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The importance of integrating accessibility into our designs

Laura Abad
March 29, 2023
Est. Reading: 7 minutes

Imagine being in your kitchen one day cooking with friends. You open a wine, you chat while all the ingredients are being prepared. Always, just like in a restaurant kitchen, there is someone who takes the role of chef while the others wait for their orders; “You cut the carrots.” “Be careful it doesn’t stick to the pan.” “We’re just finishing up, I think someone should toast the bread.” We all have this image in our heads, don’t we? Well. A few days ago, in this same situation I decided to take charge, and of course, I asked one of my friends to cut and toast the bread:

– ” David, look, we’re just finishing, can you cut the bread? I think you know where the toaster is.”

– ” Yes, of course, I’ll get right on it.”

After a while, he yells at me (Yes, he had to yell, the kitchen is big and there were too many of us, with how easy the task had been).

– ” Dude, it’s easy, there are two buttons. One green and one red. Guess it!”

His face instantly changed, and mine as soon as I saw his reaction too. I could only shout at him – because of course, the noise hadn’t gone away – I’m sorry! and make a sorry face. Can you imagine why I was sorry and embarrassed? David is (drum roll) DALTONIC. And now guess what colors he confuses? Red and green! Blunder, and believe me it’s not the first time.

This situation – although it was not the first time it crossed my mind – made me think about how design, which surrounds us in each of our daily tasks, conditions the lives of many people. In this case, something as easy for most people as choosing between red and green, on and off, was a problem for David. I always think, did it really occur to anyone that this could be a problem for a color blind person? (it is true that I always think about it, a little obsession with color) Clearly, it did not occur to anyone.

Research for the majority

We know that there are as many people as colors in the world, actually no, there are many more people than colors. What does this have to do with the design of a product? As there are so many people with so many different characteristics, it is understandable that a product cannot adjust to the needs of all people. This does not mean that it is not possible to take into account, at least, the characteristics of the people who will use the product (UCD), are all potential users taken into account? It is easy to believe that most users have similar characteristics, but this is not the reality.

There are many times that design teams do not think about how people with different characteristics, people with functional diversity, and potential users, can interact with their products. The reality is that within the target for which we design, there are also people with functional diversities, whether visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive. We are going to focus on how to take these groups into account from the beginning of our process.

Now only one thing comes to my mind, either these people are not going to be able to use the product / they will need a lot of help (like David) or we could have more presence of them not only when designing, but also when researching and testing.

Within the target for which we design there are also people with functional diversities, whether visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive. We are going to focus on how to take these groups into account from the beginning of our process.

To begin with, it is important to keep in mind that, just like people without diversity, the fact of having different capabilities does not mean that they all respond in the same way when interacting with a product or performing a task.

Therefore, it is necessary not to fall into the trap of thinking that one person with diversity can count for all. We need to be aware of not making design decisions based only on one user.

There is a second important factor when we want to involve these people in our research. There is always a first time for everything and in this case, it does make a difference. Depending on the diversity of the user, it will be necessary, in the case of a usability test for example, to consider what adaptive strategies this user uses when using a product, as well as to know what assistive technologies he/she uses and let him/her become familiar with the product so that we can collect data similar to those of a non-diverse person.

How to make a UCD design process an inclusive process

Who are our users?

In order to have people with functional diversity present from the beginning, we can use tools that help us to contextualize who our users are.

User profile groups and individuals will help us to create an image of them.

  • User profile groups: Describe the characteristics of the users of the product (what they do, how often they use the product, where they are from, and the environment in which they live, among others). In this chaos, it is advisable to add the specific factors that impact a person with diverse thinking so that they can also use the product. For example, do not assume that a blind person will not use an RRSS app.
  • Personas: Hypothetical archetypes that represent real people during the design process. Including several Personas with different functional diversities helps to keep them always present. To create this tool we need to include accessibility considerations and descriptions of possible limiting conditions in the use of the product.

How can they use the product?

Having a picture of how these people can use the product helps us to focus on possible usage problems.

  • Workflow analysis: It helps us to define the process tasks, which are the steps a user takes to complete a task. To do this we can observe how people with diversity use the product. This does not necessarily have to be within the research. It serves to understand their behavior or adaptive strategies.
  • Scenarios: This is the description of a person using a product to achieve a goal. Narratives are used to tell the story by describing one or more tasks. Include accessibility by giving details of how a person in limited conditions interacts with a product using adaptive strategies, usually including assistive technology.

How can the product be tested?

In this case, to test whether a product is accessible or not, various techniques can be used to help find usability problems when using a product.

  • Standards and guidelines: accessibility evaluation tools: They help to make sure that you address all the issues that concern people with functional limitations. Accessibility standards exist for different products. Keep in mind that the goal is not to check whether the product is accessible or not, but to make it an accessible product.
  • Heuristic evaluation: An accessibility professional must judge accessibility and usability according to design elements in accordance with usability principles.
  • Screen techniques: These are used to identify the potential barriers of a product. For this technique, it is necessary to take into account adaptive strategies, assistive devices and assistive technologies. It must be taken into account that they are not simulations of a limitation since they do not recreate the real experiences of a person with diversity. People with diversity usually manage to perform tasks more easily than this technique because they are used to it.
  • Usability test: we all know this technique so it could not be missing. Thanks to this technique we can obtain both qualitative and quantitative data on the performance of our participants. If we include participants with the diversity it is very necessary to take into account the workflows related to accessibility, although we must take into account that we will not be able to evaluate all the problems, we will be able to comment with these people. To do this we need to:
  1. To have participants with different functional diversities. Remember one is not a sample of all. Many characteristics can impact the use of the product (when the diversity was acquired, permanence, etc.).
  2. Ask think-out-loud with high moderator interaction.
  3. Be laxer on some tasks or help with some tasks which in these cases can be higher barriers.
  4. Have a context to be able to know what are the most common errors due to accessibility issues.
  5. It is necessary to understand that there may be an overlap between usability and accessibility. We need to know that users with diversity also have general usability problems that other users may have. Therefore it is important to perform other techniques such as an expert review or heuristic evaluation.
  6. Doing several tests involving different diversities helps to find many problems.

Always focus on the target user. If we already know that the product is going to be used by people with deafness, involve more percentage of those people.

Using a toaster

These are some of the tips you can follow to make your product more accessible.

If we go back to my kitchen, with my friend David and the toaster, knowing beforehand that the designers have followed an inclusive and universal design process, do you think he should have asked me for help?

– “David, look, we’re just finishing, can you cut the bread? I think you know where the toaster is.”

– “Yeah sure, I’ll get right on it.”

Soon after she yells at me (Yes, she had to yell, the kitchen is big and there were too many of us, with how easy the task had been).

“Hey Laura, how does your toaster work? Ah, wait! There’s a button with an On and the other with an Off “

For more information

How to run remote research with people with disabilities – https://www.pushconf.tv/how-to-run-remote-research-with-people-with-disabilities/
Sarah Horton “Involving people with disabilities in UX reseach”
How to conduct Usability studies for accesibility
https://www.nngroup.com/reports/how-to-conduct-usability-studies-accessibility/
Just ask – Integrating accesibility throughout design / Shawn Lawton Henry

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