An eye opening experience

It took a person with a severe vision impairment (macular degeneration) to help me acknowledge what’s wrong with the current design trends of low contrast and thin text, and other ‘trendy’ visual and typography design mistakes.

First things first, I get the theory

As a designer, I’ve understood why we need legible text in design of digital interfaces for a long time. I understand how line length, line height and font size affect our ability to scan and read lines of text. I understand how our brain recognises shapes of words when we use lowercase, and how this is inhibited when we write in uppercase. I understand that certain colour combinations make it difficult for colour blind people to distinguish objects. I understand that the smaller or thinner the font, the larger the proportion of people who will find it difficult to read the content.

I even get it in practice…

It’s my job not just to understand the theory, but to understand how people with vision impairments use the products I design.

At SEEK, we have a colleague who is vision impaired, and I’ve observed her use the various aids that help her navigate the web. I’ve observed a blind person use a screen reader to operate iOS apps. I’ve used tools to try to understand how people with visual impairments and dyslexia experience the web. I’ve closed my eyes and tried to navigate websites using screen readers. I’ve even designed a tool to help designers pick accessible colour combinations.

All these things have helped me not just understand the theory, but see it in practice as well.

…or so I thought

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time renovating our family holiday house. I don’t have all the tools, so I’ve been going over to an elderly neighbour’s house to borrow a few bits and pieces. Let’s call him Mr Z.

Mr Z. lives in a small remote village with a population of about 10 people. He is well educated and intelligent. At the age of 76, his mind is as sharp as a razor. He is inquisitive and still has an impressive thirst for knowledge. Given his remote location, his primary source of news and new knowledge is the internet.

At 76, he is not a ‘digital native’ — using technology does not come as second nature for him. This brought about a very convenient trade for both of us — each time I would go to borrow or return a tool, I would spend 15 minutes or so helping Mr Z. with one of his many questions relating to his smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Being a firm believer in learning by doing, I started off by giving Mr Z. instructions on how to achieve something, rather than doing it for him. For example, rather than installing an app he asked for, I tried to explain to him how to do it.

This is where the penny dropped.

Most of the changes he had to make to his devices, were completely out of reach for him. While he was able to use his devices to consume information from already set up sources, his vision impairment meant that he was not able to explore the devices and discover their full potential by installing new apps, visiting new sites or signing up for new services. For someone with such an active mind, and a thirst for knowledge, this was extremely frustrating.

Even the tasks he could objectively complete, felt out of reach for him as his confidence was eroded through hours of trying to read elaborate instructions, small or faint text, find menu items that were hidden, make selections using checkboxes that didn’t look like checkboxes or find links that were not styled as links.

This was nothing new

In my interaction with Mr Z. I didn’t see anything new, or anything I wasn’t aware of before. So why did I find this experience so much more confronting and eye-opening than other observations of people with physical impairments? Is it because he is someone I personally know? Do I lack empathy and did I have to see someone I know struggle, before it really hit home?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s the fact that observing people in their real environment trying to achieve real life tasks is quite different to observing people in a usability testing session, or a demonstration or an online video. Maybe there is something slightly contrived about scheduled usability sessions — the fact that we sometimes seek out people with disability for our testing sessions, so we expect to see them struggle to complete tasks.

The change in me

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are changed by our experiences on a daily basis. Snippets of conversations, observations, the way people treat us and the way we treat people, all change us — constantly. It’s just that most of the time we don’t register or acknowledge the effect our experiences have on us.

This is why good design stems from observation of people and their problems in their own setting. Without knowing or acknowledging it, our observations change us as designers and have a direct impact on our design decisions and the products and services we design.

I feel lucky that I had this experience and am glad that I took the time to acknowledge my experience with Mr Z. and to notice and admit it had changed me. I feel I shouldn’t have needed this experience to open my eyes, but I’m glad it did.

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