Inclusive User-Centered Design

Designing for everybody means designing for everybody. The focus of creating better, faster, innovative products through a user-centered design process is becoming an industry standard. It has made it’s way from just a design process to being a central point in the mantra of good business practice.

So why is it that, while we proudly promote the importance of practicing user-centered design, we neglect the needs of nearly 20% of our users? The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in seven people in the world have a disability. The U.S. Census estimates that number to be as high as one in five.

Disability, also referred to as functional limitation, is defined as a restriction that affects physical, sensory, or brain ability and causes difficulty in day-to-day functions. These functions are broad, from self-care, to running errands and socializing, to accessing the growing range of digital tools and services. The more digital products we influence as creators, the more important it becomes to have a realistic understanding of the user’s limitations.

User-centered design is necessarily inclusive design. Designing with awareness of the limitations in how users access products, services and environments not only embraces a diverse audience, but also means that design solutions don’t have a “band-aid” version. Instead, there is one widely useable design that adapts to existing accessibility aids.

Designing for Limitations Invites Innovation

The negative perception of accessible design practice stems from the often “ugly” and frustrating digital experiences of public and government services, which are required to comply to a set of regulations. In the United States, these regulations are outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA). Globally, there are standards and regulations established with similar goals - to ensure inclusive environments and public services. These regulations are not prescriptive, but are suggestions for good practice in design. They can be used as initial guides to create better, more usable designs for everyone.

Technologies and services geared towards users with functional limitations invite innovation. Not only are a growing number of accessibility tools available on most platforms, but new, alternate interaction models are being defined, refined, and applied to “every-day” services.

Text-to-speech (TTS) technology, for example, seems unglamorous in concept, but consider that it’s inverse - speech-to-text (STT) - is the foundation for products that rely on speech recognition. Integrating TTS and STT with technologies that detect, interpret, react to, and access additional contextual information turns it into a tool with environmental awareness. Take for example OrCam, a camera that detects text or visual cues in the environment and converts them to speech for the visually impaired. This alone is a great application of this technology, but imagine integrating that into the conceptual promise of Google Glass, delivering relevant and contextual information about the environment to the user. That type of environmental awareness by our technologies has the potential to be a powerful tool for everyone.

One of the most experimental and advanced areas of interactive innovation is the gaming community, which has embraced the newest technologies in search of the most exciting, realistic and immersive controls for gaming experiences. In the process, they have adopted, and taken to the next level, new kinds of interactive controls. For example, NeuroSky MindWave (an EEG biosensor) and it’s open-source counterpart Open BCI being used for biofeedback therapy through gamified monitoring and training experiences. It is also being used as the primary controller for gaming environments, making game experiences not only hands-free, but also driven by the user’s biometric state. Approaching digital products similarly can create an entire new way of considering not only the interaction with products alone, but our relationship with the devices and platforms we use for access.

Start By Designing Inclusively

When so much of basic digital accessibility can be achieved through adherence to best practices for design and implementation, it can question non-compliant products on ethical grounds. Understanding the functionality of the accessibility features available on most major platforms is essential to make products that, at minimum, work well with these tools.

However, as designers we always want to create work that goes beyond minimum expectations. Most of us are familiar with the overwhelming feeling that comes with facing a blank sheet of paper. Introducing constraints, requirements, and conceptual and emotional directions helps shape thoughts into tangible solutions. What is unique about beginning the design process with a limitation in mind is that it challenges the product framework to be more flexible and forces us to use a realistic set of constraints and think outside of the box from the start.

Some Easy Wins:

1. Play nice with existing accessibility features on each platform.

Become familiar with what your computer, tablet and phone offer for accessibility features. Experiment with ways to utilize them for their intended and unintended purposes. Understand how and why they work with different kinds of interfaces.

2. Activate and use alternate modes and interaction models.

The experience of activating an accessibility mode (for example, activating TTS when headphones are detected) should be considered. Apple and Android both have easy-to-access tools.

3. Talk to and test with people, not personas.

User testing is always important. Our imagined user challenges are often incomplete or entirely wrong. It is particularly important to talk to and test with users, especially when there is little or no data to support design decisions.

4. Validate.

There are many tools available to help validate code against specific accessibility features:

5. Forms, buttons and hovers are #1 offenders.

… But, they are also easy fixes. Maintaining contrast between the different states of fields, avoiding hover-only triggers, and clearly creating highlighted states for buttons are simple ways to make the majority of actionable elements accessible.

We are responsible for being inclusive in our design practices and should recognize both the importance and challenge of pursuing that goal. By becoming aware of the basic steps we can take to ensure that our products are accessible, the design community can push the limits of “best practices” and provide great experiences for everyone.