All too often, a technical product is designed and tested based on a person bearing little resemblance to the intended end user. The solution may be deemed a success under test conditions, aesthetically pleasing and ‘on brand’, yet in practice the user experience can be frustrating, dysfunctional or even dangerous. With this in mind, I advocate that designing for disability should be the starting point for all great design, rather than an after-thought.
Solutions originally intended for disabled groups are often adapted by the masses because of their practicalities. This repurposing of accessible design is perfectly illustrated by the ‘curb cut effect’ — the drop curbs we all take for granted that were gradually introduced for wheelchair users. Now that they are found on pretty much every high street, are only disabled people using them? Of course not. Everyone is, because a gently levelled path connecting the pavement and road is purely a better and safer user experience. Similarly, SMS texting was developed for deaf mobile phone users but this has been adopted by everyone for obvious reasons — it’s instant, silent, can be used in a noisy environment, cheap, stores a record of a conversation and allows you to multitask.
One of my sons has had to cope with the devastation of losing his sight at a very young age but observing him adapt and persevere to enjoy the active life of a 10 year old is remarkable to say the least. In turn, this inspires me when designing for enterprise, as adaptations that work for him can also work for a much wider circle of users including those without a disability. Innovative thinking and questioning is key. If you can’t justify why a product or feature has been designed in a certain way then it’s probably not adding much to the user experience. Usability should be superior to the aesthetic appeal every time.
Designing for disability — what does this mean?
Whether intentional or not, too often the design priority for tech like screens and HUDs is to look impressive for an infallible end user. Red is the designer’s colour of choice to indicate that something is missing or dangerous (e.g. an incomplete field online, an incorrect password attempt or a product warning/alert) but this is of no use to a visually impaired or colour blind person, nor for someone with 20/20 vision who happens to be in particularly poor lighting at the time. A simple overlay of text in an alternative colour would enhance the UX for everyone, and this is the basis of designing for disability. Solve for one, solve for many.
Take designing for autistic users as another example, where guidance suggests using plain English and simple, consistent layouts. This makes perfect sense for all design, not just for an autistic audience — why would you opt for complicated instructions and haphazard layouts? Most of us just want an intuitive solution that doesn’t require too much thinking or effort. Providing clear information and time-saving shortcuts benefits everyone, not just those with compromised mental or physical abilities.
If you think your users aren’t disabled, think again. A seemingly able-bodied person can be affected by ‘situational disability’ where their senses, mobility or mind are temporarily affected by their surroundings. If people are stressed or distracted, or only have use of one hand at that moment, a product should account for this through its usability, giving enough time to complete a process, offer helpful prompts, include audio as well as visual instructions etc.
This is hugely relevant when designing for enterprise. Warehouse workers, for example, can be subjected to noisy machinery, poor lighting (either too bright or too dim) and restrictive clothing like gloves. If a product has been designed with a super sensitive touch screen, it may be smart and aesthetically pleasing but swiping with a gloved finger is not going to work. What happens here? The user has to waste time removing the gloves, resorts to a different method, or cuts corners, which can have implications further down the chain. Similarly, delivery drivers can’t always take their eyes off the road to use a touchscreen, so even the best digital dashboard is flawed when there is no option for audio or tactile control. On the flip side, taking into account situational disabilities can certainly improve productivity (this can be measured), UX and ultimately customer satisfaction. The best way to do this is to spend time with your end user completing their daily tasks with the products you design or want to design. Make it your mission to go out and about with your users, whether that’s in a warehouse or hospital, or driving around with them in their vehicles, to see what challenges and disabilities they face. It’s fairly hard to pre-empt without being at the coalface and you risk designing for someone who is far removed from the real end user.
Starting with usability gives your product a solid purpose that all customers will find intuitive and useful. Instead of asking “now how do I modify this product for someone with a disability?” designers should put compromised physical or mental ability at the core of their design and development. Taking inspiration from disability is where true innovation starts.