How UX (User Experience) Enhances Accessibility for All

How UX (User Experience) Enhances Accessibility for All

July 20, 2022

User Experience, the “UX” in UX/UI, isn’t just a buzzword. Everything you interact with, from your cellphone to a meal at a restaurant to applying for jobs, gives you a user experience, whether it be good or bad. Chances are, if it’s a good experience you won’t even notice. The task will be done, and you’ll go on about the day. Bad user experience makes more of an impression because at best, it elicits dissatisfaction and at worst, a total inability to accomplish the task at hand.  

The digital user experience is not just a “nice to have”, it’s a need. Being able to access and interact with the internet is necessary for many daily tasks such as communicating with friends and family, attending work or classes, paying bills, etc. To not have this ability is a distinct disadvantage.

Discovering a Passion for UX

Melissa Updike, Director of Student Journey at Eleven Fifty Academy is a passionate advocate for making sure everyone has a great user experience. In her position she studies everything from when a person first learns about EFA, to when their journey culminates in graduation (and beyond), making sure the process is as easy for every user as possible, and initiating conversations about changes to improve the process.  For her, it’s more than just a job — it’s a vocation.

“I couldn’t help myself. I started doing user journeys before I really understood that was ‘a thing’.” At the time, she was employed in the hospitality industry doing training. She recognized that there was no formal organization or repetition in the training (both of which aid learning) and began to adjust the process. That led to mapping guest experiences and creating better workflows in restaurant kitchens. All of those involved “thinking of people’s experiences and what works best for them,” she explained. She was so enthusiastic about this process that she searched online to find out more about it and if it were possible to do it as a living. That’s when she discovered UX was an officially recognized and employable skill.

In her daily life, “I saw people that I really care about struggle with the use of technology due to their disabilities, and I thought ‘Hey this is something I can do to align what I love to do and to help the people that I love live their lives more effectively.’ And that’s where it started.”

Typically, when you look up UX design, it relates to digital products — such as user interfaces — but as Melissa points out “it bleeds over into other areas such as customer experience design and service experience design, and that’s where you start to see the experience take over.” This is where research, journey-mapping, and personas come into play. UX is all about understanding the user and giving them the tools that they need.

How Tech Factors Into the User Experience

Melissa says that the tech courses she has taken have propelled her forward exponentially. “HTML and CSS and JavaScript... understanding how things were created helped me understand how they could be changed. It helped me to see that we didn’t have to accept the status quo. We can push back and make things better for people that need it. It gave me the knowledge, which gave me the courage to hold products accountable.” She was able to tell stakeholders “I know this can change. Here’s how. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can make the biggest impact.”

User Experience design has been around for a very long time — think decades — but the first documented instance of it gaining official recognition is in 1993, when Don Norman coined the phrase for his group at Apple. Don believes that the user experience is “everything”, not just the actual item or app, but the whole experience from becoming aware of the item, to acquiring it, to interacting with it.  

Accessibility used to be an afterthought. In the early days of the internet, access for all was not a priority. Have you ever wanted to accomplish a task, say, turning on a TV, but lacked the tool to do so, such as a remote control? That’s how people with disabilities deal with things daily. Melissa is devoted to making accessibility as much of a priority as the other business and product priorities. “Accessibility needs to be on the list of top things.”

People with disabilities face challenges in their lives every day, but “technology has the ability overcome some of those challenges, so why wouldn’t we want to provide equality? Why shouldn’t people have access to information, to growth, to entertainment, especially when they’re already in a world that is intersected by challenges”?  

Digital accessibility means allowing those with challenges to be able to access the same information as anyone else, whether via email, social media, or attending classes. “There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to,” states Melissa.

Her advice for those who want to pursue UX as a career? “Just start. If you are specifically interested in accessibility, learn HTML and CSS. Those are your friends. Learning those can help you champion accessibility.”  

Having empathy is key to creating a great user experience. Overcoming unrealized internal biases (everyone has them) is necessary in providing an accessible experience. Thinking like the end user and recognizing any limitations they may have in being able to accomplish the task at hand is paramount.

Accessibility Covers More Than You Think

While probably the most commonly thought of disabilities relating to interacting with a computer might be blindness or deafness, there are also other considerations such as color-blindness, ADHD, autism, missing limbs or digits, mobility issues, and cognitive problems. These can hamper being able to use a keyboard or mouse, or if there are flashing images on a screen, it could trigger a bad reaction in the user. When designing a UX for a website or app, all of these potential issues must be addressed in order to truly be accessible.  

Rather than thinking of addressing accessibility issues as additional chores to add to a to-do list, Melissa views them as opportunities.

“People with disabilities should be celebrated. You’re here. We care about you. And we welcome and celebrate your differences, because they help us do better”.

“We celebrate YOU,” said Melissa about the variety of users, “let’s celebrate the ways that we make the world more accessible, and let’s continue to advocate for that every day.”

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