A Crack at the Edges

Microsoft’s new take on designing for accessibility

In eighth grade, two days before my year-end math test, I slipped while playing soccer and broke my wrist. I was demonstrably bad at the game, and as a thirteen-year-old I tried to compensate for it by kicking the ball with all my strength. Usually, the ball went careening off, my teammates groaned, and that was it. But on that day the wind picked up and the ground turned suddenly on its axis. Then, smack! An excruciating pain rippled through my arm.

Two hours later, I was in the emergency room, and the orthopedic surgeon was pulling my arm apart at its ends so my dislocated bones could snap back into place. I was given painkillers, and my arm was placed in a cast from elbow to palm. Only the fingers twiddled free. The next morning, I appeared at the office of my school’s vice-principal — a hawkish Jesuit priest with a cane — and asked for special treatment.

“What do you need, exactly?” Father Boris wondered aloud.

At first, I was unable to answer him. Extra time? Mid-exam breaks? A transcriber? An exemption from having to take the test at all? I was as yet unaware of the limitations of my new disability. We eventually settled on twenty extra minutes. My parents bought me a special pen with a curved nib. I wrote the exam leaning into my desk in an awkward spinal twist. The experience left me exhausted and painfully sore. I hadn’t forgotten any math since I broke my wrist, but my grade was significantly lower than usual. Mobile dexterity shouldn’t have much to do with mathematical ability, yet there I was.

In the world of design, there are two broad perspectives on disability. The first is the medical model, which explains disability as a personal inadequacy, i.e., a failing on the part of the disabled person. According to the medical model, an individual who does not have the use of their legs is inherently less able than an individual with working legs. The second is the social model, which explains disability as a social inadequacy, i.e., a failing on the part of society to support and empower its citizens. According to the social model, a successful society must enable citizens with various abilities to reach their potential. It’s a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference in the world.

This past week, at the Interaction Design Association’s conference in Lyon, France, I attended a workshop led by Margaret Price, who is part of the Inclusive Design team at Microsoft. Margaret is petite and sprightly, with large owl eyes and the kind of voice that might interrupt a conversation mid-sentence without seeming rude. She is trained in philosophy, and she considered becoming an academic for many years. Then, during a moment of luminous clarity, she realized that her ability to impact the world was magnified by the tangible problems faced by industry. She decided to become a consultant. In her first project, she was approached by a condom seller that wanted to expand their sales and reach more customers. She convinced the company to move away from traditional ads and instead focus on promoting sexual health awareness among women. The campaign was a wild success. “I realized that my talent lay in reframing problems outside of the context in which they arise,” Price told me over dessert at the repurposed sugar factory where the conference was being held.

Microsoft hired Price to create a new paradigm for guiding design at the company. In some ways, the move is an attempt to atone for an industry-wide failure to make technology accessible for everyone. Graphical user interfaces famously exclude people who are blind, most devices cannot be used by people with mobile dexterity impairment, and aesthetic appeal often trumps the need to make websites and mobile apps accessible to differentially abled users. Price represents a new wave of professionals who seem determined to reign in some of the indulgent, self-referential tangents that currently splinter the field. She is on a mission to change the world; you can see it in the way her eyes wander off during frivolous conversations.

During the three days I spent in Price’s company, she radically altered my perspective on designing for accessibility. The product of Price and her team’s work is the Inclusive Design Toolkit, which provides a radical new framework to design for accessibility in the digital space. Inclusive design may be contrasted with universal design, which comes from the world of architecture and professes a commitment to the “one size fits all” philosophy— most buildings are designed for everyone and must therefore be used as they are by all people. Inclusive design, on the other hand, espouses the philosophy of “one size fits one.” It derives from the social model of disability. According to the Toolkit, disability is not a personal health condition but a “mismatched human interaction.”

The traditional approach to designing for accessibility is to create a product and then tweak it to make it more accessible. Inclusive design proposes a markedly different approach — if the hallmark of good design is that it is user-centered, why not create products that are specific to users with particular disabilities? According to inclusive design, products should not be designed for everyone, but for specific edge cases — a mobile phone for the deaf, an navigational app for the blind, an intelligent math tutor for children with dyslexia.

Beyond the moral case, Microsoft’s Toolkit also makes a market case for inclusive design. It proposes the concept of a persona spectrum, i.e., a spectrum of analogous users who might benefit from a product designed for the edge. Here are four examples:

A product meant for people with a missing limb might benefit people with a broken arm as well as new parents.
A product for people who cannot speak might also be used by people who have laryngitis or a heavy accent.
A product for the blind might benefit people with cataracts as well as distracted drivers.
A product for the deaf might benefit people with ear infections or those who work in loud places (such as bartenders).
Examples of persona spectra from the Inclusive Design Toolkit.

The market case for designing a product for people without an arm (26,000 people in the U.S.) is strengthened immeasurably when you realize that you’re also designing for people with broken arms (13 million) and new parents (8 million). Suddenly, your potential customer base is more than 20 million people in the U.S. alone. Disability isn’t an edge case any more.

At Lyon, I participated in the Student Design Challenge, a hackathon that runs alongside the Interaction Design Association conference. This year’s Challenge was sponsored by Microsoft’s Inclusive Design team. We were put in groups of three and asked to design a product for people with a specific disability. My team’s target users were children who are visually impaired, and we expanded our persona spectrum to include adults who are new to blindness as well as children with dyslexia.

Our final design was a musical instrument, called Mockingbird, that converts three-dimensional objects into sound. Mockingbird has a tangible board with two axes: time and pitch. When an object is placed on the board, the board uses the object’s weight and position to determine what note should be played (watch our concept video here).

A top view of Mockingbird. The shapes represent 3D objects of different weights. A quarter pie is a quarter note, a half pie is a half note, and so on. The red line progresses from left to right as an arrangement is played.

Mockingbird takes a playful approach to music. It is a learning tool with emergent properties: at face value, it is an inclusive way for students to create simple rhythms; for adventurous users, Mockingbird enables open-ended exploration of objects and their properties. We enjoyed incorporating inclusive design into the process of creating Mockingbird. The Toolkit’s principles ultimately led to a stronger, more accessible product.

Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit makes a compelling case for placing accessibility issues at the forefront of design. But even as I celebrate the work of Price and her team, I am cognizant of the limitations of the Toolkit. Like any framework, it is only as effective as the teams that use it and the environments in which those teams operate. A design produced at a hackathon is under very different constraints than a product made by a company. The inclusive design webpage has a long list of Microsoft products that have incorporated the Toolkit’s ideas, but it remains to be seen how much of an impact the movement will have outside the company. I wish them good luck!