Why empathy is the key to better digital accessibility

9 Jan 2019

Image: © bongkarn/Stock.adobe.com

Digital accessibility expert Dan Holbrook on why empathy is the most important thing when creating accessible products.

What’s the easiest way to alienate 15pc of the global population when designing and building your product? Failing to make your digital product accessible to people with disabilities.

One in five people in the US has a disability – eg blindness/low vision, a hearing impairment or different physical abilities – that makes the way they interact with technology different from their peers.

This population of 54m individuals also accounts for discretionary annual income of $247bn, making it a huge market that often gets overlooked when businesses create or update their products. If your customers see that you are not focused on inclusive design, or don’t offer features tailored to their specific needs, they will go elsewhere.

Accessibility guidelines can seem intimidating at first

Still, accessibility guidelines can be daunting. The most recent set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has 78 different criteria that indicate an app or website’s adherence to accessibility best practices. But, if you start by building empathy for disabled users into your operation, you can change your product much quicker.

So, how do you build empathy into the process of creating a new digital product? There are simple methods that developers, designers and engineers can incorporate into their teams to gain a better perspective on all of their users.

Think simple and expand your definition of disabilities

The WCAG guidelines are a comprehensive set of rules that all apps and websites should strive to adhere to. But that can be daunting, especially for teams that don’t have a base knowledge developing products for those with different abilities.

However, there’s a simpler way to guide your design and functionality to cater to users with different abilities: the POUR principles of accessibility.

  • Perceivable: Users must be able to see it, hear it and feel it
  • Operable: Your customers must be able to use it
  • Understandable: Users must be able to get it
  • Robust: Customers must be able to access it as technology advances

When developing a product or creating a roadmap for future updates, think of all the different users who will benefit from accessibility.

Some disabilities are permanent, like being deaf or losing a limb. Some are temporary, like loss of vision after eye surgery or breaking an arm. Some are situational – a user might wear glasses only some of the time, or wear protective gloves that make navigating a touchscreen difficult. Everyone wins when your app or website is easier to perceive, operate and understand.

Use your products like your customers do

One of the best ways to gain empathy is to put yourself in the shoes of the user. There are several ways to do this. You can attempt to navigate your company’s website using only a keyboard. Or close your eyes and try navigating an app using your phone’s built-in screen reader. Or maybe even try reading something as if you have dyslexia or colour blindness.

The results can be shocking and will get your team talking about how your product can be improved for users across a range of abilities. Additionally, don’t be afraid to engage your customers. Inviting a focus group of those with low vision to test an update, for example, can capture extremely valuable feedback.

Launch an accessible product from day one

One of the most powerful shifts in product strategy designers and developers can make is building in accessibility features and options at launch. Doing so means making accessibility a core value during the development process, ensuring the product is set up for long-term success.

If there’s a struggle to see where the value is in this shift in focus, consider the 1:10:100 rule of integrated quality assurance (QA) testing. Put simply, the rule posits that if preventing an issue during design and development costs $1, then correcting the issue during testing costs $10, and fixing a failure on a live website or app costs $100.

Designers and developers have a huge opportunity to reduce cost by baking in accessibility features at the outset, as opposed to bolting on fixes after launch. It also avoids ‘back to the drawing board’ situations. Take the colour contrast, for example. Sites and apps that are accessible to colourblind or low-vision users need to keep best practices for contrast in mind.

If the colour shift is applied during development, the cost and fix is simple. However, if the change needs to happen after deployment – when all stakeholders and leadership have already approved brand colours and styles – the change is much more complicated and costly.

Educate and iterate

It’s OK if your team isn’t fully versed on the topic of accessibility, but it’s not OK to be complacent. Use an accessibility cheat sheet. Create a working group to identify low-hanging fruit (automated browser tests can help you find a lot of these action items) as well as areas that require significant work to make your product more accessible. Then, invest in additional certifications or workshops to help your team gain the necessary skills to address these challenges.

Also, don’t assume a fully accessible product can happen overnight. The reality is that no app will ever be fully accessible to everyone across all assistive software and browsers. But, by committing to an iterative process of updates and improvements, and using a thoughtful scope to benefit the most users the fastest, you can gradually open up your solution to more and more people. The bugs that have the most impact – and are most likely to result in a lawsuit – are often the easiest ones to fix. Invest your money in access, not lawyers.

A foundation of empathy is the first step towards creating products that are more accessible to everyone, and it creates opportunities to understand who your users are. This is more than simply designing and developing for people with disabilities – it’s about building a product that everyone can use and enjoy.

By Dan Holbrook 

Dan Holbrook is a QA accessibility domain lead at the Nerdery, a digital consultancy, and has more than 10 years of experience. When not working, he can be found in the woods. He forages for unusual ingredients every summer in his quest to make beers that no one else has made.