Extreme usability and the democratisation of inclusive design

We spoke to Robin Christopherson MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet about the convergence of the diversity agenda and inclusive design. This is the first of a four-part series and focuses on extreme usability and how the drive to create more accessible products is lowering barriers in the workplace and increasing inclusion.

The democratisation of inclusive design

In the last 20 years, we’ve seen a shift from things having to be specialist devices for people with different disabilities that were very expensive and not necessarily cutting edge because the R&D cycle for relatively small organisations creating specialist devices is very different from the big players, to one where thankfully today people with disabilities are able to do things in a much more mainstream, affordable way. We’re really seeing the democratisation of inclusive design.

A blind person, myself, for example, until relatively recently, maybe the past 5 or – certainly between the last 10 and 5 years, I’ve been able to replace a lot of talking devices because as a blind person I need to use speech output, and so I used to have a talking note-taker for taking notes in meetings etc., a bit like a laptop but without a screen because I don’t need one, a specialist talking mp3 player, talking barcode scanner for telling what products are, talking light detector, telling me if I’ve left lights on and off etc, talking GPS, sat nav thing, because obviously, a standard one wouldn’t work. All of those had relatively big price tags and all had their own chargers etc. So I would carry a backpack of stuff around.

There’s an app for that

All of those examples are now replaced with a smartphone and a plethora of different apps to choose from. There’s so much choice now, we’ve got a real embarrassment of riches in that area and, particularly in the iOS domain, the apps are really quite accessible out of the box because Apple has done a really good job, not only of the accessibility of the operating system with iOS and all the apps, they’ve actually done a really good job in guiding third-party developers to making sure that things are accessible.

It’s a really encouraging place for disabled people now where in many cases, they have the same options as able-bodied users and customers. Often with a subset of the choices, so there are 50 choices for someone who has no disability and then disabled people will have a couple of dozens. But we’re still in a completely different place than we were 10 years ago for example where everything had to be specialist for people with different disabilities and there was a very significant price tag associated with that.

See also: How to embed diversity in the workforce

Inclusive design and the diversity agenda

We’re definitely seeing a raising of awareness in this area and appreciation of the fact that inclusive design is a good thing, it makes it better for everyone. It goes hand in hand with this diversity agenda which is really blossoming at the moment. There is a good acknowledgement, a good appreciation of the fact that doing things with diverse teams, a diverse workforce, and diverse teams that are working on products or services makes them better for everybody. It’s a healthy thing to embrace.

Gone are the days when, or going are the days when developers are all young, white men with 20:20 vision and good use of their hands etc. That doesn’t make for a diverse appreciation of the customers that you are actually building those products for.

When it comes to physical devices, I think that we’re seeing a couple of things. Mainstream devices, so non-specialist ones, are becoming more inclusive for a number of reasons. One is because Apple has really led the messaging here, has led the field and everybody wants to be Apple. So they’re all following their lead and really prioritising accessibility or inclusive design, to make sure that their devices and services are able to be used by as many people as possible. And Apple has really led the way here to the extent that in one of the earnings calls recently, one of the investors asked Tim Cook who is CEO of Apple, why they’re spending all this money on accessibility and he said in no uncertain terms look, if you think that money spent on accessibility is not money well spent, then you’re in the wrong stock. Get out of Apple stock, basically. So that was a really powerful example of how much they’ve prioritised accessibility and have done for a couple of decades now.

The holy grail of extreme usability

Part of the benefits of having inclusive products is that they do make them more easy to use by everybody so you can call it extreme usability. So nobody would consider putting a website live without doing usability testing; we would argue that you should really test with disabled users, people with dyslexia, a vision impairment, a motor difficulty, etc, because those are your extreme user testers. And if you follow or implement the fixes that they need, then you will end up with a extreme usability in your product.

Since the advent of the smartphone, talking about Apple, we’ve moved into this mobile computing age and you could argue that this is an extreme computing age because you’re no longer in a controlled environment when if the sun is on your monitor then you can just pull the blinds in your office or whatever. You’re out and about now with a much smaller screen, hardly any physical controls, and everybody is in very real terms disabled on a daily basis, not just people with a recognised disability or impairment. If you don’t have good colour contrast in your apps or a decent default font size, then everyone is going to struggle. Everyone uses their phone one-handed almost on a daily basis because we’re using our phones all the time and sometimes you’ve got a bag of shopping or a cup of coffee in the other hand. Those people are temporarily motor impaired and they need exactly the same design requirements as somebody who has a tremor or a motor difficulty 24/7. and I could go on: people who need to have extreme usability because they’ve got a minute left in their coffee break and they quickly want to buy something or find out a bit of information, etc, they need extreme usability, as does somebody with a learning difficulty who would need to be able to successfully complete that transaction without support, regardless of how much time they had.

See also: Digital divides in the workplace

Better products for everyone

We’re now in this age of extreme computing where everybody is computing on the edge and so having extreme usability by following the guidelines, making sure that what you design is inclusive, and then actually testing it with disabled end-users can make sure that – the real-life experience of people with extreme needs, then those products are going to be fit for purpose for everybody and everybody benefits. So there’s a real acknowledgement now and in the companies that we talk to and who work with us, they see that and they appreciate that and they see accessibility as not just being this bolt-on thing for disabled users any more, it’s for everybody. And it makes their products better for everyone.

I think we’re moving away from the idea of accessibility being this thing that is only for disabled people, that requires specialist equipment, to; hey, let’s make our products inclusive and usable by as many people as possible. That’s not to say that – some people will need a special adaption, so if you want to use an iPad with eye control only, so literally just by moving your eyes, then there are settings within iOS that will help you do that but you still need to add on an additional camera that has the capabilities of tracking people’s pupils. But who knows? Maybe in another few years of extreme usability, that will be built into the front-facing camera of all devices anyway.

We really are moving towards that age where for a whole range of reasons, things are being built in that otherwise were expensive, difficult to maintain, not really well updated, to where it’s just something that everybody needs and everybody benefits from.

See also: Hiring based on aptitude and the tech gender gap

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