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How responsible design can help prevent exclusion

21-05-2020Innovation & Design

Following the European Accessibility Act, many companies and organisations have started building more inclusive digital services. The new directive requires public organisations to make their services accessible to people with impairments. To achieve this goal, web standards such as The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) help guide developers, designers and content creators in their efforts.

Kilian Kottmeier

Senior designer

However, the topic of disability is not limited only to people with physical or cognitive impairments. On the contrary, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), disability is a “universal human experience” – everyone can experience disability in certain situations or times in their life. Society is based on a multitude of individuals with varying abilities. Therefore, society as a whole – from the built environment to our tools, products, and services – has to account for the variability of the human body. Consequently, when building tomorrow’s products and services, designers need to consider the diversity of society and prevent exclusion caused by design.

In this blog post, I will summarise my learnings from five interviews I conducted with people with visual impairments. First, I will explain how design causes disability. After that, I’ll go over what designers can do to improve the user experience for people with visual impairments, and finally, suggest small improvements to the design process that can help designers better understand the reality of living with impairments.

This post doesn’t aim to just raise awareness among designers of considering people with disabilities. In addition to that, I want to highlight that people with impairments can offer invaluable insights that help us innovate our digital landscape. By embracing their restrictions, we can build more robust products, thus reducing annoyance for people who experience situational disabilities and exclusion for people with bodily impairments. Therefore, the ultimate goal of this post is to provide some thoughts on how design can reduce disability.

Can design create disability?

Digital products enable the user to choose their preferred way of accessing content. In contrast to physical products like books or other printed media, digital technology gives us the freedom to adjust text size and contrast. Moreover, assistive tools like screen readers can convert text and other structured content to speech. These functionalities allow everyone to alter the visual appearance of a website without changing its content. Features that ease the browsing experience for many users also enable people with impairments to independently access digital content.

Based on five interviews I conducted with people with visual impairments in conjunction with my Master’s thesis, I have discerned three topics that affect the experienced accessibility of a service:

  1. The devices and assistive technology used by a person;
  2. A person’s knowledge of operating these assistive devices; and
  3. The level of accessibility of a service or website.

These three factors influence whether people with visual impairments can enjoy the same browsing experiences as people without impairments.

In the words of one interviewee: “When a website is working fine, you forget that you are using a screen reader.” In this case, the interviewee had access to and sufficient knowledge of assistive technology. This knowledge, in combination with a well-functioning website, decreased his experience of disability.

On the other hand, when “you want to send a form and have to fill a CAPTCHA before sending it; then you get very disappointed and are reminded that you are blind”. (CAPTCHA is a type of text input task that requires a user to successfully interpret and type in a distorted word from an adjacent image, in order to prevent spam and other bot-assisted misuse. They have been criticized for being prohibitively difficult to use from an accessibility point of view.) Such website accessibility flaws reinforce the experience of disability for the user and exclude people with impairments from using the service.

In short, the experience of disability is reduced with access to and knowledge of assistive technology in combination with a sufficiently accessible website. In contrast, if a website doesn’t offer sufficient accessibility, design may increase or sometimes even cause disability. In the given example, the experienced disability was reinforced by a CAPTCHA – a prime example of what Alison Adam and David Kreps (1) meant as they proposed that “poorly designed websites could be regarded as creating disability”. Design has the power to create disability because design plays such a vital role in the personal experience of accessibility.

Positive user experiences

If design creates disability, how can designers and other project stakeholders prevent this exclusion while improving the user experience for everyone?

First of all, it is important to note that universal accessibility is, most likely, unachievable. We might never see a website that is equally easy for all internet users to access. Instead, designers should discern the case-specific disabling factors for each project. This can be achieved by asking questions: Does a product rely on visual content? Will it require people to read long texts? Does it have audio-based content? Is it going to feature motion graphics or moving images? Based on these answers, designers can then discern the people who are most likely to be excluded from using the service.

In my thesis case, I focused on ways to substitute visual content to improve accessibility for people with visual impairments. That definition already includes a wide range of people, starting from people with colorblindness or low vision, to progressive loss of sight, or blindness. Nevertheless, by speaking with five people in various stages of visual impairment, I discerned nine design-related challenges to improve their browsing experience, accompanied with positive example cases from their daily internet usage:

1. Consistent use of headlines

Screen reader users often access the content of a page through its headings. Thus, consistent use of heading tags, starting from H1, will help screen reader users quickly find the content they are looking for without having to listen to all elements on a website.

