Extending the Conversation: Visual Design Tools for Non-Visual Creators

Taking a convo and pushing outside the box a bit more

Had a conversation with a fellow designer and he went down the avenue asking why our tools [for design] are still stuck in a command-pull context. We still have to set margins, sizes, and then there’s the laying, dragging, clicking, etc. which is more or less what we master with design tools — rarely does a piece of design software make you a better designer. So then the convo went further — pushing something that I’d entertained the day before in a Twitter convo — what about using voice to aid/empower the design process? Why can’t we use voice interfaces to speak tools or components into position [since we are already knowledgeable of the limits of the canvas]?

That led to a sharing of a piece of that convo on Twitter with some additional thoughts from my end. I’d like to explain myself a bit, but also set the bargain that we can’t be become better designers until we place a wager into those usually denied from designing by the very software that’s made to empower them.

Probably the harder of the points asked here, yet it drives at what probably ends up being a much larger conversation than what even a blog like this can illustrate. The design community already speaks about limitations in the voices of minority cultures, the white-washing/Americanizing of various themes, and several other issues. Not to diminish these one bit, but probably all of these end up falling under the same context.

Design tools are largely made for those who can see what the output is going to be. We’ve not gotten far (industrial and automotive spaces notwithstanding) about designing for touch-first folks, sight-lowered environments, etc. until there’s some public safety out-cry making us pay attention, and then regulations bolstering whatever profitability is to be made in making those other perspectives more than just an alternate option.

I began thinking about Apple and other’s ability to make system menus and such usable for those with none or limited sight, then began asking (internally), if a person can understand space, what’s so hard about designing within it. Yes, their eyes will be different, but that’s what makes design inclusive and oftentimes advantageous to more persons. Design, an ability to communitate a perspective, opens up when we allow more than just the menus to be leveraged by those who cannot see the canvas in conventional ways.

I really did start imagining (and the convo went towards) this idea of asking for a component to be placed on the screen then moved across the canvas. A sight-less, bumping against the boundaries could be a piece of haptic feedback through a device or a specific sound. Snapping to a grid, stacking within/on top of layers, adding and creating components can then be an adventure in creating a symphony (does the sight-less designer end up creating music just as much as they design an interface). This is my mind has been — literally as I’ve been working from the thought of an AR-enabled workspace as well past-due, not simply for my own desired workflow, but for the health of what it means to be doing work going forward.

There’s some pleasure in admiting this was sparked in part by an excellent thread by Monika Bielskyte from earlier in the day. Her point — laid nicely in the first tweet of the thread — is that storytellers need to take responsibility for the world they are inventing. Under such a framing, if non-visual persons can design the worlds they interface with, the onus of responsibility falls (rightly) to them. The voice and tone of the story includes that view by default, instead of being attached to meet a perspective of affordances or access barely grasped by those outside of that context.

Becoming that agent of design, there shouldn’t be a longer step towards respecting that user. At least, that’s my thinking by this point.

And yet, as Monika very much puts forth later in her thread, a designing against humanity creates a future devoid of it. As many of us who are internet-native or color-screen-computer native age, our eyes fade, our hearing fades. Are we not able to design for this world before this point because our humanity was isolated from the reality that we grow, change, and eventually are supplanted by those with other senses/sensibilities than we have?

Martin Geddes often speaks about the failure of telecom being its inability to get away from the culture that created it. It only knows the world inside of the protocols its designed for itself. Is design trapped in the same framing? Can a designer really walk out of themselves and design outside of that bias? Should they? Or should others without that bias be allowed to, be empowered to be responsible to create something better?

The irony of this convo coming on the day when those who’ve been granted early reviewer access to the iPhone X is not lost on me. An late evening convo about those who were granted access (a voice of YouTube folks with large, but not the most famous of followings) points to what might be changing in the narrative that is this computational lifestyle. The voices who have become authorities in this space have done so because they merticlously built reputations on knowing the specs, the culture, and the shape of the space for that product. Design is no different. Nothing like meeting another UX designer and the convo quickly moving from whom you work for to the tools you use.

Rarely is the conversation offset in what richer interfaces are designed. Perhaps this might speak to a fragility of design. Speaking to what the tool makes you more effective in doing is a layer below the common denominator of the tool. It separates those who design from those who are designers. Which would then lead to why there’s a fear of automation in design tools? When tools begin learning how you go about design, then skipping manual controls for efficiencies in controls, outputs, etc., you go from designer of the experience to facilitator of it — and everyone who’s moved from Excel to SAP will tell you that’s no fun for one’s productivity or career.

My friend and I have polarizing opinions on Photoshop (PS). We agree that its landmark software. He built his career on it — I left it as soon as I could. I’ve found it unnecessarily complex in some areas, and deliciously complete in others. By itself, PS is the right kind of canvas for those who have command-pull perspective towards design (how many new pieces of software lead as their bullet point compatibility with your PS layers).

There’s a way out of the PS menu. And that way out means thinking less about the configuration and more about the audience. It might not be the adaptable, learning UI; but, it will be something more than a toolbar on the left, and a series of smaller windows to the right for finer controls and swatches — at least I hope.

This all lands me back at the genesis for this conversation — why are the tools for visual design limited to those with optics (and fine motor skills)? If its possible to do Voice-Over and Speech to Text for menus and notes, shouldn’t the depth and value of design spaces be in making those features extend to being able to actually design?

When we look at the Star Trek: The Next Generation/Minority Report/Iron Man-like perspectives, we don’t see this (deliberate) dismissal of the abilities of those who do’t have perfect vision or motor skills. In some respects, we see that the imperfections define humanity and design fosters what they want to create into humanity from that. Perhaps there’s a much longer journey towards including all in a similar manner — but if we continue with the 20/20 vision, Americanized, majority culture view of design, we’ll never be able to address enabling all of humanity to design their world they want to live in. They’ll only live in a world designed for just a few of them to thrive.

If you or your team are having trouble getting out of the box and designing a better product or process for your clients, get in touch and we might be able to create something worth living for.