How accessibility drives innovation | CIO Dive

How accessibility drives innovation | CIO Dive

“Innovation” often conjures images of groundbreaking new technologies and game-changing consumer products. But what if the most profound innovation could stem from an area that’s historically overlooked? What if I told you that accessibility – a concept traditionally siloed off in the world of design – does not only redefine innovation but also propels it?

Finding urgency to innovate

According to the Miro report “Risk vs. Reward: Innovation in Modern Enterprises,” the urgency for innovation is a sentiment nearly universally shared, with 98% of global leaders and a significant majority of information workers acknowledging its importance. The driving force behind this is competition: 79% of leaders and 76% of information workers cite the necessity of innovation to maintain a competitive edge and avoid the risk of disruption. Moreover, 82% of leaders say the life expectancy of a company that doesn’t innovate is five years max.

Despite saying they see poor or lacking innovation as a fatal error, 62% of leaders and 52% of information workers admit that it often takes a backseat in their companies, raising questions about the challenges organizations face in innovating efficiently and effectively.

The desire for innovation isn’t enough; it’s time to act – and there’s good reason to view accessibility as a path forward.

Accessibility: the catalyst for innovation

Accessibility is a proven potent driver of innovation. We can take cues from history; Alexander Graham Bell’s work on communication for his deaf students led him to visualize sound, which then led to the invention of both recorded audio and the telephone. Then there’s Ray Kurzweil, who broke new ground with audio and speech synthesis software for visually impaired users. These feats challenge us to rethink how we define innovation, stretching beyond its familiar borders to include accessibility.

Designing for disability has reshaped the innovation landscape. At Miro, for instance, accessibility is an essential component that steers our creativity. Features like “Reduce Motion,” initially conceived to alleviate visual overload for vestibular disorder sufferers, now cater to a broader user base. We’ve provided options to change the board background color and made the board fully keyboard-accessible. This approach aligns with the inclusive design guideline: “Solve for one, expand to many.”

Expanding the box of creativity

That “one” represents approximately 1.3 billion people, or 1 in 6, who have a significant disability, according to the World Health Organization. Designing for such a vast demographic necessitates thinking outside the box. Considering this community pushes companies to think more creatively, leading to unexpected and groundbreaking solutions for everyone.

Examples of the benefits of inclusion can be found in our everyday environment. For example, curb cuts, the depressions found just about anywhere a street or driveway meets a sidewalk, initially were designed with wheelchair users in mind. Today, they serve parents pushing strollers, cyclists moving in and out of streets and virtually any pedestrian moving from Point A to Point B. Accessibility guidelines, once commonly treated as hindrances and inconvenient by people outside of the community, are – and always have been – stimuli for out-of-the-box solutions.

Gaining a competitive edge

Designing with accessibility in mind swiftly allows businesses to expand their solutions from meeting the needs of “one” to “many,” thereby creating a competitive advantage. Fostering an accessible and inclusive environment not only enhances customer-facing products but also improves internal operations.

Increasingly, companies are mandating that any procured software complies with WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines. This compliance broadens their appeal to educational institutions, as well as government and public sector organizations.

Also, adopting inclusive hiring practices significantly expands your talent pool, attracting a more diverse set of applicants. A team that reflects the diversity of their customers – and the world at large – produces outputs that are inherently superior to what less inclusive competitors can offer.

There’s compelling data to back up the business case for inclusion. Human capital adviser and former Deloitte partner Juliet Bourke revealed in her 2016 book, Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? How Diverse Teams Create Breakthrough Ideas and Make Smarter Decisions, that inclusive workplaces are “6 times more likely to be innovative and agile” and “8 times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.”

Sooner or later, every organization comes to realize the need for an accessible product or service. Historically, however, accessibility has lagged behind emerging technologies. Take, for instance, Apple’s initial iPhone launch. The device was criticized by the accessibility community for its lack of physical, haptic buttons, which were a mainstay on other phones. Nonetheless, Apple developed an innovative solution that utilized screen readers, allowing users to “touch to explore” and “swipe to navigate” iOS. Today, the iPhone is the most used device among the blind and visually impaired community.

As musician Stevie Wonder aptly observed, “There’s nothing on the iPhone or iPad that you can do that I can’t do.”

Emerging technologies and accessibility

Looking toward the future, it’s high time we shifted the script. Technologies like AI offer a unique opportunity to get ahead of the curve. Organizations can leverage AI to enhance user experiences across the board. Take “Be My Eyes,” for instance, a service that uses AI to connect sighted volunteers with visually impaired users, assisting them in everyday tasks.

Inclusion must begin at the initial stages of product development. The key to ensuring this is meaningful involvement of people with disabilities throughout the product lifecycle. The phrase “Nothing about us, without us” captures this sentiment perfectly and rings especially true in the software industry.

Think inclusive-first

This is a wake-up call. Innovation driven by accessibility isn’t a side story; it’s the main event. 

Just like curb cuts, which help everyone, or an accessible feature that ends up growing and serving a company’s entire user base, the benefits aren’t limited to a niche group. By thinking inclusively from the start, we not only cater to a broader audience but also stumble upon solutions that have universal applications.

If there’s one takeaway here, it’s this: Accessibility doesn’t merely align with innovation. It drives it. And in today’s competitive landscape, ignoring this fact isn’t just a missed opportunity; it’s a disservice to the potential of what true innovation can achieve