October 25, 2017

Creating inclusive user experiences

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
– Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and inventor of the internet

As a software developer, I think about edge cases. These are unlikely scenarios that may occur, but must be taken into account. In a Murphy’s Law type of phenomenon, anything unexpected that can happen will happen. Accounting for edge cases is how we ensure functionality of a feature, and how we test the robustness of our program.

This same mode of thinking applies to how we should build out infrastructure for the web. It is easy to assume that the consumers of our website or app are just like us: they have sight and hearing intact, they have keyboard and mouse input, they have reliably fast internet connection. We may conceive of the web as a rather level playing field; after all, users are not inhibited physically or geographically or based on their hardware or software. But this is not always the case, which is further underscored by the lack of access due to socioeconomic issues, and particularly so when people with disabilities face obstacles using the web.

Why web accessibility matters

According to the United Nations, access to the internet is a basic human right. People must be able to access the internet to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and opinion, and everyone should have equal access and opportunity to information and functionality on the web. In doing so, we are supporting social inclusion. That means we are including people across geographical and socioeconomic strata, as well as people with disabilities and the elderly. It has also been proven that optimizing your site for accessibility can lead to better search engine optimization and wider audience reach.

Lastly, accessibility matters because it’s the right thing to do: one billion people around the world, or 15% of the population, have some kind of disability. To quantify the special needs population, 285 million people around the world are blind and visually impaired, with 39 million categorized as legally blind. Given that 80% of these people live in low-income settings, accessibility is not only a disability issue but an economic one as well. Around the world, 360 million people have disabling hearing loss (and to put these numbers in perspective, the US population is 325 million).

And there are many other types of disabilities – for instance, those who have motor impairments rely on assistive technology such as special keyboards to eye trackers, and there are those who are cognitively disabled and have difficulty processing information. Creating an accessible web is geared toward people who are permanently disabled, but they can also benefit fully abled people are temporarily disabled (e.g. arm injury preventing you to use a mouse) or situationally disabled, which refers to very short periods of disability (e.g. unable to hear while in an open floor layout). Thinking about accessibility requires us to think about the breadth of scenarios and situations that may arise.

What we can do

There is so much that we can do to improve accessibility on the web. As developers and designers, we have direct input and influence over products. Even for those of us who are not in tech – whether you have a personal website or have a say in the development of your organization’s website, your voice matters.

Practice empathy

First, I believe in practicing empathy. What I mean by this is thinking about the potential users and consumers of our apps: who are they? What kind of lives do they lead? Do they have a keyboard? Are they paraplegic? Are they parents who are nursing children? All of these situations changes how they may interact with technology. As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to make assumptions about our users in terms of being like us in the sense that they have perfect sight, hearing, mouse and key input.

Be as inclusive as possible

Secondly, we can think about how to be an inclusive as possible and expanding our user interface or product to meet the needs of the most possible. That means making it available to people on mobile, but also to people using screen readers and special keyboards.

Educate yourself

And lastly, we can get educated on ways to make the web accessible. There are misconceptions or limited knowledge among developers and the general population. We are often compelled to learn about accessibility measures out of necessity, but it’s important to be proactive with this subject. Per Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which is the technical standard to make web content more accessible, we need to create interfaces that are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. WCAG outlines several examples that can be implemented, and there so many useful resources out there on the web, from Google to The A11Y Project.

Final thoughts

There are definitely some quick user interface changes to creating better experiences for everyone. But what is simple is not always easy. Creating accessible products require time, effort, education, and coordination among everyone involved – including developers, designers, product managers, and even end users.

Just remember, by making a product “accessible” to those with disabilities, you’re literally opening your platform or product to everyone. There are assistive technologies (e.g. devices, software, tools) that have helped people with disabilities and at first, served a small subset of the population, but over time, became widely available to the general public. Think of Siri or other voice command features, speech synthesizers, the ability to zoom. Even if you aren’t creating an accessibility product per se, instituting a feature such as high contrast in your app for those who are visually impaired also benefits those who are using the app outdoors.

So go out there, learn more about how to create accessible websites, and improve the lives of your diverse users.

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Malina Tran
Malina Tran is a software engineer based in Los Angeles. She cares about making cities better places for all and creating opportunities for underrepresented communities. She works as a Software Crafter at 8th Light and mentors with Teens Exploring Technology (TXT), a nonprofit that empowers young men of color to be developers and entrepreneurs. Malina has also worked for the City of New York and nonprofits focused on economic development through tech ecosystems.