Creative Studio


A blog about design, user experience, startups and everything in between.

All Products Should Be Designed For Disabled


I have a grouse with most online commerce. When it works well it is magnificent, but too little thought is paid to contingencies for when things go wrong. I recently ordered something from John Lewis, whose service is mostly flawless. Three days after the promised date, my Dyson fan had still not arrived at my chosen Waitrose. You would think some algorithm might have noticed this missing item, and prompted someone to contact me with a quick ‘sorry’ to explain what they were doing. Instead, the burden fell entirely on me to ring them, find out what had happened and request a refund. “You lost the sodding fan, how is this my problem?”— Rory Sutherland

One of the worst aspects of many websites, mobile apps or any other online services is that they are designed to work only under perfect conditions. Apps are typically designed by young people with perfect eyesight seated in front of, usually Macbook with a retina screen that shows in a perfection resolution and brightness. They have a high-speed internet connection and usually a focused environment when they do design or test things. It’s a different matter when you are trying to use an app while stuck on a crowded train with weak signal.

You will act like a disabled at one point

The main reason for designing products with disabled people in mind is because one day you will act like one.The complexity of modern daily lives increases with each year, and there are very few people who can genuinely focus and eliminate the clutter from their lives. So designing something for stressful situations or ones in which your brain just can’t devote more energy to your app or action, but instead work on autopilot, is a sure way of creating a great product.

Things designed specifically for people with disabilities often end up being valuable to many more people than originally planned — Rory Sutherland

From big buttons to a bestseller

About 30 years ago, BT, a British phone company, introduced a telephone handset with large keys. It was intended for people with severe visual impairment. Unexpectedly, it became their bestselling phone.

There is a reason for this. The millions of people who wear spectacles or contact lenses typically remove them at night, making the standard tiny keys impossible to read on a bedside phone. So that’s how designing for people with disabilities made their phone one of the bestsellers.

Can you see it or not really?

When I gave my mother a new iPhone as a gift, the default setting we changed was the size of the UI. We made everything look zoomed in so she can read and type messages. Otherwise, her sight is going to be a problem when she uses the phone.

But now imagine that the software we create has the same problems. And I understand that most people who use gadgets and apps nowadays are young people, below 40, but let’s not forget that a big part of the market is older people. Maybe this thought will change your faded text that is impossible to read unless you have perfect conditions.

Why do you think most car touch screens suck?

There is almost no car on the market that has a great touch screen. And one of the reason for that is that it is hard to imitate the tactile effects of real physical buttons. When you have a physical button, and used your car for some time, you subsconciously know where everything is, so you can use it without watching it. For example when cahnging gears.

  • No tactile feedback

  • The UI most of the times changes with new updates

  • The UI changes depending on the context

A touchscreen requires mental effort, concentration and brain power for you to take action rather than do one thing that a driver must do — focus on the road. That’s why removing, for example, the physical buttons will never help, and there is a chance to improve the experience with voice assistants that will reduce the friction. And this is not a problem with a car touch screens only, but with screens overall. So voice assistants have a more significant potential than we think.

Ever carried a couple of cups of coffee for your colleagues?

Having a doorknob is one of the worst modern architectural issues. That’s why many buildings have door handles rather than knobs. Why? It’s for people who have lost the use of their hands.

But it’s not for them only. It is worth remembering that most of us have been asked many times in an office environment or even at home, to carry multiple cups of coffee and in that case, you too have effectively lost the use of your hands. You can efficiently operate a door handle with your elbow; you can’t do that with a doorknob.

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


A sign is better than a thousand words

For example, at the Schipol airport in Amsterdam, when you are on the horizontal escalator, almost at the end, when it’s time to hop off, a voice says “mind your step”. It is such a shit recording that even if you speak native English, you will barely understand that the voice says “Mind your step”. It has to do with poor audio quality and hardware. But if you are for the first time in the Netherlands, you will think that the voice says something in dutch (it happened to me the first time I was there).

Now imagine old people being there, who most often have hearing problems. A sign, in that case, would do a much better job rather than spending money on creating a voice warning that doesn’t even sound clearly.

Generally speaking, designing for people with disabilities is a great principle to keep in mind — having the assumption that they do not have full use of their abilities or complete freedom of movement at the point of use.


Redesigned Pinterest for blind people

Designing with this type of approach can show you what flaws your products has or what needs to be improved. For example, Pinterest has a base of more of 200 million active users, and among them, they were people with a range of visual impairments, from macular degeneration to complete blindness.

Long Cheng, their lead designer, wanted to see how this category of people use their product and to his dismay, many couldn’t even get past the sign-up screen. People couldn’t even create an account. Similarly, when people did eventually get into the app, recipes read aloud by the phone would be missing steps or ingredients. People found themselves trapped inside pins, unsure how to escape. Even for partially sighted people, Pinterest design, with its minuscule type, was a challenge to discern.

Something I always think about with this work we do is, we’re designing for our future self. Whatever we’re doing will actually benefit all of us in the future–even if you don’t have low vision now— Long Cheng for FastCo

To sum up my thoughts, this does not mean that you have to design only for disabled people. Instead, this is more about perspective. And that is what, usually, makes the difference between a great and a bad product.The simplicity of a product does not mean the reduction of clutter, but rather the broad use it has with a simple mechanism behind it. So if we design products with disabled people in mind, the products we put out could last longer than we thought about.

Eugen Esanu