Originally published in the ‘UX Magazyn’, 1st of September, Poland
People have different habits, needs, fears, and frustrations. Everyone has a different level of psycho-physical dexterity, skills, knowledge and experience, and this diversity makes us all unique in its own way. As designers, we should see this diversity and, step by step, try to eliminate its limitations on all possible levels, designing solutions in an inclusive way (Inclusive Design). It is therefore important that the technology used by the user, behaves and communicates with him in a proper way. Only then he will be able to use it to achieve the intended goals.
‘Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.’
─ Margaret Mead
At the beginning, there was chaos
The first graphical user interface (GUI) began to appear on the market in the 1970’s. Since then, the dynamics of technology development, and the diversity of touchpoints with the user have increased significantly and are still developing. Personal computers ceased to be just a tool of work, and phones cut off from the wire, completely changed the nature of their purpose. Today, the majority of the world’s population uses laptops, smartphones and tablets as an indispensable tool in everyday life. Mobile devices are replacing newspapers, books, maps, music or movie players ─ and these are just some of the primary functions we use every day.
At the beginning of this journey, user interfaces were to be visually accessible in such a way that the user could replace the command line with interaction based on a graphic. So they were simply to look as clear as possible, operate as far as possible on the given platform and technology, and provide the user with the appropriate functionality. At that time nobody thought about how this interaction takes place and how (and if at all) users deal with it.
The first principles of universal design were published only in 1997, in the United States and concerned mainly utility objects and the environment. Ron Mace and a group of researchers defined seven design principles to make products more comfortable to use and more accessible to a broad audience without the need for adaptation or special solutions due to age, skills and a range of other factors. These principles focused on designing solutions that were much simpler and more intuitive to use. With increased tolerance for errors that no longer threatened the user. They improved flexibility and accessibility of the product, as well as limited physical and intellectual effort that had to be put into its use. These rules also ensured a better fit for the product to the space it was in.
A good example of universal design is the way of building pedestrian crossings. The once omnipresent curbstone has been abandoned in favor of being a slope (upwards/downwards). Thanks to this, people with physical disabilities can move more easily at pedestrian crossings, without a need to step on steep curbs. However, this solution is ideal for everyone. Parents moving with baby strollers no longer need to put up the strength to lift them to overcome the obstacle. Pensive pedestrians no longer trip over the curb, and cyclists can gently change from one type of surface (street) to another (sidewalk / cycling path). But the whole beauty of this solution lies in its ‘invisibility’. It blends into the surroundings. It doesn’t carry the information ‘this solution is for people with disabilities’ and in the same way it serves everyone, meeting many different needs at the same time.
It is important that the solutions are built in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone and on the same time they don’t make the user feel that something is designed specifically for his individual needs (in terms of different vectors of his limitations and disability). The less visible (typical for users with special needs) adaptations, the more universal the solution will be. It’s not about highlighting and stigmatising the limitations. It’s about trying to eliminate them by creating a sense of equality and comfort for all.
Universal design principles undoubtedly provide a good starting point for designers. They set the direction and way of thinking, but don’t provide a specific method. Each solution requires an individual approach and understanding.
Even after the introduction and popularization of the universal design principles, the world of graphic interfaces still remained in a poor form. They were non-intuitive, and their role for a long time was to meet only functional needs without taking into account the way and the quality of how they were used. With the popularity of the Internet, the constantly growing number of websites and services and the fact that they later became a point of contact between citizens and public institutions, the problem of lack of accessibility of web interfaces grew, especially for people with disabilities.
The first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were defined and published in 1999. These guidelines have provided users with disabilities with equal access to the content published on the Internet. However, their application wasn’t and still isn’t a legal requirement (apart from websites and mobile apps of public institutions). Nevertheless, this doesn’t change the fact that for all private entities, WCAG standardization is still a choice, not a necessity, although its application at a basic level doesn’t require much effort. Ensuring appropriate contrast, size of text and interactive elements, legibility and intelligibility of text and labels on the website, placing alternative captions or multimedia descriptions are only a few elements that significantly improve the use of the website (not only for people with disabilities) and at the same time don’t require special resources on the designer side.
‘Design is ultimately an empowering approach of looking at the world and igniting new opportunities to make it better.’
─ Design a Better Business New Tools, Skills, and Mindset for Strategy and Innovation
Today, it sets the direction for the design of modern solutions, and its range consists of a number of different dependencies. It provides the basis to go beyond the framework of accessible design and is a development and complement of universal design. The context of use is the main foundation for Inclusive Design, whose most important feature is to create solutions for the largest possible group of users by paying particular attention not only to their psycho-physical limitations but also to the circumstances and manner of use.
The most crucial stage in the design process is to identify situations where users might not be able to use the solution. This translates into the perception of disability on three levels:
- permanent, best known in this context, e.g. characterized by complete paresis or even loss of limb;
- temporary, where the user of the solution may e.g. have a broken arm and be unable to function freely;
- momentary (contextual) which happens most often and is also most often omitted by designers, where at a given moment of using the solution, e.g. by sharp light falling on the screen of a mobile phone, the user is not able to complete the task performed on the device.
Different ‘levels of disability’ may be the result of different situations, circumstances and events, but lead to exactly the same needs being met. Think of a simple analog switch
Then imagine five such switches in a row, one next to the another, where each of them is responsible for activating or deactivating a different function. It’s easy to make a mistake, isn’t it? Let’s also imagine that these five switches, placed close together, are located in the cockpit of an airplane, and their accidental use could cause an air crash. Stress, tension, increased responsibility, various atmospheric conditions, complicated interface — all in a single package. So how to avoid mistakes and simplify the operation of the aircraft interface? The solution is surprisingly simple. It was enough to model the ends of the switches, giving them slightly different shapes, so that they could also be distinguished by touch
When designing solutions (products, services, usable space), it should be taken into account that users may not be able to see, hear or even move. They may also not be able to process certain types of information easily or at all. They may be in a situation where their eyes, ears or hands are busy, which may make it difficult or even impossible for them to perform their intended task. In a sense, each of us may experience some kind of disability. As designers, we are responsible for the solutions we create. However, we often forget that disability doesn’t have to be permanent and can affect all groups of society. This doesn’t mean, however, that the target group defined at the discovery stage of the design process becomes irrelevant in this context, but it can’t be a limitation or exclusion of other groups of potential users of the solution. It is important to take into account while designing, the different contexts and circumstances of use, both within and outside the target group.
Interface design means building a communication system between the user and the system he wants to use. The quality of the interface results not only from the knowledge and experience of the designer, but also from his maturity. The way we perceive the world has a real impact on how we communicate with others. Designing requires from us not only commitment, but also a sense of responsibility for what we do as designers. The more dependencies it brings, the more difficult this task becomes. Business requirements, technological limitations, target groups defined in the design process, the list of functionalities to be implemented in a given solution, is sometimes a big challenge. On the other hand, as designers, we have a wide range of tools we can use. But what we forget the most is the context of use, which often has the greatest impact on the perception of the product or service. Remember that nothing is remembered more than the first impression. It’s very easy to lose the user’s trust, very difficult to build it, and even harder to recover. We should design solutions bravely but also consciously.