Inclusive by Design: our approach to accessible product development

We strive for the best in website accessibility to ensure our products and experiences are open to everyone—regardless of physical, sensory or cognitive ability, or other attributes.

A young woman with brown hair uses her smartphone with a robotic prosthetic hand.
A young woman with brown hair uses her smartphone with a robotic prosthetic hand.

Intuit’s mission is to power prosperity around the world. This mission goes beyond just creating great products that work for most people. It means making sure our platform functions across a diverse customer base with a range of abilities. The World Health Organization estimates there are over one billion people in the world that experience a disability. So, to truly power prosperity we have to consider the different barriers people face and how to remove them. 

Intuit strives for the best in website accessibility to ensure our products and experiences are open to everyone—regardless of physical, sensory or cognitive ability, or other attributes. 

This commitment requires our teams to move beyond simply fixing accessibility errors to consider a much bigger picture: how the code and design behind our products can embrace a customers’ full self. 

So what does it mean to build accessible technology? 

We start by looking at societal disability models, then apply inclusive content design principles. Ultimately, when we create products that work for people with disabilities, they’re likely to also work well for other people in diverse circumstances. 

At Intuit, this means evolving from traditional disability models that focus on remediation (medical, social) to encompass approaches to accessibility that take a broader set of  factors into consideration that may contribute to a person’s impairment (intersectionality, trauma-informed) to create product experiences that are inclusive by design.

  • Medical – The medical model of disability is a responsibility to address a physical impairment. In response, society built prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, screen readers, medication, eye glasses, and walkers. 
  • Social – The social model is an expanded view of disability that places responsibility on  the environment itself. In essence, people with disabilities aren’t disabled by their impairments, but by the world around them. In response, the focus is on removing barriers to enable them to participate in society like everyone else.
  • Intersectionality – The intersectionality model directs us to look at the whole body, self, and societal impacts, challenging us to design for the complexity of a person’s identity in lieu of a single identity. It refers to the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender to explain the layering of systemic discrimination or disadvantage.
  • Trauma-informed – Lastly, the trauma-informed model acknowledges that cognitive and mental stressors in a person’s life, resulting from trauma, are important factors for us to keep in mind when building product experiences. 

Within this context, we apply inclusive content design principles to make our products accessible to a broad spectrum of people: 

  • Lead with curiosity and empathy – Our language reflects our origins and experiences. When we embrace different perspectives with curiosity and empathy, we make that discomfort temporary while we learn. It also pushes us to ensure visibility and create space for others to lead.
  • Question what you think is “normal” – We’re all shaped by many different things—gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, ability, age, and so on. Challenge your assumptions and biases about what you consider normal or typical.
  • Include diversity in your content – Intuit products are for everyone, regardless of age, race, sex, gender identity and expression, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, military/veteran status, and physical or mental disabilities. Be thoughtful about what you’re writing. Examine who’s in the picture and who’s out. Your designs should be inclusive of everyone.
  • Only ask for info we need – The content decisions we make are powerful. Our customers’ product experiences don’t change based on their identity. This means we don’t need to ask for personal info that doesn’t affect how customers use a product.
  • Watch out for outdated terms – As we learn more about how we talk about people, we learn that some terms used in the past just don’t cut it anymore. Most of those terms aren’t clear and don’t put people first.
  • Use gender-neutral language – We communicate to customers in the second person (you), and when we refer to other people, we use third person and keep our language gender neutral, including pronouns. Don’t assume that the accountant, tax expert, or other financial professional is a he.

Our opportunity as designers and coders is to apply a “shift-left” strategy to accessible software development. By engaging accessibility specialists up front in the development process, all accessibility requirements can be understood and implemented by product development team members throughout each phase, including quality assurance testing.  

From theory to best practice: reducing cognititve load

At Intuit, we know that accessibility is more than just fixing broken buttons or designing inclusive interfaces. It’s about minimizing cognitive load, or the burden on a customer’s mental capacity, to create products that simply work, and work well, for everyone across the ability spectrum. 

From an intersectionality and trauma-informed perspective, we need to consider the whole person. For example, when designing a product like TurboTax, we need to make sure that everything is labeled, keyboard-accessible, and readable. But we also need to consider how we can minimize “cognitive load” (the amount of working memory resources used) for someone in acute pain, anxious or with limited ability to focus on the task.

TurboTax provides contextual help features that help to allay confusion and reduce anxiety during tax season, which can be a stressful time for our customers. For example, help articles point filers directly to the portion of the tax form they need to update. Also in TurboTax, filers are given immediate, personalized explanations for why a tax refund may be larger or smaller than expected.

QuickBooks Capital levels the playing field for small businesses for securing short-term loans, using an artificial intelligence algorithm that determines a company’s ability to repay a loan from the information in their QuickBooks account. Getting financing through a traditional bank can be a long and frustrating process that too often ends in a “no.” So expanding access to capital for small businesses (including owners with disabilities and/or members of underrepresented communities) can be a critical success factor for growth. Notably, 60% of customers who obtain loans through QuickBooks Capital would not qualify for a loan from a traditional bank. 

We’ve come a very long way…and have a way to go 

It’s been more than thirty years since the the American Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in the US.  It was a landmark legislation that allowed people with a disability to engage in society equally, regardless of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities.  

Global Accessibility Awareness Day offers a time to reflect on the work that still lies ahead. Designing for accessibility and inclusivity is not about fixing accessibility errors or providing labeled text. It’s about creating products that just work, that minimize cognitive load, provide contextual information and assistance, and are designed for the full person and their experiences. 

By embracing this approach, we can work with our customers to create products that truly power prosperity. 

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Written by Ted Drake

Ted Drake is an experienced engineer, developer evangelist, and accessibility expert. Ted leads the accessibility efforts for Intuit's desktop, web, and mobile products. He is the co-founder of Intuit’s Special Needs and Abilities network for employees and promotes Intuit’s diversity in hiring programs. Prior to Intuit, Ted co-founded the Yahoo! Accessibility Lab and worked on some of Yahoo’s largest web sites.