The link between accessibility and growing your brand

8% of Americans have difficulty lifting or grasping.

8% of Americans have a vision impairment.

15% of Americans have a cognitive, mental, or emotional impairment.

In total, about 19% of Americans and 22% of Canadians have a disability.

These staggering statistics should matter a lot to anyone tasked with designing and creating products and packaging. When approximately 1 in 5 people are at risk of being unable to experience your product, it means your sales could be 20% lower than they ought to be.

The solution to this problem is a focus on accessibility. By ensuring your product is accessible to people across the full spectrum of abilities, you also ensure you have full access to your customer base.

What is a disability?

Product designers tend to think of the average person when they’re creating new products or improving existing products. The average person has reasonable vision, reasonable hearing, reasonable motor skills, and reasonable cognitive skills. (Although statistically, the average person has fewer than 2 legs, 2 arms, and 2 eyes!) Products are designed to meet the needs of the average person which means that the needs of people who are disabled are often overlooked.

Historically, disabilities were seen as an impairment of a person. The person has arthritis and so they are unable to open boxes. The person has back pain and so can’t pick up the box on the bottom shelf. The person uses a wheelchair and so can’t climb the single step to enter the shop and buy the box on the bottom shelf. But modern, more inclusive thinking has changed this outdated model.

Today, many designers look at disabilities as barriers forced upon a person from the external world. They see disabilities as the result of a failure in the environment rather than an impairment of the person. A shop with a ramp at the door creates no barrier for people who use wheelchairs. Shops that incorporate moveable shelving create no barriers for people who can’t bend over.

In the best-case scenario, things are perfectly designed when everyone, regardless of their seen or unseen impairment, can personally access and experience a product without assistance from anyone or anything.

Why is accessibility important for product developers?

There are good reasons for making accessibility a priority for any product development.

Obviously, accessibility levels the playing field so that everyone, regardless of vision, hearing, motor, or cognitive abilities, can engage with everything. Even better, improving accessibility for the 20% often means that accessibility is increased for everyone else as well.

Further, people who don’t necessarily require increased accessibility will appreciate your desire to respect every potential customer. Doing the right thing matters to people.

And if those reasons are not sufficient, you may be required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Accessible Canada Act, or other relevant legislation. Make things easy on yourself and just include accessibility in your development plan.

Remember, it’s not annoying to design for people who are disabled. It’s selfish to assume that everyone is like you.

How does a focus on accessibility for disabled people help everyone?

  • Sidewalks are built with ramps so that people who use wheelchairs can access them. But parents pushing strollers and shoppers lugging grocery carts also love accessible curbs.
  • Automatic doors help people who use wheelchairs open doors. But once again, people pushing strollers and grocery carts, or carrying children and bags, or who no longer have sufficient physical strength need these doors.
  • Tactile marks on money help people with vision impairments shop more independently. And anyone who’s tried to make change in reduced lighting appreciates it as well.
  • Buses that announce the location of every stop help people who are visually impaired identify their stop. And those announcements also help people who are new to the city or who can’t see out the window find their stop.

How can product developers improve accessibility?

  • Products must be tested with all potential users, not just people who are conveniently available. Rather than screening them out of your research sample, strive to include people who reflect a wide range of abilities – people with vision, hearing, motor, and cognitive impairments – in your IHUT, product, and package tests.
  • Focus on creating products that people can use without getting assistance from another person or through the use of additional tools or devices.
  • If you’re improving products or creating a line extension, take advantage of customer complaints and comments from other products that could reflect accessibility issues. Rather than brush them aside as one-off annoyances, consider whether solving that one little problem could solve bigger problems for far more people.
  • Look at whether competitive products are testing alternative packaging. Could those designs reflect improved accessibility? Look to other industries that have a history of creating accessible products and packaging. What can you learn from them?
  • Rather than focus on solving single problems for single products, look at the bigger picture. What is the broader problem that needs to be solved and will that problem be encountered in other aspects of the design, e.g., if font sizes on the package are too small, then review the font sizes of everything – the instructions, the advertisements, the ‘fine print.’
  • Hire an external consultant who specializes in accessibility.

Who is already making accessible products?

  • Tylenol created a new, easy-open bottle to help people who have arthritis. The push-to-open design and larger bottle cap are easier for them to grip and turn. And naturally, anyone experiencing grip problems will appreciate this.
  • Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was designed for people who are disabled. And yes, the packaging was also designed to allow anyone, even people with motor disabilities, to open it on their own. View an unboxing video here.
  • Mimica Touch is a new type of packaging that helps people identify whether perishable products are fresh. If you have a visual impairment and can’t read a food label, or if it’s simply too dark to read the label, the tactile label which changes from smooth to bumpy will make sure you know.
  • P&G’s relaunched Herbal Essences’ hair care bottles with tactile marks to help people who are blind distinguish shampoo and conditioner bottles by touch. Given the assortment of other bottles people might keep in the shower, these simple clues will help everyone.


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