The World Health Organization estimates that there are one billion people in the world currently living with a disability. That translates to roughly one in seven of us who risk being left behind from participating in modern society if we do not design inclusive software experiences.

From a business perspective, one in seven also means the stakes are too high to ignore the topic of inclusion. According to the World Wide Web Consortium, businesses that make accessibility a priority in their strategy are more innovative, have greater market reach, and are more capable of increasing their brand value. Furthermore, meeting accessibility standards often means that businesses reduce associated legal risks that come with non-compliance, for example in the public sector.

And with the spending power of the disability market estimated at nearly $7 trillion, the business case is solid. Major tech companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Dropbox, Yahoo, and LinkedIn are increasingly stepping up their commitment to develop accessible technologies. SAP also has a long-standing commitment to the values of inclusion, signing the SAP Global Human Rights Commitment Statement. At the heart of this movement is the recognition that inclusive design — a design that caters to people of all abilities — carries with it important societal, financial, and legal benefits.

Empathy as a starting point for software design

Inclusive software design starts with empathy: recognizing that users come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities, and have vastly different needs. From a position of empathy, inclusive design is about reacting to these differences with openness and curiosity.

This approach requires us to look beyond the immediate use case and ask important questions.

Can my design be used by a diverse group of users? What if the user is or becomes impaired in some way? How will my design impact an aging user? What unforeseen or unlikely usage possibilities might emerge from my design?

Empathic design means asking designers to radically widen their perspective and to drop any preconceived biases. Only from this place can we truly begin to understand not only what the user’s immediate expectations must be, but also identify their latent needs: the desires they may not even realize they have. Most importantly, it means not to see differences as challenges or setbacks, but rather as opportunities for innovation.

Yet inclusive design might not necessarily mean designing a single product that is usable by everyone. As inclusive design leader Susan Goltsman explains, it can also (and maybe most importantly) mean “designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging”. It is about being open-minded and actively exploring solutions without preconceived notions of how the user should interact with the system.

It may sound quite philosophical, but it is easy to put into practice. It essentially means giving the users freedom and choices, and through these, discovering what unexpected user preferences might emerge.

Designing inclusive experiences through innovation

Have you ever used a hands-free feature on your smartphone while driving to work? Or opted to increase the font size on your screen rather than get out your reading glasses? Many of the capabilities designed to improve software accessibility turn out to be functions that benefit everyone.

This tendency is one of the main drivers of design at SAP. The user experience design system SAP Fiori provides users with multiple interaction possibilities such as mouse, keyboard, touch screens, screen-reader support, and high-contrast visual design themes.

The key to designing for inclusion is to offer the user a variety of interaction experiences. Interaction paradigms such as eye-tracking technology, machine-brain interfaces, natural language processing, and voice-enablement will continue to gain traction.

Imagine the opportunities gaze-controlled interaction or brain-computer interfaces might bring for users with mobility issues or even cognitive conditions such as dyslexia.

Designing for inclusion means continuously asking these kinds of questions in an effort to push the boundaries of software design and pave the way for a future where no user gets left behind.

The article originally appeared on Medium: Innovation Spotlight and Forbes.

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