Exasperations of accessible experiences

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Accessibility is treated by my industry as you would treat a stone chip stuck in your vehicle’s brakes. You can hear it squealing as it grinds into your imagination of a deeply scarred disk.

You cannot identify which wheel is affected from inside the comfort of the vehicle. You select reverse gear and go back a bit in the hope the chip is forced out of its entrapment. The tone changes. You drive forward and the whine is still there. You may even picture where the chip came from: those roadworks, the potholes, or the pixies?

Disappointed and frustrated, you exit the vehicle to look at the wheels. They look great! Which is making the noise? You drive on with the windows open. It’s on the right. Front or rear? The only thing we can do is to recruit someone to listen as we drive by them and report. It’s the front right. We investigate and can’t see the stone chip. Time is pressing. Do we carry on to our destination and hope not to cause damage, or do we call the recovery team?

Wisely, we call the recovery team and they send an expert to remove the wheel and clear the chip from its lodgement with an improvised pick. We continue on our way. Late, and a little frustrated.

Maybe we could have designed the brakes better to keep the chips out? Or maybe we only need to find a reliable way to test which wheel is affected and learn to clear future chips for ourselves? We surely can’t have the expert on call all the time.

History

In 2007, my MSc eLearning Technologies course required me to learn HTML, CSS, and some JavaScript to appreciate how our learning experience design could be made as accessible as possible. We built complex interactions and media with the ever-present question, can the widest range of users with the widest range of abilities access the learning content? Sometimes that meant careful coding and at others the crafting of an alternative digital strategy.

In 2012 I recognised that designer colleagues do not have to be qualified or even aware of digital engineering for an accessible experience. The majority were instructional designers moving from enterprise presentation software or graphic designers who traditionally went on the old Macromedia Flash and Firefox courses and could build beautiful Flash interactions. I seemed alone in banging the accessibility drum.

And now, how has our practise progressed?

Roll forward to 2017 and I was exasperated with the strength of the graphic design league and weakness of engineering in user experience design. The experience of our less able and particularly blind users seemed institutionally overlooked.

Six-week UX “diplomas” touched on colour-blindness and contrast and a little on good writing and overlooked or omitted real accessibility. The assumption must have been that the developers would take care of that? My interest in and work toward a responsive presentation to display across devices and basic accessibility was novel!

Ableist leadership equals ableist design?

And in 2019? I am hugely disappointed that my predictions of an ableist MSc in User Experience Design was founded. Our Accessibility study discussed our users’ variety of needs and fell short of delivering the engineering overview needed to accommodate them. Each student specialised in their own area of interest and knowledge sharing was limited to a 10-minute presentation. Whether we learned about the needs of our autistic or blind users was a bit of a lottery.

One notable class discussion about accessible engineering… the only real discussion on engineering for accessibility was limited to a mind-map on a wipe board.

And our UX leaders? I’ve studied their team building activities and often admire their corralling of designers toward an enterprise effort. They and their teams do deliver some delightfully beautiful and easy-to-use products. UX design is paying off. And still, the accessibility engineering part can be omitted? Accessibility audit success criteria are against WCAG 2.0. And user testing with blind or other AT users seems incredibly rare.

Perhaps, while our UX leadership is derived from business and graphic design accessibility can only remain a third-class concern before business leaders force an improvement to avoid increasing litigation?

Back in the classroom and in our first discussion from my pressing the accessibility thread, a student colleague questioned why we should make products accessible. It is too difficult and expensive and takes too much resource for such a small proportion of less able users who may use their products. A guest speaker recently said that his company didn’t test blind users because they made Enterprise Software (implying blind people do not work in enterprise arenas).

If blind users do not consume our products then is it possible our design is institutionally inaccessible to them?

On expertise

I am not an accessibility expert. More clearly after doing some preliminary research for my dissertation. And compared to many of my colleagues I must appear to be an expert? One reason is that I appear to care and another is that I promote accessibility as a priority in my consultations.

I don’t start a design with sketching, I start with asking who the experience is for and what content those users want, and how we can best present it for their needs. And that’s just not the way of my industry

Learning design is much better at this. That said, it is diluted with countless back-room staff self-promoting themselves from trite PowerPoint presentation to corporate or enterprise eLearning that in my experience remains DIRE even for an able user. The standard of digital learning design is far lower than it should be because the wrong people are creating and assessing it.

What can we do?

Meanwhile, assistive technologies work harder and harder to make inaccessible engineering accessible and often miss the important “experience” part. Ableist visual design is grand if you are able. And as a majority, able users designing for able users is only ableist and self-serving.

Sigh.

There is a better experience of accessibility beyond compliance with guidance, regulation, or legislation. And I am not confident of proving it. The institutional rule of visual design is possibly too strong and my access to quality research limited by the usual student excuses and low recruitment opportunities.

I’ll be pleased to only make a small difference. Maybe the target should be our designers’ education? And will our leaderships allow that?

Maybe European legislation will help? On the other hand, where that is restricted to discussing the completion of a user’s task and working toward WCAG 2.0, maybe it falls short of providing for a truly comparable experience of our content?