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Experience Design

Understanding Disability Types for Effective UI Design: 3 Key Factors for Empathetic Problem-Solving

The Assumptions We Make About Disability

What comes to mind when you’re thinking about what it means for a person to be disabled? Are they deaf? Is their mobility compromised in some way? What about their vision? It’s important to remember that senses and abilities like these aren’t only reserved for those with permanent disabilities. Designing a purposeful and responsible user interface (UI) starts with the person on the other end of the experience, and that person may have a disability that is something they’ve lived with for years or are managing in the short term.

Whom Are We Really Considering?

Let’s take the example of hearing loss; captions or a transcript for a video might benefit someone who is deaf, but what about someone who is watching the video to support learning a new language, or someone who is watching that same video while riding on a train with loud passengers? The scope of who you’re designing for opens up when your idea of disability is inclusive of real experiences that absolutely everyone may have from time to time.

While there are many considerations to factor into your requirements gathering and creative process, the following are especially important if you’re wanting to do your best to design an interface that is mindful of your users’ needs and meets them where they are. Being curious about how your site or app will be handled (and by whom and where) will challenge you to better shape your artistic perspective and maintain a design direction that is purpose-driven.

WHO | Audience: Who Are Your Users and How Will They Interact with the UI?

“When it comes to people, there’s no such thing as normal.” Microsoft Inclusive Toolkit

When thinking about who may be using your site or application, there’s a spectrum of disability to consider, and it not only crosses physical but also intellectual attributes. The Accessibility Persona Spectrum is a guide we can use to identify three unique segments of disability:

Permanent – a disability that one may experience on a regular basis

Ex. Adult with a single arm

Temporary – a disability that one may experience for days/months

Ex. Adult with a broken arm

Situational – a disability that one may experience for hours

Ex. Adult carrying a baby in one arm

When making design decisions for your interface, at every turn there’s an opportunity to ask yourself whether or not your solution will make it easier or more difficult for your user to perform a task or comprehend a piece of content. A simple shift in habit from thinking about the “average” user of the site to thinking about a range of people experiencing a disability opens up the scope and creates space for you to solve a design challenge in a way that you may not have thought of before. It may not be enough to assign a disability to a single persona, but instead considering how that disability (being unable to use one arm, for example) may impact all of your users in a permanent, temporary, or situational way.

HOW | Device: How Will Your Users Be Using Your Application or Website?

“Human capability is not binary. Bad design impairs humans, not the disability. It’s harder and harder to know with certainty how consumers are accessing digital information.” – Lisa McMichael, Sr. Manager of User Insights & Research at Perficient.

Designing an interface for a tradeshow kiosk display may start with a completely different set of requirements compared to designing a mobile application. However, they both require an understanding of how your user will use their senses when interacting with the content.

For example, beyond learning that your future app will be mostly accessed on a tablet – which may provide you with initial requirements such as screen resolution, navigation by touch or digital pen, and alignment with multitasking controls – you may see that by going through each of these senses, you’ll approach the device capabilities from a broader perspective:

Sight – Is the user colorblind? Do they have poor eyesight? No eyesight at all? Considerations for text size, color correction, and text-to-speech could come into play here when your users are experiencing these types of challenges.

Sound – Will any part of your design include video or interactions that require listening for key sounds or words? Your interface may require access to transcripts, captions, or subtitles.

Touch – Whether your app or website will be accessed by desktop, tablet, or phone, all will have options for touch and your design elements will need to accommodate not only how the user typically engages with the device, but also the requirements of the app or website’s use cases. Will your interface require the use of one hand? Two? Will multi-gesture interactions be impractical or impactful?

WHERE | Environment: Where Will Your Users Be Using Your Application or Website?

We have to remember as designers that our vantage point may not match our users’ experience. Where will they engage with your content? Will they be in a loud convention center navigating crowds of other people, or possibly at home on a couch? Take steps to ensure your UI is as accessible as possible in varying conditions by being intentional with your design decisions. Here are a few of many key practices to consider in order to create a more accessible experience for your user…wherever they are:

  • Provide sufficient contrast between background and foreground elements
  • Ensure interactive elements are easy to identify
  • Don’t use color alone to convey information
  • Provide controls for content that starts automatically

Design for Accessibility for the Long Run

Designing with accessibility in mind isn’t only a good idea for those who may be permanently disabled; it’s a great practice that benefits everyone. Need a good place to start to apply these factors? Minding best practices for web accessibility and following these WCAG standards will get you far down the road in creating a digital experience that is considerate to those with disabilities, and really… all of your users. To learn more about accessible design, contact our experience design and UI experts today, download our guide, Digitally Accessible Experiences: Why It Matters and How to Create Them, and check out our Accessibility IQ to ensure your website works for all your users. Read more about the elements of accessible web design from our UX for Accessible Design series today.

Helpful Links

Designing for Web Accessibility

The Business Case for Digital Accessibility

Designing for Accessibility: An Introduction

Apple’s Best Practices for Inclusive Design

Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit

How Do You Achieve FocusImprovements to Accessibility in UX Design for Mobile Devices



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