World usability day - let’s make the web for everyone

By Hilary Stephenson | 09/11/2017

Today is World Usability Day (WUD) and the theme this year is inclusion. Having been asked recently if accessibility is “still a thing” I’m delighted this is the focus of a day celebrated by usability professionals across the world.

We’ve seen a rise in requests to help make our clients’ products and services more accessible. Admittedly, some are doing it because they fear the looming EU Directive but they are investing in and embracing inclusive design. For us, that needs to be more than a retrofit of design and technical fixes to comply with the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). It’s costly to paste accessibility over the top of a fundamentally exclusive design. It also suggests an afterthought, a side order or worse, a kneejerk audit reaction. We want UX professionals, designers, devs and the people who commission digital stuff to understand the true value of inclusion. We see great educators preparing people for industry where it simply isn’t practised as standard.

You probably won’t be too surprised to hear that a lot of the issues we identify when we’re doing accessibility audits or inclusive usability sessions are more closely aligned to usability problems. Yes, it’s true that often the code quality isn’t great and it needs fixing but that tends to be a smaller part of a bigger usability problem - products and services don't always offer the ability for someone to complete a task, irrespective of whether the design is accessible. 

We’ve found a number of ways to help our customers address the challenge of inclusive design over the years, and one of the most successful of these has been when we have encouraged the project team to include users with ranging abilities and access needs in their usability sessions. This has two main benefits. Firstly, the project team get to see first hand how their products are used by a more diverse group of users. Secondly, and most importantly, because usability sessions focus on tasks and scenarios rather than functions, when you start analysing your data it’s very easy to see the correlation between access needs (using a screenreader) and the task they want to complete (filling in a form about their council tax).  A great example of this can be found in good content design. By taking the time to make sure your content can be easily understood by users with learning difficulties, you’ll also be making it easier for users who have English as a second language, and honestly, you’ll just be making it easier for everybody to use. That’s why we talk about inclusive design as much as we talk about accessibility. 

I’ve been to UX conferences recently where the loudest applause has been for those speakers showcasing their work in digital inclusion and web accessibility. Great to see the work recognised but the warm, often “blown away” response still marks this work as special, or specialist when in fact, it should be the norm across the web design community, 18 years on from the launch of the WCAG guidelines. This is all anecdotal, as I don’t believe in ratting on other agencies but I have heard clients say they were told to “build for the majority, not the minority” or “don’t worry, browsers and smartphones fix it all now”. While we had seen great advances in browsers and operating systems, (Microsoft are doing a great job on inclusion) this places the responsibility on the user, requiring them to be the specialist and own the tech set-up. If we all designed for more edge cases and minority conditions, the results would benefit everyone. Ability is a vast spectrum, conditions can be sudden and temporary and aging affects us all (see Elizabeth Buie’s slides on “Older adults: are we really designing for our future selves”).

Accessibility isn’t tech for good, it's tech for all.

Inclusive design isn’t a nice to have, it makes the web work.

Working with so-called "minority" users fixes stuff for the majority.

Digital inclusion isn’t just IT skills training over a cup of tea. It’s about instilling confidence, understanding context, allowing spaces to co-produce and build stuff that works. Stuff that helps people.

We are working with, alongside and in the shadows of some amazing people who continue to solve this. We’ve mentioned some here and would love you to make your own pledge or share a relevant inclusive design project.

One of these great people is Molly Watt, who continues to provide clarity, context and an imperative to those who want to build better things. I’ll leave the final thoughts on the subject of inclusion to her...