Front End Dev & UX Designer. Dancewear designer. Mouflon fan.

Putting on Your User’s Metaphorical Shoes – Accessibility

Alexis* knew things were a little different as soon as she touched her computer. She just needed to do a simple task, using simple software that she’s been using for ages, and be able to use her screen reader to do so.

She couldn’t. The software had just released a “newly improved” function, which left Alexis in the dark.

Alexis noted that this new release was “totally inaccessible using screen readers.” So, she did what any sensible person would do and she tried to access an older version of the product, which her screen reader was able to work with. She said that there is “supposed to be a big green button”, which would enable her to get to the former version of the software. In reality, though, she was “not seeing any buttons at all!” The “big green button” was there. However, the css was set to “display: none” on the corresponding element of the pop up menu which would have given Alexis access to the previous version.

The “newly improved” product became a nightmare for Alexis to use because she couldn’t even access the old product. Not only did the new product not support screen reader use, but the website was structured in such a way that the old product became inaccessible as well! So what did Alexis do? She called the help line of the product, where support guided her through and sent her a work-around hack to get to the old product. Were it not for superior customer service, Alexis would have without doubt looked for an alternative product to use.

A similar issue came up with a popular forms website where screen readers were not recognizing radio buttons. screenshot of question with radio buttons The screen reader would simply read the options to the question “What is your favorite fruit?” in sequence “Apples Bananas Oranges Mangoes Kiwi Pears Grapes” without indication of a radio button anywhere.

How did this happen? How can it be prevented? Why wasn’t this noticed?
This happens all the time, but why? We know about Section 508, but why stop there?

This happened because of a lack of empathy for the user who may have special needs. It’s difficult to put yourself in your users shoes when they have different needs, different abilities, and different goals. However, that doesn’t make this task any less trivial. As a matter or fact, by keeping those with different needs in mind, we can help those who may not realize they have a need. As UX designers we must always remember to design for the lowest common denominator. For example, just like The Bradley allows those who have visual impairments to feel the time, it helps many others in similar situations where you can’t look at your wrist or cell phone to be able to feel the time. You can feel the time in a dimly lit room, at a happy hour when you don’t want to pull out your phone, or during dinner at the in-laws. Kel Smith mentions another great case study in Digital Outcasts. The design of wheelchair ramps on sidewalks not only helps wheelchair users, however, also allows for use by families with strollers, those rolling their suitcases, and just makes for easier walking on and off the curb. Therefore the tool gains universal use and purpose.

How can you, then, put yourself into the mindset of users who are different than you? Luckily, there are plenty of tools, which you can use to get yourself in the spirit.

Tools You Can Use To Put Yourself In Your User’s Shoes
It goes without saying that using some of these tools are not replacement for proper qualitative analysis and testing of your product. However, they can work as good rule-of-thumb tools during your design/creation process.

I recommend selecting two or three tools, and sticking with them for the most part. Otherwise, if you’re looking for a much longer list, I recommend taking a look through this list on the W3 website.

What kind of tool do you use to ensure your product/website is accessible? What do you do to prevent accessibility issues? What impact have your efforts had on those who may not necessarily realize they need the extra accessibility?

*names are changed

Opinions?