Last week I went along to the Accessibility in UX Meetup by Mobile UX London and came away feeling inspired to do more to ensure our products are truly inclusive. There’s a couple of things that stood out to me: 1. Those designing products and services only represent a tiny part of the population (and their needs) and 2: The importance of user testing with people who have accessibility needs.
Accessibility is vital for a good user experience, it enables everyone to use our products - not just our designer and developer peers (who are likely all around about the same age as us). This includes people with low vision, colour blindness, hearing difficulty, mobility problems, cognitive disabilities, the young and the old. By taking these needs into account, we can cater for the true diversity of our users. Accessibility needs become a set of constraints which allows us to come up with more ideas. The following TED talk by lawyer, artist and human rights advocate Elise Roy talks about this, beautifully, in more depth in her talk ‘When we design for disability, we all benefit’. It has been estimated by the UN that there are approximately 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world right now.
So, what first struck me was the reminder that we all are getting older. What is old? What number defines this? The ageing population is increasing: the number of people in the UK aged 75 or more is expected to double in the next 25 years and we ourselves are ageing but for those of us working in the tech industry, it is easy to forget about the idea of ageing altogether since so many of us are surrounded by young, tech-savvy and independent people.
With age, our vision, hearing, memory and mobility are affected. Essentially, we are all ‘disabled’ at some point in our lives. From age 40 onwards, our vision starts to deteriorate - the lens within the eye starts to suffer from something called “presbyopia”, making it more difficult to read smaller text. Older eyes only let in ⅓ of the light of younger eyes, making it harder to distinguish between colours and our eyes can also be damaged through conditions such as diabetes. Additionally, our hearing starts to decline from the age of 30 along with our short and long-term memory, muscle and motor controls. A lot of things get harder with age and using technology, especially that which hasn’t been designed with older people in mind, is one of these.
As designers working in technology, we have a responsibility to design inclusive products that work better for everyone, especially older people and even our future selves.

This includes simple things such as:
> making sure the font sizes are large enough (at least 16 pixels)
> button touch interfaces meet the minimum 44px height and 9.6mm diagonal length
> lots of white space between hyperlinks and highlighting visited and unvisited link
> sufficient colour contrast
> simplifying tasks and navigation
> clear and succinct messaging around form, error messages
> providing subtitles for videos or audio content.
However, I think it is more than just following a set of guidelines, it is also about our mindset: thinking about older people not as a far away subset from us, but as our future selves - not as a constraint but a chance to innovate.
We also need to be more mindful of the emotional state that accompanies ageing. Just because someone is getting older, doesn’t mean they no longer care about style. For example, a relative of mine was given an alarm button to wear around her neck to press if she needed assistance but because it didn’t match her other jewellery style, she refused to wear it. Similarly, the walking stick has become a symbol of ageing, whilst being helpful, it also tells the world (and reminds ourselves) we are getting old. For those with vision problems, having a computer read out to us is not always preferable as it makes it more difficult to be discreet about the tasks we are trying to achieve online. Another example is the standard security questions that come with a lot of websites, such as on the Apple ID sign up page, a user is asked “What was the model of your first car?” - this seems like a normal question for a 30 year old developer but for a 70 year old man or woman who may also be struggling with memory loss, this is a very difficult question. If we don’t user test our solutions with people who have accessibility needs, we would not pick up on these kinds of nuances.
There is the challenge of finding people with varying disability needs to test our designs with. One of the designers, Cathrine Schioler from PA Consulting, shared her experience with research recruitment agencies and found that sometimes people would pretend to suffer from certain issues such as vision loss and so invalidated any findings. They actually found their most successful participant recruitment method was a simple email out to their current subscribers asking if they or anyone they knew would be willing to help with some testing. This was not only successful in finding the right number and diversity of people but also meant they saved on expensive recruitment fees.
Catherine worked on a project with the CQC (Care Quality Commisions - basically the Ofsted for Care providers) to provide a better reporting service on their website. They had an outdated, 7 year old, form that was riddled with all sorts of user experience issues. On this project, they spent a lot of time on getting the labelling, wording and layout of the form right. As part of this, they tested with people who had many different accessibility issues. One of these included a young lady who used a screen reader. When she came in, they had expected her to bring her laptop but instead she used an iPad, copied and pasted all of the text into her screenreader and had the software read it out to her that way. They also found that she was unable to move through the form because the screen reader could not pick up on the additional elements that were revealed once a user clicked Yes or No on a previous section. This insight challenged their assumptions around how people use screen readers and allowed the team to update their form in line with real user needs.
As designers, we solve problems. We want problems so that we can come up with potential solutions to test. We should embrace the needs of everyone, approach with empathy, remember how diverse our users are, and see it as a design opportunity instead of a constraint.
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