UX Design and Accessibility: My life means nothing without you.
In life, there are elements that do not carry any special weight on their own. Elements that, only when combined with others, become outstanding and extraordinary. We can see this in the chemical reactions that take place all around us. Without the combination of two elements, we wouldn’t have most of the products that we use day to day. If one takes a look at one element by itself, the element lands either on the left side of the periodic table (making it a metal element), or on the right side (making it a non-metal element). Well, in reality there is a third section called “rare Earth elements”, but lets imagine that none of our elements belong there for simplicity.
If we dig deeper, we will learn that metal elements have certain characteristics: They are shiny, good conductors of electricity and heat, malleable, among others. A non-metal element is a bad conductor of electricity and heat, not really malleable and attracts electrons. These are interesting properties, but there isn’t anything particular amazing about each category on their own. Now, lets take a look at the following reaction:
2H2 + O2 = 2H2O + energy
We took two molecules of Hydrogen plus one molecule of oxygen, and we created water. Yes, water! You saw it. Two basic elements which are fairly cool on their own: Hydrogen lives in the air, and is present in numerous chemical reactions. Oxygen is pretty important for human beings to live, indeed breathe. But, we made water! Humans are made up to 60% of water. Water is one of the most indispensable compounds in the entire planet Earth. With no water, there wouldn’t be life.
Well friends, accessibility and UX design are the same thing. Two key elements which on their own can do cool things, but when put together they make something amazing. They make what we call great design and user experience.
So then we ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a UX designer? A UX designer is someone who caters to user problems by providing outstanding solutions. We are not about making things pretty: at times quite the opposite. Our real weapon is to make sure that our designs are helping users get their tasks done, and achieve their goals as fast as possible through an usable and friendly interface. Pretty much we are the gatekeepers of everything a user wants: a functional, reliable, usable, convenient, pleasurable, and meaningful experience (design is just the way we arrive at the experience). Experiences are memorable events with a personal quality that live in our subconscious. They remind us of how delightful or crappy something was.
UX designers have the duty to look after the experiences that our products leave in our users mind. Pretty hard work, huh!?
When design work is done with care, customer satisfaction is guaranteed and customer loyalty is the byproduct. If the user is dissatisfied, often that customer is gone forever.
What is accessibility? Pretty simple, accessibility is whether a product is accessible to all audiences regardless of age or ability. It is about granting freedom to people by enabling all necessary channels of interaction with a product. Accessibility is usually referred to (incorrectly) as allowing the differently-abled users to interact with an existing product (which was designed for sighted users), as an after-thought.
If we take the concept of accessibility and think out-of-the-box for just a moment, we will find that every single user will experience a scenario where he or she will find themselves “disabled”. Imagine that you are driving your car and you need directions to get to your destination. You are not supposed to use your phone (with your hands) while you are driving. Under those circumstances you are a disabled user because the product or interface does not allow you to complete your task or help you get to your goal. Or you are at the beach and you want to read your Facebook newsfeed to catch-up with your friends’ latest posts. If Facebook’s color palette doesn’t provide enough contrast, you won’t be able to read those posts. I can keep going with multiple use cases to illustrate my point:
Accessibility can be situational: Its not about differently-abled users. Its about all users, who can be “disabled” under certain circumstances.
In the field of design, many people see accessibility as a separate discipline. A discipline which comes with a magic wand, and out of nothing converts inaccessible experiences into accessible experiences. In certain organizations, there is a particular person in each team that takes care of accessibility, and the rest of the team relies on that person all the time, bottlenecking the work under one single soul. Well, my friends, let me tell you that it shouldn’t work that way. Any design team that treats accessibility as a separate discipline doesn’t understand what a good user experience means, and frankly don’t go and work for them.
Does that mean that accessibility is part of the design process? Long story short, Yes! Universal design is the theory that postulates that accessibility is an integral part of the design process. Many people in the field think that accessibility is a barrier to innovation. It is not! I have seen many people treat accessibility as an afterthought, which leads to wasted effort and re-work. A design may be beautiful, finished and polished, but if accessibility wasn’t considered, it will be the “party pooper”. Accessibility may not fit into that “polished” design because it was never considered during the design process. That means that designers need to start over, or make compromises on the current design to layer-in accessibility. Most of the time, even after such compromises, the experience on the audible spectrum is still very bad. Now we ask ourselves: why do we have to provide a good experience for those users who can fit under our paradigms, and a bad experience for others? This is an example of designing for ourselves, and not for our users.
Accessibility is another guideline that designers must follow when designing for people. At the end of the the day we design for our users and people, not ourselves! We have the tendency to design for our peers, too. That is a common mistake: We need to incorporate the full spectrum of our audience. Universal design is what many designers, including myself, call the act of “designing with accessibility in mind”. It is the creation of an experience that anyone can use regardless of his/her ability.
If we come back to my original story about combining single elements to create super-duper powerful things, UX and accessibility are a perfect example. UX is responsible for the experience and user flows. Accessibility is granting freedom to those that use the web in a different way.
UX + Accessibility = Universal Design
Universal Design is elevating UX to the next level. It is creating a system that works for everyone. Universal design unlocks the next level of understanding in a designer’s mind. It is about understanding users, at its core. Universal design is about considering all possible scenarios. It opens a new level of creativity and innovation.
There is nothing more satisfactory for a designer than to see all of our users be delighted by the experiences we create: regardless of sex, gender, origin, language, ability, disability or otherwise.
Stay accessible out there!