Creating universally accessible UX design solutions: Q&A with Tim Blass

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When a design fails to meet the needs of its intended or potential audience, it fails full-stop. In short, universally accessible design means better outcomes for both users and the organisations who provide digital products and services to them.  

As the UX pioneer Jesse James Garrett once said, ‘user-centred design means understanding what your users need, how they think, and how they behave – and incorporating that understanding into every aspect of your process.’  

No one agrees with this principle more than Tim Blass, Lead UX Designer at MMT. Having worked for a number of years, both agency side and client side, as a Lead and Senior Experience Designer, Tim’s guiding principle focuses on using technology’s potential as a force for good. 

Universal accessibility, one of MMT's key service delivery principles, helps businesses realise greater value through their digital products and services. As Tim explains, universal accessibility is defined as ‘creating digital products and services that are universally accessible to all, irrespective of capability, context and culture.’ 

He believes that universal accessibility is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have, and for organisations to gain a competitive edge and reach as many people as possible, digital design must be all-embracing. 

In a recent interview, Tim explains how universally accessible UX design can create an inclusive digital experience for users, irrespective of their ability, age or background. 'This starts,' says Tim, 'by gaining a clear and thorough understanding of user needs, challenges and contexts in order to design from a position of strength.' 

WHAT IS UNIVERSAL ACCESSIBILITY, AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?  

Accessibility is typically associated with the standards set by *Worldwide Consortium on Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines and standards tend to be associated with people who have impairments or disabilities and therefore may rely on various tools to help their digital experience. 

Universal accessibility, however, plays into a much broader set of considerations.  

Beyond catering to specific WCAG standards, it also refers to the capabilities of the technical side of the assistive technologies and tools used to navigate and interact with digital products and services. These assistive technologies include the likes of screen readers and speech recognition applications as well as physical tools and assistance aides, such as adapted keyboards and physical screen magnifiers. 

Cultural, social and demographic factors also come into play with universal accessibility. For example, addressing the needs of users who access a digital service in low bandwidth areas or on less performant digital technology as a result of social-economic conditions. It also means ensuring that digital services are accessible to an ageing population in the Western world, many of whom may be less confident or familiar with the digital technology and its usage. 

Additionally, there are many other linguistic and cultural challenges that come with designing digital products and services. For example, people may not be using the product or service in their first language. Basically, everyone is different and our behaviours are not always determined by our backgrounds or consistent with our context of use.  

Universal accessibility therefore recognises the individual nature of the user and places them at the heart of the design process. With it comes greater equality of access and ultimately the ability to democratise access to digital services and the experiences and valuable information they provide to all. 

WHAT STEPS CAN ORGANISATIONS TAKE TO ENSURE THEIR PRODUCT IS UNIVERSALLY ACCESSIBLE? 

Good, universally accessible UX design must be based on insight and not on assumption. Research is key. The design process begins long before you start putting pencil to paper or opening up your digital design application. It starts by understanding the real challenge or opportunity for digital.  

Understanding the user needs and challenges can only come about through research and engaging with the very people you're aiming your digital products and services at. If you begin designing an interface at the solution stage without necessarily knowing who or what you're designing for, can you be sure it’s going to be of value or how you might best go about solving the challenges?  

In a desire to launch products quickly, this research can be put to one side, resulting in lengthier and more costly delivery programmes that ultimately don’t meet their intended value expectations. 

Designing for universal accessibility isn’t a fundamental change to the design process. What does differ, however, is the greater need for insight from a broader variety of audiences to arrive at a set of core design principles which will inform your concepts and prototypes.  

WHY IS DIGITAL INCLUSIVITY IMPORTANT TO YOU? 

Digital inclusivity matters as it’s primarily about helping people to improve their quality of life by improving their access to information and guiding them to make better decisions and create more positive outcomes. It’s also at the heart of MMT Digital’s core purpose ‘to build a better world.’  

Improving access to information has far-reaching benefits for people, from social and financial benefits, to increased access to schooling and education. Conversely, digital experiences that aren’t inclusive and where universal accessibility isn’t championed can be construed as discriminatory, unintentional or otherwise.  

It’s also good to see that more and more clients (beyond just public sector organisations with their legal obligations for digital accessibility) are picking up on this opportunity, and are now proactively embracing this as part of their core project briefs too. 

As more organisations have started to invest in diverse digital experiences, they are starting to understand the power of what this can deliver for them as an organisation – not just in terms of financial benefits but also in terms of reputational brand value. As a consequence, many users who previously may have frequented other non-digital channels now have been given access and nudged into using digital in a way that wasn't so prevalent before.  

FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT ARE THE UNIVERSALLY ACCESSIBLE TRAITS THAT PEOPLE MAY COMMONLY MISS? AND HOW WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THEY IMPROVE THAT ACCESSIBILITY? 

Some of the core challenges that organisations face when it comes to digital accessibility are around colour usage. Businesses with long-standing visual identities designed for print can find that their brand colours do not translate well to digital experiences.

For example, there are a number of accessibility standards that relate to colour contrast, the idea that foreground, text and background colours must be of a certain contrast ratio to enable people with visual and reading related cognitive impairments to engage with them successfully. 

It’s also important to consider cutting out any jargon or terminology that isn’t understandable to the user or isn’t written for the way people consume content on the web. Where specific terminology is unavoidable and content is aimed at a lay reader audience, then providing a brief explanation alongside required technical terms is the recommended approach, rather than getting users to have to break out of their journeys in search of a glossary of terms. 

People consume content on a webpage very differently from how they consume it in a printed form. And, if you're going to push content out there, such as podcasts or webinars, without captions or subtitles, that content will not be accessible to those people who are either deaf or visually impaired. 

There are also a number of aspects sitting behind the scenes of digital that underpin that interface which can present lots of challenges in making things accessible. For example, making sure that the code and the information (both textual and visual) can actually be accessed and read by assistive technology users, such as screen readers or voice-only interface users. 

While every improvement you make to ensure the digital customer experience is accessible is a step in the right direction, it’s still not enough. Universal accessibility is only successful when the whole user journey is accessible.

Otherwise, at some point, the user will hit a roadblock in their journey that will mean that they can't continue online. As a result, they’ll either revert to another channel or worse still, drop out altogether and go to a competitor or seek an alternative online solution that can meet their access needs. 

HOW DOES UNIVERSAL ACCESSIBILITY FIT WITHIN THE OVERALL MISSION AND PURPOSE OF MMT?  

As mentioned previously, universal accessibility sits neatly within our core purpose, ‘To build a better future.’ It plays a very strong role in what a better future looks like in terms of being able to provide equal opportunity, better access to support and allowing people to take more control and management of their own destinies.  

In all of our frameworks, North Star, Compass and Engine, universal accessibility is a common theme that runs throughout, and we build universal accessibility thinking into every aspect of our services.  

Those who adopt an inclusive mindset and see it as an integral part of UX design will reap the benefits in terms of the competitive advantage it will bring to their digital products and services and their brand reputation too. 

With more and more services rapidly moving online, we look at how building accessibility into your digital strategy is more important than ever before. To learn more about how you can remove accessibility barriers and maximise your audience, get in touch to arrange a call.  

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