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Design Thinking For Accessible User Experiences, David Sloan

I’m sharing notes from UX Scotland 2014, which took place in Edinburgh Thursday and Friday this week.

Following on from Joshua Marshall’s talk about accessibility, David Sloan spoke about doing UX considering accessibility.

Incidentally, while the previous day Richard Ingram had spoken about mapping, Sloan had actually been one, starting off his career as a cartographer. (One of his jobs was showing that NZ’s Mount Cook had lost 10m off its summit in the 90s due to avalanches, another that a map had the base of the Amazon wrong). However, he’d caught the computer and accessibility bug, even doing a PhD on accessibility audits.

As an accessibility consultant, Sloan lamented that “sadly much of our work is making spreadsheets full of red FAILS”, made even worse as seemingly easy fixes such as fixing alt tags could potentially be difficult. Ideally accessibility should be considered far earlier, so that CMSes and other infrastructure that may be causing these issues can be fixed at the root.

Using a page from a live site “it’s a good example as it has a clear purpose” as a demo, we were asked to consider how we’d redesign a grid of stories to make it accessible to different types of visitors. (The general suggestion was allowing for better categorisation).

Sloan suggested that there are three considerations for accessibility:

  1. Structure
  2. Interaction
  3. Wayfinding
  4. Context

While there are detailed systems to check accessibility, Sloan suggested a few rules of thumb:

  • Try using the keyboard. In Joshua Marshall’s talk he had noted that a hand injury can make you temporarily require keyboard only use, and it’s also a good benchmark for the layout of your page. If you can’t easily and logically tab through items, then there’s something wrong.
  • Try turning on voiceover. This is easy on a Mac with the built in Voiceover (though this may also be the reason that there aren’t third party options) as well as PC ones that range from the free to specialist (with the price to match).
  • Run colour checkers. There’s an app for Windows and Mac available for doing this (though apparently it’s not so good for Mac), and I’ve found that there are ways to turn your screen greyscale).

He also recommends adhering to The Principles of Universal Design, which were released back in 1997 but are still relevant today.

He also shared a few stories about how helping for universal design extends beyond the screen: one wonderful example was a teacher finding out that he would be having a deaf student in his classes, so after research into how he could help him, shaved off his moustache to enable the student to lip read him better. The change not only saved on a signer being needed, but apparently made him look decades younger! (I’m also reminded of the work of Patricia Moore, from whom Universal Design arguably gets its name).

Using Jess McMullan’s design maturity model (PDF) as a reference, Sloan proposed an accessibility maturity model of the following levels (going from lowest to highest):

  1. (lowest) No conscious accessibility effort
  2. Token effort
  3. Following guidelines to achieve compliance
  4. Focus on supporting accessible task completion within an established design concept
  5. (highest) Accessibility and diversity drives creative thought

How do we achieve the latter? For one thing, Sloan suggests baking in accessibility needs into our personas, preferably just as an aside of a persona e.g. your primary user might be a frazzled mother with hearing issues, or a young teen with Asbergers. He used Whitney Quesenberry’s accessiblity personas as an example, which happen to be available as a slide deck:

Other references included the WAI-ARIA Authoring Practices site, and the more practical Open Ajax Accessibilty Examples site (the name may be concerning outdated but it does in fact include recent examples including JQuery).

Finally, there had been a lot of love for Rosenfeld Media books over the course of the conference, and this was no exception. John Sloane wholeheartedly recommended A Web For Everyone (though admitted some bias as he’s friends with one of the authors).

Finally, for anyone who wants pictures, Sarah McIntyre did lovely sketchnotes of the session: