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Accessible product design: it benefits everyone

December 13th, 2022

9 min read

The accessibility icon on a grid background

Written by

Robert Collings


World of WYSIWYG

Accessible design benefits everyone, but sometimes, its execution can be hard. Even community sites like Stack Overflow struggle with accessibility, accessible design, and universal design (and yes, these are all different). But since the market for accessible design is expected to grow to over $10 billion in the US and Canada (starting in 2021), it’s  not something you can afford to overlook. 

Thankfully, there’s resources to help you design an accessible product.

Stack Overflow’s research can help you prepare for the introduction of accessible design into your products – specifically if you’re developing software. A good start point is factoring in age – of both your users and developers. 

Designing for the elderly has some overlap with design for people with disabilities, but.developer demographics are skewed toward 25-34 year olds, with less than 4% of developers surveyed aged over 55-64.

What does this mean? There are less working developers with lived experience of older age. And without either empathy or direct knowledge, it’s difficult to understand why accessibility is important… or be able to design products that suit those needs.

This article aims to shed some light on  accessible product design, by explaining how designing for accessibility benefits everyone. 

When products are designed for accessibility, it benefits all

There’s a remarkable TED talk by Elise Roy called, "When we design for disability we all benefit." If you’re a product designer or manager, it's ideal for learning more about accessible product design

In the talk, Elise Roy talks about a personal and universally applicable premise:

Designers who take into account users' disabilities almost invariably improve their project.

Accessible product design forces you to be more creative and develop a product that’s not only more inclusive, it’s more innovative.

Roy has been deaf since the age of ten. Now working as a disability rights lawyer, she stridently  advocates for more open, accessible product design across different design fields. One of the main points to take away from the video, is that it’s unproductive and unhelpful to think of accessible product design as simply a matter of "making an accommodation" for a particular group. When products are designed for accessibility from their inception, everyone benefits. 

What is accessible design?

Accessible design is an outcome that results from meeting strict guidelines. Once you meet the criteria, an app can be said to have accessible design. These strict guidelines are introduced into app design to better support users living with disability.

When they’re creating  applications, developers often tend to make products that suit people like themselves. However, by following accessible guidelines, developers can instead create applications that reduce barriers – whether those barriers are brought on by living with a disability, age, or temporary circumstance.

Accessible design is distinct from accessibility. While accessible design is an outcome, accessibility itself is a standard of user experience.

What is accessibility?

Accessibility is a concept – when a product has accessibility, it means that a product can be accessed and used by anyone. It also means that all users are able to have equivalent user experience regardless of how they arrived at the service. It’s not a set of practices in and of itself, but includes specific accessibility principles. 

Similarly, inclusivity has a conceptual component, as well as process steps involved, to shape how a product is designed.

What is inclusivity?

Inclusivity is a concept that means a product has considered the different needs of all end users who are likely to make use of a product – to ensure the product doesn’t exclude anyone. At the same time, it’s a process of studying differences between end users, and ensuring that the needs of the different user groups are met.

Creating a more inclusive product also helps to limit any liability for potential lawsuits – which are increasingly more common – because the quantified inclusivity actions and their results, are often cited as evidence in a case. However,  "avoiding lawsuits" isn't very inspiring and your intention should ideally be more than just a nod to complying with the law. 

Elise Roy’s efforts show through her own career change (from law to design), designers – not legislators and attorneys – should be leading the charge on accessibility.

What is inclusive design?

Inclusive design is a method used when starting the design process for a product. Designers who follow the inclusive design methodology, are aware that their choices affect the experiences of all users.

Accessibility vs inclusive design

While these two principles of design have some crossover, they are distinct from each other. Inclusive design aims to design products that can serve users of all backgrounds, abilities, and experience. 

Accessibility is a concept where designers are required to look carefully at each aspect of design in a specific product, and make sure that the product can be accessed and used by anyone.

Design Principle 


Point of difference

Inclusive design

Designing products for universal access regardless of background, abilities, experience

A process to follow


Looking closely at specific design decisions, and making sure that the product can be accessed and used by anyone

A concept that includes strict design principles

Universal design vs accessible design

After distinguishing inclusivity from accessibility, another important distinction to make is between universal design and accessible design.

What is universal design?

Universal design is a discipline that focuses on all users. It aims to make a service or product accessible – so that it can be discovered and used – by all users of the product. 

Universal design aims for the greatest possible usage: all features of an app can be discovered and accessed by anyone regardless of their individual needs, culture, and background. If it sounds similar to accessibility, that’s because accessibility is an outcome of universal design.

How are accessible design and universal design different?

