All for One! How Accessibility Unlocks the Secret to Radical Innovation

By Nathaniel Giraitis, design strategy principal at digital transformation consultancy Futurice UK

Once upon a time in a 1980s kitchen, entrepreneur Sam Farber noticed that his wife, Betsey, was struggling to use an old-fashioned metal vegetable peeler as they made dinner together. Her experience with mild arthritis led him to create the now-iconic OXO handle with non-slip grip; reinventing household utensils for a generation of cooks. “It’s hard to think of a vegetable peeler as radical,” Farber later declared. “But I guess it was.”

As an early pioneer of Universal Design, Farber and his team found inspiration in people with dexterity challenges, which led them to a gap in the larger homewares market. Whereas average people had been “fine” with kitchen tools that were simple or decorative, they never imagined that tools could be truly comfortable, or even a delight to use. It was the acute sensitivity of the arthritic hand that helped the team find shapes that were truly a pleasure to hold. Combine that with a level of performance that was professional grade, and they had a winner on their hands.

By solving for those at the extremes – an arthritic housewife and a professional chef – Faber and co. had solved for everyone in between. What’s more, the Good Grips line tapped into a latent need that none of its competitors had considered, and the market gladly paid a premium many times over. The design story was codified in a Harvard Business Review case study, and the little vegetable peeler found its way into the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Universal design is an invitation to stretch

So what does this story teach us about how to consider accessibility?  It’s a challenge gaining visibility – 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent and 22% live with some form of disability. In a competitive market with most designers adopting a user-centric approach as standard, the next design frontier arguably lies in going beyond solving for the “average user.”

To bring this thinking to a modern, digital context, take Network Rail, which recently piloted a series of touchscreens with live service updates (usually announced on public address systems) available in British Sign Language video messages. While these were inspired by the d/Deaf community, the on-screen captions help any commuter who might struggle to hear public announcement systems. Being inspired by those who can never hear the audio announcements resulted in a solution that also solved an issue for those who sometimes miss the announcements – namely, everyone.

Whatever the area of design, taking a moment to consider those who are typically excluded by a product or service increases the constraints for it to be successful. Doing so pushes designers to think more critically, and can unlock and inspire solutions that would never have occurred had we focused on the average 50th percentile person. Approached correctly, tackling accessibility challenges can spark a leaping off point for the bold and the unexpected.

Surprising and significant designs begin with minority needs

Whether digital or physical, product design goes beyond the expected when it considers the needs of those people who expand the typical boundaries of a given format. US public radio podcast This American Life supersized its audience base by making its entire audio archive available free in transcript format. The result triggered a series of design wins, including accessibility for people with hearing disabilities, improved understanding for listeners who know English as a second language, and the ability to tune into This American Life in sound-sensitive environments.

In aviation, an airport employee’s experience with his autistic son led to the launch of a sensory-friendly space at Pittsburgh International Airport. The first-of-its-kind suite is designed to help any passengers who may need a calming space, from neurodiverse travellers to nervous flyers. It includes a calming transition foyer, soundproof family rooms and a real plane that help passengers acclimatise to the flying process. The primary aim of the project was to help special needs travellers; but in reality, it provides everyone who might like a quiet place to decompress and get prepared to fly.

Meanwhile, London-based department store Selfridges used imaginative audio descriptions to make their A/W 2023 window displays more inclusive. The aim was to provide audio description of the famously well decorated shop windows for people who were visually impaired. However, taking a note from universal design and finding inspiration in the accessibility moment, the team ended up taking visitors of all abilities on an audio “immersive journey” of investigation and intrigue, telling the story behind the windows that they would not otherwise have heard.

Meeting the mantle of human need

Making diversity the north star of a given design process comes with a host of benefits. Yes, it offers a touchpoint for next-level ingenuity, but it’s also cost-effective. It’s far cheaper to design a product or service to be accessible from the outset, than it is to adapt retroactively. Then there’s the cost of not being accessible – as Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) discovered when the US Department of Transportation fined the company $200,000 for failing to comply with accessibility requirements. The airline had created a separate website for people with disabilities instead of incorporating accessibility into their website for everyone.

When Finavia redesigned its digital touchpoints at Helsinki Airport, the airport operator grabbed the opportunity to bake accessibility into all services from the beginning. This was facilitated by the creation of an accessible design system, which allowed all digital touchpoints to target high levels of accessibility (WCAG Level AA), while speeding up design and development work by reducing current/ future costs.

The resulting experience benefits both those with permanent disabilities (e.g. those with vision impairments) as well as the general public who may have temporary disabilities (for example, anyone straining to read a screen with dazzling glare, or stressed with limited cognitive bandwidth). Following the launch, user registration was up by 400% and revenue increased by 125%, supported by the new digital systems.

A new chapter of user-centred innovation is here, and it’s all about going beyond the average and expected. By being inspired by accessibility challenges (rather than constrained by them) design and development teams can embrace more inclusive processes, resulting in more universally enjoyable and successful experiences for all.