Good example mentioned in the interviews: Wikipedia

2. Consistent layout on all pages and subpages

Finding your bearings on a website is far more difficult without the aid of visual cues. If the structure of the website changes on subsequent pages, users will have to re-establish their orientation – which is even more difficult for people with visual impairments.

Good example mentioned in the interviews: Wikipedia

3. Differentiation between content and function

When the functional parts of a website – for example, navigational elements – are separated from the content, people using screen readers can skip ahead to the content faster, and people using screen magnification can focus their view on the content section.

Good example mentioned in the interviews: Verkkokauppa.com or Facebook

4. Predictable behaviour

Unexpected transitions on a website are liable to cause confusion for people with visual impairments. Such transitions include menus that open by merely hovering over an icon with the cursor, or predicting search results before the user has finished typing. Enabling people to confirm their action – for example, to remove an item from a shopping cart – will help users stay in control of their interaction with the website.

Good example mentioned in the interviews: Urjalan makeistukku. An international example: Topshop

5. Placing elements in intuitive locations

Following common design patterns for placing elements on a website helps people with visual impairments find items, such as the search functionality or language settings, based on their previous experience.

Good example mentioned in the interviews: The iOS back button is always located in the top left corner.

6. Layout Jumps

Navigating back to a page after browsing a subpage should lead the user to the same position where they previously left off. When a site changes its scroll position after confirming a dialog option, for example, users will need to reorient themselves to find their previous location. Especially for people with visual impairments, this “jumping” behaviour leads to confusion and frustration.

7. Amount of information on a site

Partially sighted people cannot skim texts. Consequently, reading will take them more time and effort than it does for sighted users. A large number of unnecessarily elaborate titles is particularly tiring, especially when the length of the title is irrelevant to understanding its content.

8. Search

To prevent having to listen to the entire content of a website, people with visual impairments often rely on its search functionality. Additional filters to refine and sort search results would give them faster access to the requested content.

Good example mentioned in the interviews: Zalando

The issues raised in the interviews reflect the design requirements listed in the WCAG, but it is important to note that accessibility does not end with a usable website. A poorly designed service can cause mistrust towards the service if malfunction reports by people with impairments are not taken seriously by customer support. Moreover, when updates reduce the accessibility of a website, people start to mistrust the ability of the service provider to provide an inclusive user experience. Also, having to rely on visual content without sufficient descriptions is likely to make people with visual impairments feel ignored by the service.

In other words, a website can end up causing mistrust even if it addresses the abovementioned design challenges. For example, this could mean pushing people with impairments to use a specific accessible version or section of a website, preventing users from filtering search results, or ignoring reported issues from people with impairments. Consequently, designers and other stakeholders have to consider the entire service environment to ensure an inclusive user experience.

Design process

The entire product team is responsible for building an inclusive product, but it is the responsibility of designers specifically to consider the variability of the users. While it is impossible to design for everyone, preventing exclusion for the people most likely to be affected by it prevents design exclusion and, by extension, yields a more robust and versatile product.

In most design processes, designers focus on an average user derived from the majority of people anticipated to use a product. As a result, designers tend to get surprised when they see a website used at 200% magnification, using inverted colours, or spoken through a screen reader. In order to build inclusive products and services, we have to unlearn the ableist view, and forget the notion of the able-bodied user as the average or “normal” audience of any product or service. Designers should not assume digital content to be consumed in one specific way or appearance. Instead, they should focus on maintaining the same richness of information when using assistive technology.

To help designers empathise with people with impairments and better understand their browsing experience, one interviewee suggested a mouseless day. As many people with impairments – such as those with severe visual impairments – cannot use a mouse, a website has to be fully functional through the keyboard. By only using a keyboard to browse the internet, designers learn the impact of the tedious limitations many websites impose on people with impairments.

In conclusion, interaction with people with disabilities should not be encouraged merely to validate the usability of a service, but to drive innovation. By substituting the visual world through their hearing, people with visual impairments are experts in a field that technological advancements are only beginning to discover. Therefore, people with disabilities are experts by experience, and invaluable collaborators for building innovative products and services.

Footnotes

  1. Adam, A., & Kreps, D. (2006). Web Accessibility: A Digital Divide for Disabled People? In E. M. Trauth, D. Howcroft, T. Butler, B. Fitzgerald, & I. DeGross (Eds.), Social Inclusion: Societal and Organizational Implications for Information Systems (pp. 217–228). Springer US.
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