent job explaining the distinctions and overlaps in accessibility, usability and inclusion in web design, but these distinctions can lend a great deal of insight to all designs that involve human interaction. The more you know about the restrictions your target audience will face while experiencing your product, the easier it is, as a design team, to remove them. 

Accessibility addresses discriminatory aspects related to equivalent user experience for people with disabilities. Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can equally perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with websites and tools. It also means that they can contribute equally without barriers.”

A company’s willingness to provide functional solutions to users with disabilities, by no means, is a new requirement. As you go throughout your day, you will come across dozens of designs that include alternative accessibility options (allocated parking spots, browser plugins, closed captioning), however, many of these designs are implemented as a reactive solution to restrictions that were discovered post product development.

As a designer who browses through job postings like real estate, I can’t seem to recall many employers adding “knowledge in accessible design” as a required skill.  Companies who seek and support designers that know how to proactively incorporate accessible functions into their designs are far a head of the game.

Instead of relying on assistive technology electronic devices or other aids to translate your message on your behalf (we’re still laughing over Google Translate, right?), designers are able to tweak elements (layout, colour, type size, repetition, proximity, medium, language, graphics, photographs etc.) to include different sensory requirements, and reach more of your target audience through direct communication.

Usability is about designing products to be effective, efficient, and satisfying. This may include general aspects that impact everyone and do not disproportionately impact people with disabilities.”

When teams start to look at the usability of a product, nowadays they will usually start using the terms “user experience design” and “user interface design”, or the very hot combo “UX/UI design”.

This just means they are looking at how human psychology and behavior impact the experience and navigation of a product (digital or physical). It should be noted, usability practices and research often do not sufficiently address the needs of people with disabilities. It focuses on examining and analyzing why a specifically identified group of users use a product the way they do, and how this information can be applied to build a more effective design.

Inclusion is about diversity, and ensuring involvement of everyone to the greatest extent possible. In some regions this is also referred to as universal design and design for all. It addresses a broad range of issues including: accessibility for people with disabilities; access to and quality of hardware, software, and Internet connectivity; computer literacy and skills; economic situation; education; geographic location; culture; age, including older and younger people; and language.”

For some products, it is very difficult to achieve a highly inclusive design, but if executed correctly, it can be an extremely effective tool to measure your reach. When a company is designing a product, they absolutely keep their target audience and their market research at the forefront. But keeping in mind that this audience is not made up of cloned individuals that have all had the same life experience, they are faced with diverse sets of needs, emotional reactions and individual perspectives that are looking to be addressed.

So, how do you design a product that speaks to everyone within your market equally? I can’t even begin to answer that.

What I can recommend is that you think about those you are intentionally excluding from your audience with simple design choices. After all, if you were to ask all 5,000 people in your target audience to come into a room because you want to show them a magazine you developed specifically for them, you would not then tell 4,000 of them to close their eyes and ignore you while you speak directly to the remaining people.

When you are part of a design team, ask yourself, what requirements does someone in my target audience need to have in order to access and use this product? The smaller that list is, the more effective your product will be.

Although you can’t possibly know every person that your product will come across (whether it is a package, a poster or a website), just taking the time to understand the information available to you about the individuals in your target audience will make you a more empathetic designer.

You will naturally start to incorporate more accessibility requirements in your designs; you will start to think about how a user will navigate your product and what they need to complete their journey; and you will expand your inclusivity range with just a few thoughtful design choices, all contributing to you becoming a more innovative designer.

Here is a fun challenge for anyone that is part of a design team: from now on, when you are putting together a design, also think about how both myself at 6’0 and my dear, much shorter friend at 5’0 would experience your product.

I should add that I am not expecting you to create a magical pair of jeans that will fit both of us perfectly a la Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, but maybe you will create something just as cool that can incorporate both of our stories. 

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