Personalization and Inclusive Design

Ted Drake
Intuit Design System (IDS)
5 min readMay 17, 2021

As technology users, we expect our phones, computers, and software to adjust to our needs. But this hasn’t always been the case. Raising the Floor, an ambitious project was kicked off a decade ago to ensure every experience adapted to the specific needs of every user.

Their mission was easy to understand. As a person with a disability, I should be able to withdraw money from an ATM, load a web page, use the airplane’s entertainment screen, and get directions on my phone. Moreover, each of these experiences should change for me, shifting the burden from the customer to the application.

A person’s personalized settings impact multiple interfaces

Theory Becomes Reality

What seemed like an ambitious goal is on the cusp of availability. Computers and mobile devices provide robust personalization settings, from preferring reduced motion to how the screen should adjust its brightness based on ambient light. Furthermore, many of these settings are now available for developers and designers to adapt their applications for the specific needs of our customers. For example, Intuit’s Design System includes secondary motion designs for people who have requested reduced motion.

Personalization goes well beyond the screen’s interactions. We can also use Artificial Intelligence to personalize the end to end experience. Each TurboTax customer will see a unique subset of the entire tax process. There are 70,000+ potential tax flows, but each TurboTax customer receives a personalized experience based on their financial situation.

Customizing the user experience design

Apple inadvertently transformed support for user preferences when they introduced a parallax experience in iOS7. This featured a shifting background and expanded motions when opening and closing applications. Parallax caused many iPhone users to get sick and raised awareness of vestibular disorders and the importance of responsible motion design.

Apple provided a new setting for reduced motion on their devices and surfaced this to app developers. This was also surfaced to the Safari web browser and ultimately the growth of user preferences that are available to web and mobile application developers.

Designers can now provide personalized experiences based on the following settings:

  • User prefers reduced motion
  • User prefers reduced transparency in designs
  • User has a preference for reduced or increased contrast
  • User prefers light or dark mode
  • User has created their own color palette to be inherited by the browser
  • User prefers a lighter weight page with less video, images, and heavy JavaScript.

Personalization is not only limited to what the customer requests. Media queries allow our products to respond to different environments. Responsive layout is a common example; it allows a web page to look great on a huge monitor and a small phone, as the page changes layouts as the screen gets smaller. Container queries will give us even more control. Other options include:

Sensors as the Interface

The Apple watch uses Noncommand User Interface by leveraging sensor information for fall detection and heart rate monitoring. The Nest thermostat saves energy by adjusting the home’s air conditioning based on the lack of movement around the house.

Personalizing the product experience

As mentioned earlier, TurboTax provides a unique tax filing experience for each person’s financial profile. QuickBooks introduced a secondary experience for QuickBooks Online that recognizes two key customer types: accountants/bookkeepers and small business owners. The business view uses unique terminology (Banking vs. Transactions) and introduction screens that don’t assume the customer has an accounting background.

Business View of QuickBooks Online Transactions introduces new users to the process of categorizing transactions.

Going Beyond with. Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is allowing applications to predict and deliver personalized experiences with minimal customer input. Safe Exit For All, a research project from Wichita State University, provides unique, accessible emergency exit information for people during a crisis situation. It can deliver routes based on the person’s physical ability and location within a building.

Change Dyslexia uses games to diagnose dyslexia in children to improve reading comprehension.

Dytective game for web and mobile gives early awareness of dyslexia for children
Dytective Game for Dyslexia awareness and education

Personalization and Design Ethics

Access to personal settings, sensors, and data can help us provide exceptional experiences. It can also lead to significant privacy concerns. Leonie Watson explains why assistive technology detection can violate privacy.

My disability is personal to me, and I share that information at my discretion. Proponents of screen reader detection say it would be discretionary, but that’s like choosing between plague and pestilence. Choosing between privacy and accessibility is no choice at all.

Thoughts on screen reader detection — Leonie Watson

When creating “personalized” experiences, we must not assume what the user needs. A good example is to force a high-contrast black and white scheme when the user prefers higher contrast. Many people want high contrast, but have light sensitivity and prefer off-white backgrounds.

Timothy Kolke presents a checklist for ethical use of personal data for personalization: Privacy Guidelines For Designing Personalization:

  • Get informed consent.
  • Make fair trades.
  • Give the customer ongoing control over their data.

Raising the Floor envisioned a world where everyone had a unique, inclusive experience. To get there, we needed personal settings, surface those settings to applications, and designers to envision how the product could adapt to the customer’s unique needs. Personalized experiences reduce the cognitive load, as workflows are simplified and eliminate irrelevant options. We also use personalization to prepare our products for future innovation, expecting new interfaces and challenges.

Personalized design’s goal is to give everyone a better experience. Incorporate significant user research and create a diverse team to work on personalization strategies. Don’t sacrifice the experience of some customers by making assumptions based on limited data and interviews.