Accesibility from a Designer’s Perspective
As designers, it’s our goal to create experiences, products and services that truly benefit our users. But how can we create inclusive designs if the needs of people are so diverse and constantly changing? This is a challenge that accessibility in UX aims to solve. In this article, we interview designer Sukhi Chuhan to learn more about the importance of accessibility in design. She shares her journey in UX and how she works to design accessible products and services for the citizens of Ontario.
What does accessibility in design mean?
“Accessibility in design for me is about the practice of creating designs that can be experienced by individuals of all abilities. It’s focused on removing barriers and creating opportunities for all to participate. In the context of digital design, this considers websites, mobile applications, online content and accommodating those that have visual, hearing, motor and cognitive impairments or other disabilities. It’s important when we talk about accessible design and how we’re defining it to consider that there’s factors of how users perceive things differently, sense things differently, have motor limitations, may use input in assistive technologies and also range in cognitive abilities. Taking all those considerations in mind is what makes accessible design so rich in definition.”
Why should designers care?
“In the field of UX there’s a lot of focus on having empathy as designers. While that’s really applicable and necessary, it’s also a legal requirement to design accessible in many jurisdictions. In Canada, we have the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) and in Ontario we have the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA). Both acts are intended to reduce and remove barriers for people with disabilities so that jurisdictions, governments, businesses and everything that’s within those legal definitions are more inclusive for everyone. This also includes digital experiences and may require requirements for features like screen reader compatibility, keyboard accessibility, captioning and any other kind of accessibility measure to be built in within the process. In short, at some point in our lives we’re all gonna need digital products and services that are accessible to us and that work for us. So by considering accessibility now especially as designers we can create inclusive products that reach a wider user base now as well as in the future.”
What inspired you to start working in accessibility and UX?
“I went to the University of Waterloo and had started out in Honours Science. I was always kind of interested in design and in being a creative person. Just attending the different hackathons, understanding the really rapid design process and this whole idea of being able to create a digital product was fascinating to me. I started taking electives in Knowledge Integration that included design thinking courses and that really opened me up to the principals of what design thinking is and what human computer interaction means. I ended up graduating with an Honours Science and joint Knowledge Integration degree with a Collaborative Design specialization.
Currently, I’m a senior UX designer with the Ontario Digital Service which is part of the Ontario government. I’ve always been drawn towards understanding complex problems and systems so I think that’s why I gravitated towards working in government. If you think about it, it’s an institution that’s required to serve many different individuals with diverse needs. As a personal anecdote, I came across a lot of different barriers even prior to working in government when interacting with these government systems. Whether it be complex forms and procedures or a lack of online digital options. That motivated me now as a UX designer to reduce that bureaucratic burden that we users experience, making that public service experience a lot better, faster and simpler. That includes reducing that cognitive load and all the complexities when we’re interacting with government user channels…I think that really just inspired me into the position that I’m at now. A large part of that is also considering the accesibility because that is how we can really make government services work for everyone.”
How does your work relate to accessibility in design?
👥 Accessible Government Interfaces
“With the Ontario Digital Service, we are pretty user-centric. We have the Digital Service Standard, a list of principles that help teams that build products and services to follow and make sure that we’re incorporating user research in our process. We’re also legislated by the Digital First Act and assessed to make sure that we’re following those principles and adhering to proper design.
I’m also working on the Ontario Design System team so we create the web components that you see on Ontario.ca and the different related online applications. A lot of that work involves working closely with the developers to incorporate a lot of the accessibility features that are more coded in. This means understanding touch targets, alternative and descriptive text and making sure that we have clear messaging and labels. It’s a very iterative process to ensure that people with screen readers are able to interact with that in the way that we expect and that people who have different abilities can still make sense of what we’ve designed”
🤝 “Nothing for us without us”
“In another project that I worked on, I was actually building a mobile application where I had the ability to work with Code for Canada where I got to test with a pool of participants that included people who had visual impairments. As a designer, I thought theoretically that I was designing accessibly. I was following all the different rules and requirements but actually testing with people with disabilities was a wake up call for me. You don’t know what the shortcomings are until you actually see your users interact with your product or service. There’s that popular phrase that is from the disability community that says ‘nothing for us without us’ which highlights the importance of co-creating with a community that has been systematically marginalized in the past and to make sure that we’re not repeating those faults going forward. With users that were blind they typically used the voice over feature. This highlighted a lot of important things, that even features such as security aspects are important for screen readers. It also highlighted the importance of descriptive texts and the semantics of the features we included in the app. It’s hard to design something that’s gonna be perfect for everyone, that’s not realistic. You need to have contingencies and understand the alternatives that can be better for people’s needs as well.”
What advice do you have for other designers with an interest in working with accessible design?
🔎 Learn about the people you’re designing for
“Tech is always evolving and growing and there’s always going to be new ways of us trying to problem solve how we can make things more accessible in these different experiences. You can’t learn without involving the people with different abilities and needs that you’re designing for, so always involve those users in your design process throughout the user research and usability testing as well as having feedback loops so that you’re continuously informing them on how you’ve made the changes that are improving their experience. That will really help you create designs that truly meet your users’ needs.”
📚 Websites and resources worth exploring:
💫 Connect with the design community
“UX in general is a very diverse field of people with all walks of life. I feel like that’s what makes this field exciting to be in since we’re strengthened by the variety of perspectives people have. Get out and learn, connect with local clubs, meet other like minded people, join different design communities and go to hackathons even if you feel like you’re not advanced enough. Try something and you’ll learn throughout that experience.”