The beauty of accessible design

How studying accessible design can make us better human-centered designers

Blind woman smiling while using a smartphone application. Sourced from Facebook Newsroom

The other day I was checking my email. It took me less than 10 minutes to sort through messages and meeting invites. I honestly didn’t think much of it; this is my reality. But the reality is that while this took me little effort, checking emails can actually be quite challenging for some people.

Imagine that same activity but blindfolded. What would you do to sort emails? You could: 1) wing it by randomly selecting emails to read or ignore, 2) get your office bae to sort them for you, or 3) download an application that would alert you to emails that are messages or invitations. The most reasonable choice is option 3, the email app.

Tom

Tom demonstrating a screen reader. Sourced from Age and Ability by Tim Powers

On a whim, I went to an accessibility workshop hosted by Tom Babinszki, who is a blind accessibility educator at IBM. It was at his workshop that I saw the true meaning of human-centered design.

Human-centered design involves designing with intent (Does it help me get the job done?) and experience (Does it remove or add barriers? Does it embarrass me or make me feel proud in the process?) in mind.

So what happened? Tom needed a way to sort through emails, so he downloaded an email application. The application did what it was intended to do. For each incoming email, it would ‘say’ message or invitation. This seemed to have solved his email sorting problem, but Tom noticed something, and he couldn’t shake it like a pesky fruit fly.

On any given day, he would receive a lot of emails. As a result, he would continuously hear- message, message, message, message, over and over again. ARRGGH! Even typing it is annoying. Tom told us he’d spend up to 5 minutes a day, 20 hours a year, just hearing those two syllables- mes•sage, mes•sage, mes•sage, mes•sage, mes•sage. How irritating is that?

People with visual impairments rely on assistive technology when they use computers, especially when they need to use the Internet to check emails or browse websites. An application like the one above appeared to be a promising tool. So, when I heard about Tom’s fallout with the application, a light bulb went it off in my head. It illuminated this idea that intent and experience are two different things. The experience may not align with the intended user experience. As in the case of this app, the intent was there but the experience was not.

Chieko

Chieko walking in the corridor. Sourced from Poughkeepsie Journal Photo by Steve Mellon

Another person I was introduced to was Dr. Cheiko Asakawa, who became blind as a teenager, and like Tom, has led a successful career doing accessibility work and is also a badass IBMer. She is currently working on a navigation system made for people with visual impairments, aimed at helping them handle their daily commutes. Chieko’s navigation system is a great example of seeing when intent and experience are thoughtfully considered and what that means for the user. We watched a video of her demonstrating the navigation system. See her video here.

The navigation system works like GPS but with some tweaks and additional technologies. With regular GPS, a user says or types their destination in the app, then the app provides a list of directions. Chieko’s system differs in that the app is paired with a headset that has a camera and audio functions so that users can ‘see’ in their environments and receive directions and suggestions audibly.

The GPS coordinates were tightened to give more precise directions so that users can find the main doors in the building. Mainstream navigation applications exclude this information, abandoning the user once they get into the general vicinity of their destination, leaving them to fend for themselves in terms of finding the actual door. Chieko’s navigation system is intended to alleviate this barrier.

Chieko walking to the door. Sourced from IBM: Cognitive Assistance Research Flickr

In the video, Chieko wanted to go to another building on IBM’s campus. Her first obstacle was to get out of the building, which she was able to do with no problem. However, what happened next was incredible; it really drove home the concept of human-centered design and further cemented the idea of designing intent and experience.

While Chieko was en route to her destination, a friend of hers was also heading to another building in the opposite direction. As he was approaching, the system detected him, analyzed his facial expression (he was smiling), then notified Chieko of who he was and suggested that she greet him. She waved and two stopped to chat. Wow!

On the same path, Chieko was passing another a person who happened to be on his phone. The app alerted her to what the man was doing and informed her it was someone she did not know and therefore suggested not to greet him. Awkwardness avoided.

Chieko and her team fully considered all the needs of their users, including their environment, possible scenarios during the use of the application, and other actors that may be present while they’re using the navigation system. This app helped Chieko have a positive social interaction while successfully guiding her to the destination. I was blown away by the thoughtfulness of this app. This is what human-centered design looked like.

Conclusion

As designers, we must continue to push past the surface to see all the factors and systems in play.

If you only design for intent, then you will likely end up with products like Tom’s email application, functional but a pain in the a** to use.

On the other hand, designing for both, intent and experience, like in the Chieko example, opens the possibilities to think about other things besides usability such as improving one’s agency or dignity.

By engaging in human-centered design we will begin to ask new types of questions and engage in discussions that will lead us to create truly meaningful experiences.


Shout out to Tom Babinszki for answering all of my questions, Sasha Kerbel for your constant encouragement and support, and Mbiyimoh Ghogomu for teaching me about hooks and nut grafs.

Roosevelt T. Faulkner is a Design Researcher at IBM based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.