Technology is for People

UNHCR Innovation Service
Apr 28 · 7 min read

The culture at UNHCR’s Innovation Service provided the ideal environment for developing a fully accessible website.

By Amy Lynn Smith — Writer + Strategist

If you think the Internet and digital technology have opened up the world to everyone who can connect to it, you’d only be partly right. Of course, connectivity remains an issue in many parts of the world, but a universal challenge is how to make an online experience fully accessible for people with disabilities, who are often marginalized when it comes to digital access. Rather than being considered a right, far too often accessibility is considered an added feature instead of a necessity.

Not everyone knows that people who are blind or visually impaired can use websites and online tools just like everyone else — provided those tools are designed for accessibility, either on their own or with the use of assistive technology. For example, people who are visually impaired may use assistive technology that adjusts their screen to a specific level of contrast or color combination, or screen readers that convert text to speech or braille. Others with physical disabilities that limit the use of one or both hands, for example — or someone working from home who is holding a baby — may rely on speech-to-text technology to type for them. But if a website isn’t designed with those needs in mind, or to be compatible with assistive technologies, it might as well not work at all.

People who don’t have disabilities, whether permanent or temporary, rarely have to think about such things — unless, of course, it’s their job to ensure digital accessibility. For the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR’s) Innovation Service, accessibility is considered innovation until it becomes the accepted standard, as explained in a previous story on digital accessibility that explored how a new intern at the Innovation Service, Eva Hangartner, brought the need for greater inclusivity to their attention. That’s why the team developed the first fully accessible website in UNHCR — with Hangartner’s input and feedback at every step — in part to demonstrate that full digital accessibility should be the rule, not the exception.

“We have a responsibility to be an example for the organization and others working in this space,” says Giulia Balestra, Associate Innovation Officer. “It’s an effort to always look back and analyze whether what you did is working, but it’s something we have to do.”

Inclusive culture includes digital accessibility

Although making a website accessible for people with any type of disability obviously involves technical expertise, the Innovation Service’s primary motivation was living up to the tenets of the inclusive culture UNHCR’s Innovation Service is continually working to strengthen and expand, which means valuing, listening to, and learning from the viewpoints and experiences of people who represent the breadth of the world’s diversity. Babusi Nyoni, a User Interface and Experience Design contractor who has been working with the Innovation Service since 2016, first addressed the usability of the Innovation Service’s website for people with cognitive impairments, making the organization and structure of the content as user-friendly as possible.

But the team realized they needed to go much further when Hangartner — who has limited sight but is legally blind — discovered that some areas of the site weren’t accessible for her, although other features were.

“The underlying question is, ‘How do we action things that are important to us without having a personal connection to the issue?’” says Hans Park, Strategic Design and Research Manager at the Innovation Service. “We needed Eva to tell us how some things just weren’t accessible for her. But we don’t always have the privilege of working with people who are directly impacted by a lack of accessibility.”

Part of the innovation mindset means paying attention to people like Hangartner who may bring up issues that have never been raised before. Park says that’s why listening to and believing their experiences — and the increasing emphasis on diversity at UNHCR — were so critical to this project.

“Having a diverse workforce gives us a personal connection to these issues and the chance to listen, understand, and act in line with the mindset of ‘These are the things we need to work on to build an even more diverse workforce,’” Park says, “but also to figure out how we can action important work when we do not have that personal connection in the team.”

Although Nyoni already had a great deal of experience in website accessibility, there’s nothing quite like having a user such as Hangartner who can explain what works and what doesn’t, and test new functionality as it is developed to make sure it is, in fact, accessible. The Innovation Service team worked closely with Hangartner to develop and experiment with functionality to make the best possible design and usability decisions.

“There’s a push in the UN and UNHCR toward accessibility, but I think the reason we were able to do it really fast is because we had the right kind of environment, the right skill sets, and the autonomy to work on this,” Park says. “We could experiment, test, and action this quickly because we already had the infrastructure in place that was encouraging an innovation mindset.”

Speak-up culture can spark solutions

Of course, it takes a talent for technology to upgrade or design a website. But the most powerful motivation to make UNHCR’s website fully accessible was the Innovation Service’s culture of openness.

“Eva mentioned the accessibility issues in her cover letter and her interview, and she raised her concerns with an improvement-based mindset,” Balestra says. “She was willing to provide all the feedback the team needed throughout the project, which expanded beyond the website to include other tools, processes, and activities that weren’t fully accessible.”

Influenced by Hangartner’s input, the team’s conversations would begin with questions like, “How does that work for you? and “Can this be better?” Equally important, the Innovation Service’s culture encourages people to speak up, and to take feedback and criticism seriously.

“We have a culture of humility for being open and also being willing to be uncomfortable without always having the answers at first,” Balestra says. “So often in society we are not rewarded for humility, but we see the willingness to question and be open to learning and growing as central to innovation.”

Park adds that it’s simply second nature for the Innovation Service team to try new things to determine if there’s a better process or idea worth implementing. That same approach applied to the website redesign.

“The innovation culture was already there, but we had to think through the technical aspects on how we make this work, and Babusi had this wonderful spreadsheet we could use to monitor our progress,” he says. “Between Eva, Giulia, Babusi, and myself, we knew that of course we were going to test this and do this, and a lot of other colleagues in UNHCR’s Digital Engagement team were supportive of us, helping us to bring the infrastructure to the level needed for us to implement our work.”

Technology must put people’s needs first

Nyoni points out that when it comes to accessibility in design, a lot of what is prioritized relies on “what is perceived in the collective consciousness as good design.” He considers himself a “human-first” designer who is a technologist on the side, which is especially important when it comes to accessibility. Whether because of legal or ethical standards, the ability for all people to access technology is a human right.

“So often, accessibility is an afterthought,” he says. “But the success of anything designed is in its usability, so accessibility is something to aspire to. It’s not simply nice to have. If it’s not accessible then it’s not good design. But if designers collectively begin normalizing accessible design as good design, that will inform attitudes and trends that lead to the development of even more accessible apps and websites, which we’ve already started to see over the last three years or so.”

For example, one of the issues Hangartner had with the website was the way the content flowed in, because she couldn’t pinch and zoom in on the content to make it larger and more readable. There also wasn’t a high enough contrast ratio between the background and text for people with certain kinds of visual impairments. Both of those issues have been resolved, and if other usability issues come to the Innovation Service’s attention they’ll address those, too. The Innovation Service may be leading the way in showing how effectively accessibility can be achieved, but the team is also following a UN-wide mandate to improve digital accessibility, alongside Ricardo Pla Cordero, Protection Officer, Disability Inclusion Division of International Protection and the Digital Engagement team.

“Having that buy-in to make web assets accessible is something that’s just as important as doing the work, so I think for most of us what our immediate future holds is trying to normalize this approach,” Nyoni says. “If designers begin to normalize accessible design as good design, I think you’ll begin to see more apps and websites with features built in to make the assets available to people with various types of impairments.”

Balestra underscores how important it is to make UNHCR’s websites and other digital tools accessible to everyone — and, particularly for the Innovation Service, to consider the human impact of everything they do. After all, among both the staff and the people of concern they work with, there is a wide range of experiences they have all gone through.

“We have to continue becoming better at understanding individuals and reflecting that in the way we do our work,” she says. “Understanding people’s needs, seeing things from their perspective and taking action in a way that is kind, respectful, and inclusive. Finding the link between individual experiences and subjectivity, and what we do as an organization, is still something that needs to be developed and deepened even further.”

UNHCR Innovation Service