Building for usability, not just accessibility

Usability is a swivel peeler


Joe Spencer

3 years ago | 7 min read

As I write this, I am sitting in the entry area of my office at WT/Mirum Minneapolis. There is a comfy couch, and I did that thing where I figured if I sat somewhere other than my desk I would be inspired to write. I am watching my coworkers walk up and use their RFID security badges to open the door.

They continue on with their day, but I am fixated on the door.

It’s a very common system, most offices have a similar setup. It’s easy and robust, I’m sure there’s a backup key or disabling mechanism for emergencies.

But what if you can’t lift a card to the reader? What if you can’t see the reader? What if you don’t understand the placard of instructions? This door is designed for the majority of users but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone.

In the digital world we come to the same crossroads, do we design for most users or all users?. Our clients and their users or customers have problems we want to solve. We want to make their experience better, faster, smarter, personalized, and more intuitive.

We as problem solvers take the desires of our clients and then enthusiastically begin the life of a digital product.

It can vary, but typically a project goes something like this: Strategy > Business Analysis > Requirements > UX/CX Design > Visual Design > Development > Quality and Accessibility Assurance Testing > Client Acceptance.

It’s a time-honored system and we have created a lot of excellent products with it.

The problem is that while the work is excellent, we still end up with a front door that doesn’t let everyone in.

In our process, right before the client signs off and we release the project to the world, we test it for quality and accessibility(A11y for short).

We take A11y very seriously, and our code is strenuously tested to comply with government-mandated standards. We deliver the exact product that was agreed upon, but just because the product has accessible code doesn’t mean it’s usable by all.

We have modified the code to pass the test, but that is not the same as building an inclusive product.

I truly believe that we all set out to make great digital products, but when we inspect who they are great for, it becomes clear that they aren’t as great as we thought.

I would venture to guess that most people are familiar with vision, hearing, and ambulatory disabilities, but there is a diverse spectrum of PWD’s that all have unique needs.

12.6% of Americans have a disability, approximately 40.5 M people. Of those:

3.6% with a hearing difficulty
2.4% with a vision difficulty
5.1% with a cognitive difficulty
6.8% with an ambulatory difficulty
2.6% with a self-care difficulty
5.8% with an independent living difficulty

Currently, we have some excellent solutions and tools for creating accessible experiences for those with hearing, vision and ambulatory disabilities and they improve every day.

But what about cognitive disabilities?. The full list of disabilities that affect roughly 27% of all internet users is long and varied and most people might not realize that intellectual disabilities, language and learning difficulties, head injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia are on the list.

How can we, as producers of digital products, understand what life is like with one of these disabilities? To do that we need to change the way we approach to be inclusive from the beginning of the project onward.

“The barriers that block me from doing my job, from getting my bills paid, or from succeeding are ones that were decided, picked, and put in place by individuals who did not understand or think about Cognitive barriers.”
-Shell Little

Usability is a swivel peeler

The OXO Good Grips swivel peeler is a marvel of usability. It features a large, cushioned handle that won’t slip, even when wet. Its cutting blade swivels to allow use in both hands. It even has a built-in potato eyer! This swivel peeler was also designed with inclusivity in mind.

It is made simply, only decorated in ways that serve the user. Its form intuits its function and it allows all users an equal experience and reasonable accommodation, without the need for additional change or modification.

Behold: The OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler

OXO started with a simple goal, to make a peeler that anyone can use. They designed prototypes with that goal in mind and then tested them with users from across the spectrum of abilities.

The feedback of these users created the foundation for an iterative cycle where learnings from one product influenced the design of the next.

Our process is not aimed at producing kitchen utensils, but our product should be as versatile as an OXO peeler — everyone should be able to use it.

Why it’s good for everyone

Curb cuts. These are the ramps cut into the curb at intersections. You may have walked over thousands of these and maybe never noticed them. The first curb cuts in the US were made in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1940s as a pilot project to assist disabled veterans.

There probably isn’t a poster of a curb cut on your wall, but every time you push a stroller, ride a bike, or use a cart to move a refrigerator, you are benefiting from that delightful 8.3% grade. Making this adjustment to sidewalk design made life easier for all users, even though it was created for a small population.

By accommodating the veterans of Kalamazoo, the city created an objectively better experience for all that has been replicated worldwide. Nowadays, most people wouldn’t even think the curb cut is an accessibility feature, just good design.

In a business climate where everyone is desperate for innovation and the next big thing, most overlook the opportunity to innovate by improving what’s currently broken.

Every business can be Kalamazoo, you just have to seek out more opportunities for curb cuts, not try to avoid them. The action items of usability can seem so simplistic that they are often ignored, but the realization of those items can lead to truly bold innovation.

Matti Makkonen, Seppo Tiainen and Juhani Tapiol simply wanted to find a way for deaf people to communicate using Nokia phones. What they created was the SMS text message.

The next time you receive a text, remember that PWD’s (and really anyone needing an assisted experience) are assets to product growth, not a hindrance.

How we change

My personal journey started with education. I wanted to learn everything about accessibility, and not just the code aspect. Fortunately, I have a leadership team (especially Val Jencks and Amy Smith!) that fully supported me at an agency (Wunderman Thompson) that was willing to fund the process.

I read, watched and listened to everything I could find on the history, present, and future of usability in society. I took the extra step of getting a CPACC certification from the IAAP, which gave me the confidence to share what I had learned with others.

I put my new knowledge to work in current projects and new projects in the planning stage. There were projects that included outside accessibility experts and I jumped on the opportunity to ask them questions and talk about process.

I eventually met accessibility consultants and testers who were also PWD’s, and it wasn’t until I had these conversations that I fully understood what usability was.

It’s so important to understand how assistive technology works, and in a broader sense, how PWD’s approach the tasks of everyday life. As an able-bodied person I have never been unable to order a prescription because the online form was unreadable by the screen reader.

For organizations, the path is the same as my own. Change starts with education. Everyone can benefit from an understanding of usability, regardless of their role. It can take the form of a full curriculum or be as simple as a one day workshop.

Take little steps in daily life, like try using only the keyboard to navigate a favorite website, turn Voiceover on when using your phone, or add SilkTide to your Chrome browser.

These small experiments can have an amazing impact on your understanding of the shortcomings of products you use every day.

Next is action. At its core, we are not just asking for an assessment of what we have designed, we want a new point of view. It is changing who “we” is to include the perspective of someone who would otherwise struggle to use our product. Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer to how this is achieved,

but I do know where it starts, and that is outreach. It’s a statement that declares our organization understands and shares the feelings of our customers and users and we endeavor to improve our product in ways that benefit them. Then we act to fulfill that promise.

The act of reaching out to users with disabilities is the first step. If that isn’t possible, the IAAP has chapters around the world. The best way to understand users with disabilities is to ask them and to include their voice in decision making.

Products are made iteratively: build, test, learn, repeat, but if we don’t include the perspective of those who experience the world differently, we can’t claim to be learning or changing. And who knows, you may invent the next text message.


Created by

Joe Spencer







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