Accessibility is good design

Testing 3D printed models and tactile booklets of the Scottish Parliament

It’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) on Thursday 21st May 2015.

I’m going to be in The Hague, Netherlands that day helping present an Innovation Lab for cultural industry professionals.

It’s all about how to use prototyping techniques to commission and develop museum experiences using new technologies like wearables, Internet of Things and Big Data.

I’ll be using some time to run some exercises that come from my SensoryUX work on understanding our senses and information.

How all this links together for an article on accessibility and good design is that I do not think accessibility is simply an add on to any design project but is core to its success.

I’ll explain four ideas of why in this article.

All of these ideas come from my own work in building accessible interpretation for museums and from watching UX professionals working in teams during SensoryUX workshops.

Understand Wants and Needs

Accessibility is often treated as part of a person’s needs. User Experience (UX) designers build personas of what users are like and thus what they’ll want and need.

The danger in this process is that the actual personal needs of a person are hidden behind the needs of their impairments. The structural needs of making a product that is accessible becomes more important than understanding what the person wants to do.

Always keeps a focus on what the product is doing for the person, what the content of the experience is and how it is valuable to them.

A child reads a tactile and Braille book of Maisy Makes Gingerbread

Lesson One — keep focus on what is valuable to the person

Prototype making

An idea that comes out of rapid prototyping is that certainty of delivery of a successful product at the end of the design process is coupled with a greater uncertainty during the process. So the process of ideation, prototyping and testing appears (to outsiders) messy and full of errors but the final result is better for customers (who enjoy it, buy it, tell their friends about it….all factors leading to success for the client).

Many people hold off building and testing a product until they think it is near its final version. They don’t want to put it out there until their ideas of what makes it right are complete.

This is a mistake.

Putting a functional but incomplete product into the hands of users is a way of discovering both what it doesn’t do yet and what it might do in ways you hadn’t considered.

Cardboard and simple plans of a prototype idea

Lesson Two — don’t wait, build and test

Product testing results

I work a lot on museum interpretation projects and provide guidance on tactile comprehension and meaning. All of this design work is based around what individual visitors can understand so testing is central to any work. If a design isn’t understood, it is thrown away.

It is easy in design projects to mix up being a professional with being a user. That confusion leads to a bias to not accept testing failures.

Lesson Three — users are right

Keep Building

The discovery that your design didn’t work is painful if you are focused on the product and not the users. Each failure is a way of discovering what didn’t work and also uncovering what might work that you hadn’t imagined.

Prototypes are a way of making ideas physical and thus open to conversation and discussion.

Keep making them, keep testing them. The uncertainty of the path of discovery is what leads to greater assurance that the final product will work well.

Lesson Four — prototypes enable conversation and discovery


There’s a lot more to say but it’s much easier if you come along to a workshop.

It’s the doing and making with other people in the Innovation Lab workshops that helps you experience and learn what matters.

Accessibility guides you to better designs for all because it helps you understand:

  • user centered design is about shared human interests not impairments
  • discovering product failures with some users helps all users
  • prototyping is way of creating ongoing conversations with everyone

Come along on Thursday if you can. It’ll be fun and you’ll more about yourself and how you can make things that work well for everyone.

If you can’t come along then try and integrate some of the ideas in this article into your work. Use accessibility as a core idea in making successful products.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Alastair Somerville’s story.