Accessibility Part 1: Designing with empathy for better accessibility

By Roshan Ravi Jan 3, 2017

Current State of Digital Accessibility

Let’s face it. Differently-abled people working in the Tech industry is a tiny minority. Not just tech-industry, but businesses in general, have always been averse to hiring differently abled people. In India, people with disabilities working in the Tech industry constitute just one percent. 

Digital properties are usually built for people with no disabilities. Most businesses perhaps don’t see any value in serving a tiny minority of differently abled people. Enhancing the user experience and adding features that are useful for a perfectly abled person would ensure more business to a company than spending more time and resources on complying  accessibility guidelines.

Businesses thrive on data.  Analytics plays a huge role in understanding users and their behaviors. But, when it comes to differently abled, even Google Analytics won't tell you if a person is using Assistive Technology (Screen Readers, Voiceovers etc.) to use the website.

With little to no participation from differently abled, it is just impossible to convince businesses to even consider that tiny minority when building websites and apps.

Empathy does matter

It's a cliché. But, that doesn't make it any less true.  Humans are innately empathetic. We have managed to build great assistive devices for people with disabilities. We have learned to build our buildings that can be accessed effortlessly by differently abled.  However, when it comes to websites and other digital products, we still haven't learned to use the same empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another being (a human or non-human animal) is experiencing from within the other being's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's position.

Bring Empathy into Design Process

Creating accessible web design, by cultivating a culture of empathy in a team or a business, requires making tweaks to the design and development processes. It needs to start from the ideation stage and has to follow through till the end of the project and beyond to the support stage. 

User Research and UX Design

User Research is the most important process of the development cycle of any project. When building an accessible web design, it is also important to keep the end users who are differently abled in mind before designing the User Experience.

  • Create user personas with different types disabilities. (Color blindness, hearing impaired and other physical and cognitive disabilities)
  • If possible, have differently abled people in the UX Discovery workshops
  • If the above one is not an option (which usually is the case), give as much importance to the Differently Abled User Personas as you would to the normal set of User Personas.
  • Put yourself (and the attendees of your UX Discovery Workshops) in the shoes of Differently Abled user personas and create detailed User Journeys.
  • Identify commonalities and differences between the user behavior of Perfectly abled User Personas and Differently Abled User Personas. 
  • Design User Experiences for all types of users. If required, design different user experiences for users with different disabilities. For example, the user experience for a Visually Impaired will be vastly different from that of a person who has limited use of hands.
  • UI Design

Most UI Designers love subtlety.  While using subtle UI Elements with less color contrast and smaller fonts makes for a visual treat, it hampers the accessibility.  But, that doesn't mean that a designer has to compromise on the quality of design to conform to accessibility guidelines.  Great designs -- or any work that requires creativity -- have always been created when working with limitations and restrictions.

  • Make texts readable by using adequate contrast and size, selecting fonts that are easy to read.
  • Use Icons carefully.  Icons get misinterpreted if they are not communicating the message clearly.  When using icons, they also need to be familiar and standard so that it is easy for users to remember what it does.
  • Always test the designs by converting the mockups into Greyscale. This will help you understand how a color-blind person would see your designs.
  • Responsive Web is not a feature.  It's a standard.  When designing websites, always keep Portable Devices in mind.  Accessibility is not limited to just Differently Abled people using Computers.  All devices matter.
  • Learn about Section 508, AA, AAA standards and WAI and follow those standards when designing websites and apps.

Prototype, Test, and Validate

The best way to validate User Experience of a digital property is to create prototypes and test it with real users. When testing an accessible web design, a well-built prototype will help emulate the features of a website or app for all types of users including differently abled users. When testing with real users is not possible, use the User Personas identified during the UX Discovery and have developers and QAs use the apps by emulating their user behavior.

Note : A lot of Tech Companies build prototypes using tools like Axure or by converting mockups directly into Clickable Prototypes. While this saves time, it certainly won't help you in understanding the User Behavior.  Build prototypes using Front-end Technologies (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript). Prototypes should be able to replicate all the features of a digital property and should be as close to the final design as possible.

Accessible web design also requires the support of a technology framework that can build the desired featured. Here's a look at how Drupal 8 accessibility fares in this regard, and what's still to be achieved.

This is the first part of a series of articles on accessibility. I am writing the next part - Innovation in Accessibility - and will be updating this Article with links.

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