User research to the rescue!Most of us involved with making digital products and services like to solve problems rather than create them. Technology is a great enabler, and it’s exciting to be involved in a project to make things easier and better for people. Accessibility is particularly compelling in this way, making things easier and better for people with disabilities. But accessibility is not thought of as part of user experience. The question is, how to bring the profession’s natural compulsion to solve problems to bear on resolving issues related accessibility? User research activities, such as contextual inquiry interviews and usability testing, are proven tools for focusing attention on otherwise discounted issues with a design or implementation. Often a project team has one “Lorax” who speaks for users, trying to make a case against designs that are unintuitive, difficult, and frustrating to use. In the end, real-life, first-person accounts or demonstrations of how an interaction is difficult to use or how content is difficult to make sense of have much more weight than the perspective of one lone team member. For a project team, it’s difficult to dispute there’s an issue when you see someone struggling to access content or work a control because of how it’s designed and implemented. User research that includes people with disabilities will capture the attention of designers and developers and bring accessibility forward as a problem in need of creative problem solving.
Accessibility and UX, unite!Once a product team embraces accessibility, what then? The needs and preferences of people with disabilities are not widely known and understood in the user experience profession. Accessibility is considered largely a technical issue, to be addressed under the surface, in the code. Attention to accessibility typically happens during QA or after a product launches, and the people responsible for the earlier phases of strategy, design, and content do not give much consideration to accessibility—not due to a lack of concern, but rather a lack of awareness of the impact those phases have on accessible user experience. This is another way user research can help. By including people with disabilities in user research activities, designers, developers, strategists, and writers can learn first-hand what people with disabilities need in order to be successful. Observation and inquiry are the ultimate tools for understanding how people with disabilities use digital products: for example, how someone who is blind uses a touchscreen. It’s also a way to appreciate the value of digital products for people with disabilities: for example, how text-based notifications can help someone who is deaf receive important travel updates when in transit. And it’s a way to learn how designs can hinder someone’s ability to have a successful interaction: for example, how low-contrast color combinations make it difficult for people with low vision to read text.
User Experience for all usersUser Experience focuses on people. Accessibility focuses on a subset of people: people who have disabilities. Including people with disabilities in user experience activities, such as user research and usability testing, is essential for the user experience profession to be true to its purpose: concerned with people, not just "normal" people, providing a good experience for all users, and not just the “typical” user. It’s the most effective way to broaden the definition of “user” in “User Experience” to encompass the diversity of needs and preferences of people—to make a web for everyone.
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Sarah has over 20 years experience in interaction and user experience design. As Director of Accessible User Experience and Design for the Paciello Group, she works with companies and organizations to improve accessibility and accessible user experience in digital products and services. She is co-author of A Web for Everyone with Whitney Quesenbery and Web Style Guide with Patrick Lynch.