Designing for Global Accessibility, Part I

Awareness is everything

In our three-part series, Google’s User Experience researchers Nithya Sambasivan and Astrid Weber discuss the principles behind building globally accessible products, and offer practical resources for the design and development community. Here in part one, we’ll outline how designers and developers can increase their own awareness around accessibility issues by checking assumptions around users, use cases, and use contexts. By setting out to gain a more nuanced understanding of users’ needs, we can move towards technologies that serve the largest, most diverse audience.

What exactly is global accessibility? And what does it have to do with design?

No two users are exactly alike. Physical and cognitive disabilities, as well as environmental factors, can inhibit people from fully engaging with technology: hardware, software, and beyond.

As UX researchers, we often find similar—sometimes even identical—issues that impact users’ ability to interact with their tech; and while the restrictions across users and use cases vary, the design implications are similar. For example, bright sunshine, low vision, or a cracked phone screen can all be factors that motivate the need for better contrast ratios.

Living in an increasingly globalized world means that there's an opportunity to proactively build ethical and meaningful products that are inclusive of societies and cultures worldwide. Let’s start that journey by learning more about designing for global accessibility.

Learn about global user communities and how they use technology

Use cases for your application might surprise you. Sarita, from Bangalore, India, fell from her roof a couple of years ago, and was left paralyzed in her early 40s. Unable to leave the house for work, she turned to the Internet to create an income for herself. These days she ships the traditional garments from her home town all across the country, and lives financially independent from her family. She also operates her laptop with one hand. Make an effort to understand how people with a variety of needs will make use of your technology.

It’s also important to understand that accessibility is almost always intersectional; norms of gender, religion, or class may further include or exclude people from technology.


  • Attend talks and meetups to learn from people who are accessibility experts in a certain geographic region or thematic area.
  • When conducting your own user research, expand your sample to include participants with disabilities. Over a billion people worldwide have some form of disability, and a sampling strategy that represents the population will help you build truly useful products. NGOs and local community organizations can help to connect you to people with disabilities. An intentional effort to include diverse participants will help improve your technology for all users.
  • If travel is difficult, use remote research tools to gather feedback from global users.


Be mindful about representing users inclusively

Designers and developers of apps often imagine a “target” user, who is represented in design choices, onboarding, and marketing--somebody from the majority population due to familiar assumptions. Don’t exclude people with disabilities from advancing and meaningfully making use of your app; expand your idea of the “average” in representation choices. Remember that representation does not mean adding a token solo shot of a technology user with disability, but truly aiming for broader inclusion in society.


  • Include diverse representation in your application: race, clothing, physical ability, and social class.
  • Pay attention to details, as they speak for themselves. Do you show left handers in your illustrations? Prosthesis in your personas? Will these users have the same experience interacting with your product?
  • Learn about local design and embrace the aesthetics you find in your app’s visual language and imagery.


Accommodate different levels of literacy and many different languages

English is the most dominant language on the web, but on a global level, it’s not that widely spoken or understood. India has 22 official languages with over a million speakers each, and one quarter of the Indian population is non-literate. For people with disabilities, the literacy rate is even lower. When these users open your app, they may rely on symbols and pictures, potentially with accessibility aids, to perform tasks.


  • Use simple, basic English and avoid jargon.
  • Translate to languages your users are most comfortable with for reading. Test various languages and text flows in your app’s interface. For example, Arabic takes more vertical space and is rendered right to left.
  • Keep your sentences short and provide graphical cues to guide non-literate users and people with cognitive disabilities. Combining text with images--such as a written menu with clear icons--enables easier and faster access across all literacy levels.
  • Avoid complex hierarchical structures, such as menus, tabs, or drop downs, as users are more likely to get lost; plus, those who access your app with a screen reader might need a long time to find what they are looking for.
  • Minimize the need to type or text search. Whenever possible, allow voice input, autocomplete text fields, and present browseable interfaces.


Empower your users when it comes to privacy, safety, and security

People who are illiterate or visually impaired often depend on others for daily activities. They may rely on family, friends, or caretakers to help them get places or perform private tasks, such as paying bills and creating accounts. Users who listen to content via screen readers or who hear audio-visual cues may face privacy issues because people around them may hear their personal content. Online harassment based on disability, along with gender, religion or class is another common pain point. As a result, people with disabilities are especially hesitant to share personal information like phone numbers or pictures, which can make online participation even harder.


  • Help users become aware of their privacy options and controls. Make these controls easy to discover and access.
  • Clearly explain security and data handling of personal information. Let users adjust their privacy settings and provide maximum transparency about how third parties or others can access their data.
  • Allow users who share the same device to easily discover controls to remove private content like search queries or recommendations, switch accounts easily, and learn about private modes.
  • Allow users to report abuse or take down sensitive or harmful content easily, and show immediate results.
  • Enable people to backup or export information from your app in case their phone gets lost or stolen.


In Part II**of the series, learn about the impact of infrastructure, economics, and device specifications on a globally diverse audience.