Accessible design is a process that's similar to accessibility, but it actually has more in common with inclusivity. It’s a process where specific solutions or features are added to an app to allow those customers to easily access the app.

Universal design is a discipline with multiple aspects that makes a product available to as many users as possible (similar to accessibility), whereas the process of accessible design focuses on helping customers with specific needs to unlock barriers for them that could be found when using a product or app.

Accessible product design principles

Artisans of every stripe – from poets to chefs – will tell you that creating within constraints sharpens your focus. In a more practical sense, guardrails stop vehicles going off the road, and product design principles are the guardrails for your design projects.

These principles force you to consider deficits in your original design that perhaps nobody even considered. The main areas that the principles address are the impacts of age and living with a disability, but they’re not solely limited to those areas.


Points to think on

Principles to read


Blindness, macular degeneration, myopia, visual processing challenges relating to color

WAI principles on presentation and app UX

Physically moving

Motor skills, tremors, peripheral nervous system challenges, sensory and touch difficulties, chronic pain, arthritis

WAI principles on operations and app UX


Deafness, auditory processing challenges, tinnitus, hearing device issues

UAAG principles on auditory configuration options

Thinking and cognition

Concentration, short term memory processing, long term memory retrieval, distraction

WAI principles on cognitive barriers for empathy and understanding User Interface requirements as a starting point.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C WAI) notes that there are “overlapping needs'' between living with disability and age. They also say that existing W3C WAI standards address the needs of most users, despite the source of any accessibility challenges they may face when using an app or piece of software.

Examples of accessible product design

Returning to Elise Roy’s story, while studying for her master's in social design, she became interested in woodworking. She discovered that her peers knew when a tool was about to backfire because it made a unique sound just beforehand. Roy, of course, couldn't hear the auditory warning. 

As a result, she designed the Pitch Alert Safety Glasses – they respond to changes in pitch, and translate the aural cue into a visual signal.



Pitch Alert Safety glasses designed by Elise Roy

Pitch Alert Safety glasses designed by Elise Roy (source)


"Why hadn’t tool designers thought of it before?" These audio/visual safety glasses provide a valuable lesson for designers of all persuasions. They aren’t just "better for Roy," they're simply a better design.

Why is this a good example of accessible product design? 

The glasses provide a holistic solution: safety goggles that double as warning tools, and there's built-in redundancy for the hearing-able in case the room is too loud

It's an elegant solution arrived at by necessity, and applicable to everyone.

Elise Roy also calls out a Good Grips potato peeler, which was designed with an improved grip to facilitate ease of use for arthritic people, but became universally used by people – not just those with arthritis. She also observed that text messages were introduced to allow deaf people to communicate via cellular phones, and are now ubiquitous amongst the global population.


OXO Good Grip Peelers

The grip on OXO peelers was designed with universal access in mind (source)

"What if we started designing for disability first—not the norm? When we design for disability first, we often stumble upon solutions that are not only inclusive but also are often better than when we design for the norm."

~Elise Roy

Why is this another good example of accessible product design? 

The potato peeler is a commonly used item worldwide, and when accessible design changed the product shape, it replaced the original version entirely. 

"I get to experience the world in a unique way…And I believe that these unique experiences that people with disabilities have is what's going to help us make and design a better world for everyone—both for people with and without disabilities."

~Elise Roy 

Automating accessible product design

When you’re designing for people with disabilities, target the particular barriers that your application may introduce, against the WCAG Guidelines. To do that more easily, an automatic checking tool may help.

For example, if you’re designing an app where your customers create content, there are automated solutions available to make the content more accessible, such as TinyMCE’s accessibility checker plugin.

Accessibility Checker is a Premium plugin available with a paid plan, however you can try TinyMCE’s Premium range of plugins and features when you receive your FREE API key – the key comes with 14 days free trial access to Premium plugins and features.

Accessible product design is the right thing to do

If you’re still not convinced, remember the design disciplines described in the preceding paragraphs: accessible design is not a need limited to disabled users. It's the goal of all great design.

TinyMCE develops products with disabilities in mind. The TinyMCE WYSIWYG editor is built from the ground up to follow the best practices outlined by  the WCAG 2.1 and Section 508 standards. 

That said, Elise Roy's TED talk reminds us that we need to go beyond those guidelines and involve more disabled users, and designers, in our development process. If you’re interested in helping improve web content creation for disabled users we’d love to hear your suggestions.

AccessibilityResourcesProduct ManagementDesign
byRobert Collings

Marketing Director (Sep 2015 - Jan 2020), Robert directed a global team of marketers across several timezones, as well as created and executed marketing strategies, and secured several growth achievements include net new revenue +80% and +43% new customer growth.

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