Are we moving away from accessible design?

The BBC recently interviewed musical icon Stevie Wonder for its “Click” technology programme. What was interesting was that this was one of the first times that a public figure has spoken out about the general lack of accessible design for people with visual impairment


Recent developments in technology, such as the new wave of touch-screen devices (made popular with the Apple iPhone) are viewed by many as the way forward. However, such devices are effectively impossible to use without the use of sight, due to lack of tactile feedback and locative ‘cues’. Is it really the case that we could be moving toward impressively sophisticated designs at the expense of basic usability?

The humble mechanical key

Closeup of Macbook keyboardLet’s consider what went before everyone started down the touch-screen route – the mechanical key. Keyboards and key-pads may seem outdated, and even quaint, but at least they offer tactile feedback to the user. They have a definite feel to them, so that we know when our fingers are located correctly. They is usually some kind of a gap between each key so that it is easy to press one key without inadvertently pressing another. When we press a key, there is a certain amount of vertical travel, which gives us good feedback. There may be a click, and a slight resistance which returns the key to its ‘off’ position. Each key may even have raised characters, such as braille or locative bumps – take a look at most modern keyboards and you’ll find these on the F and J keys, and again on the 5 key on the numeric keypad. Someone can find these keys easily – they represent ‘home positions’ for the fingers – and the rest should come fairly easily.

Smooth, baby…

Picture of a modern take on the humble clockHowever, the touch-screens of today are by necessity smooth and flat, and provide limited tactile feedback as to the function of keys.

What this gives us as consumers is the ability to have a number of variable layouts, depending on the task in hand. Very cute. However, we can only determine where keys are by looking at them.

Even when we do look at them, it’s not always the most perfect experience, as their responsiveness is variable and we’ve even tried some that were very imprecise about where one had to press to use the key.

“Make it accessible, and make it possible. You should just include that in the overall picture”

– Stevie Wonder.

It’s all too easy to forget about those of us who don’t have the full use of our sight. We live in a visual world, and the use of visual cues is integral to the way we experience everyday things. To the ordinary guy in the street, it’s difficult to comprehend the difficulties that visual impairment brings to even the most basic tasks. However, we are designers and we can and we should factor accessibility into our designs as a basic requirement. Not an optional one.

One size fits all?

So, how do we go about ensuring that we can accommodate the needs of all potential users, rather than just those who are fortunate enough to have no disabilities? And should we try?

These are good questions but it is surprising just how many of us never ask them. We conducted a very informal poll of some technical friends, and it was interesting how many were somewhat opposed to designing for universal accessibility. For the benefit of the audience, here is the rationale:

If we design for everyone, we have to compromise. We can’t use the latest sexy technology, and in any case why should we cater for people who probably won’t be using a computer anyway?”

Oft used rationale.

Yes, we admit that there are some great sexy technologies that just don’t really work in a usability context. However, they’re not that common. Most technology can be made to work in an accessible way, with a little bit of care and a dash of perserverence. It is entirely possible to design accessible applications and websites – it’s just that many people don’t prioritise the effort given their perception of the rewards.

This leads us onto the second part of the argument: probably won’t be using a computer anyway. Sure. Right. There are so many things wrong with this viewpoint that as I type this, I don’t really know where to begin. Most fundamentally, we must never forget that for many users the computer and the internet is a hugely important lifeline. Assistive technologies have existed for years. The audio browser “Jaws” is a good example. It can allow a blind person to surf the web. It is therefore an enabler and we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to try to design what we make to work with such enabling technology as best we can. That’s before we even begin to take into account the legislative requirements that now make it an offense to discriminate against those with disabilities.

It’s not just about those with disabilities, though…

It’s all too easy to assume that accessible design is purely to accommodate people with physical disabilities, and that’s a mistake. Period. As a society, people are living longer and so an increasing demographic will be active on computers and the internet – the “silver surfer“.

Cartoon of granny surfing the webWhile the mind remains sharp, it’s fair to say that as we get older, it can get trickier to do what we once did without any trouble.

Arthritis in the hands is a good example: joints are swollen leading to difficulty interacting with certain technologies – modern, compact mobile telephones being a good example.

Those darned buttons are just too small for a significant proportion of elderly users. Regardless, the march toward miniaturisation continues unabated, at the expense of a growing demographic.

It’s all about the numbers…

One day, technology manufacturers will realise that there is a strong demand for the simpler, more ergonomic device. Something easy to operate even with physical impairment. The mobile telephone with a small screen and large buttons, perhaps. As a business opportunity, it’s potentially massive, but surprisingly neglected by the big players. I think this is a mistake.

However, to wrap this up, we can definitely make a positive start by thinking about our designs and how we might implement them. Think of Stevie – he is an icon of achievement over adversity, and an inspiration to all. Think of how much he has been able to contribute, and then think of the countless thousands of potential users you just might lock out needlessly.

Think of what they might be able to contribute, given half a chance.


About John Clark

My name is John Clark and I previously ran a software house called Reynard Thomson, from which this blog originally grew. In the meantime, we launched a video-based user testing service (Kupima) which didn't really take off, and I have since moved into a new field specialising on software-based research & development consultancy. I'm active on LinkedIn, and would love to connect to anyone who has an interest in software prototyping or R&D:
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