Make Things That Matter: For Everyone
By Antonio Holguin, Design Director
Our goal to Make Things That Matter at Smashing Ideas is more than a sentiment, it is deeply ingrained in our cultural values. Making things that matter involves many facets of design, not the least of which is accessibility. Designing for accessibility takes into account as many plausible scenarios where a user might have difficulty interacting with the product. This could be visual, hearing, motor impairments, or even cognitive limitations.
Designing great products shouldn’t mean wedging accessible design in at the end of the project. As product creators, designers, and developers we have a responsibility to make what we create as accessible as possible to everyone. By slightly altering a typical industry process we can broaden the reach of our products and build for accessibility from the beginning.
In the agency setting, we are called on to create products for clients with a carefully considered and vetted target audience. Very rarely does that audience include scenarios for people who need assistance due to an impairment. Often target audiences include the most broad, and loosely defined, set of demographics possible. “Accessibility” is reduced to a bullet in the list of product requirements.
A typical target audience in an RFP might look something like this:
Primary | 18 -24 year old new college students, males or females
Secondary | Parents 40 – 59 years old, primary household purchaser
Target audiences alone are rather vague and are rarely expanded on in the RFP. One of the first sets of deliverables we create at SI are well defined personas and archetypes. Archetypes give us a set of typical users based on their motivations, goals, and behaviors. Personas help to give descriptive information to an archetypical user based on empirical research on the target audience. We put a name, face, specific goals, aspirations, and possibly a back story, to a fictional user. Archetypes give us general information about grouped personalities, whereas personas give us specific characteristics – thus specific needs – of an individual.
The problem here is defining the “typical” user. Often “typical” is synonymous with “the fully capable person.” After defining these types of people, we start moving further down the path of UX design: storymapping, user flows, wireframes, prototypes, etc. During this time we’re focused on that “typical” user. During build, we – the design industry in general – might maintain minimum levels of accessibility defined by WCAG2.0, but we often shoehorn accessibility in at the end in order to check that requirement box.
Designing for Kids is Designing for Everyone.
Let’s take a step back for a second to examine designing for kids. This might seem like it doesn’t correlate with accessibility, but designing for kids is probably the most grounded in accessible UX practices than any other demographic.
Our roots here at SI are firmly planted in creating digital experiences for kids. Creating content for a younger audience comes with a host of restrictions, both physical and cognitive. Underdeveloped fine motor skills in smaller children, for example, force us to design larger button areas. Too much content on screen or navigation that’s too difficult becomes overwhelming, frustrating, or can confuse our younger audiences. We design for cognitive simplicity so children can easily follow tough concepts, keep on a clear path, or keep from getting distracted from the main goal.
An Obvious but Rarely Practiced Solution.
Could there be a way to design for adult audiences the way we do for children? How do we keep from shoehorning accessible design in at the end, or only meeting the most minimum accessibility requirements? How do we create experiences that are usable for all people regardless of ability level?
While we may never be able to change how a target audience is written in an RFP, we can put some principles into practice to help us design products that are accessible to everyone. Keeping those principles in mind during the design and build phases can be tough. Luckily we have tools already in use to help. Our personas are the perfect place to start. Here we set our accessibility restrictions. There are two slightly different ways to approach the goal.
First, along with our main personas that align to the target audience, we can build additional personas that incorporate targeted disabilities. For (hypothetical) instance, we have Jane, Kenneth, Tyler who happens to be blind, and Oliva who ails from Parkinson’s. This gives us a range of abilities within the same group.
Second, we can build personas with disability modifiers. We create our persona then give her a list of restrictive impairments. As we are working on various functionality of the project, we can refer to the same persona while asking “what if she… is blind… uses a wheelchair… has multiple sclerosis… has a broken arm?” This forces us to think about the same person who has a particular objective, but with the understanding of various needs.
Building personas this way guides the team to consider, and even advocate for accessibility features that are often overlooked or removed from scope. In turn, this focuses on creating better experiences for everyone. Not only are we able to keep accessibility in mind but we can plan for, and build to, any number of disabilities.
Accessible Design in Practice.
The most ideal place is to start with a very narrow target audience. This gives us restrictions immediately that absolutely must be met. Let’s say our target audience are people with mental illness. We can then do research on specific needs for this audience. How do those with illnesses use their iPhone? Does mental illness limit physical capabilities? Can this demographic reliably tap buttons on their phone? Can they use swiping features?
Learn to Quit is a prime example of working to solve a difficult problem by focusing on a niche audience. Dr. Roger Vilardaga came to Smashing Ideas with some alarming statistics. Up to 80% of people with serious mental illness smoke regularly. An estimated 45% of all cigarettes consumed in the United States are done so by mentally ill. The target audience, and thus the personas built for the app, have serious cognitive and physical limitations.
Many patients suffer from loss of control of fine motor skills (tremors, for example) due to medication, making it difficult to use what most people would consider typical digital interactions. We designed buttons that are larger than a typical button so they are easier to press and kept other interactive elements away to keep users from accidentally tapping on a different object. We also stayed away from using swiping or multiple-finger interactions since these are extra difficult for medically-induced trembling hands to accurately control. A majority of patients react strongly, and negatively, to visual and cognitive overstimulation. Using a muted color palette and removing unnecessary elements from the screen keeps stimulation low and bearable. Keeping all of the restrictions for the niche audience in mind during the entire design and build process, we created a smoking cessation app that is beautiful, simple to understand, and is accessible to everyone.
Let’s Do It.
From our history with kids’ content at SI we know that designing with constraints produces a straightforward and easy to use experience for everyone. Putting it into practice is relatively easy as long as we start of in the right direction. By adding accessibility constraints to our personas, a more thoughtful design approach emerges which we carry throughout the project. We end up with a product that is usable by much more than our target audience. As designers, our responsibility is to create products that are usable by all people. It is our chance to make things good in the world, to make things better, to make things that matter.