March 19, 2020

The Case for Usability and Accessibility

Accessibility and usability are often confused and used interchangeably. We break down the difference between the two and make the case for accessibility being a positive design constraint.

The Difference Between Accessibility and Usability

We’ve previously talked about Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface Design (1994) could apply to emerging technologies like VR to create more immersive experiences, but before and we consider the potential for creating, we should also consider that those exciting new experiences can’t be enjoyed by many people who’d otherwise want to.

This is because usability and accessibility are related but not interchangeable:

  • Usability: concerned with “user-friendliness” in that a given interaction is designed so a user can easily figure out how to negotiate that interaction (and remember how to do it) — while deriving a feeling of satisfaction.
  • Accessibility: in the context of the Internet, the World Wide Web Consortium defines web accessibility as encompassing all disabilities that affect access to the Internet such as:
    • auditory
    • cognitive
    • neurological
    • physical
    • speech
    • visual

Something could be very user friendly for an even broader population of users, but it can’t be user-friendly for additional segments of that population because it’s not accessible to them (i.e. not even usable). Just as importantly, web accessibility also accounts for people without what might be defined as legal disabilities (such as temporary injuries) and situations that otherwise affect usage for everyone (loud environments or sunny conditions). In short, accessible design means designing for all.

Compromise Versus Constraint

If we recall the seven principles of Universal Design, we find that accessible design is really an outcome of good design in general. The Interaction Design Foundation relates each principle to accessibility as follows:

  • Equitable Use: accommodates users with diverse ability levels
  • Flexible Use: ambidextrous to accommodate right and left-handed people
  • Simple, Intuitive Use: simplified and structured delivery of complex information and prompts that help complete the task
  • Perceptible Information: make vital information readable and reinforce it redundantly such as using both pictures and text
  • Tolerance for Error: arrange and configure elements that minimize accidents such as making sure someone could only book something in the future
  • Low Physical Effort: reduce tedious actions
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use: accommodates different types of bodies and mobility ranges

Yet not just obeying these principles but taking them to the next level to increase accessibility needn’t be seen as a limiting factor, but as a constraint. As Jesse Hausler says:

“Accessibility will not force you to make a product that is ugly, boring, or cluttered. It will introduce a set of constraints to incorporate as you consider your design. These design constraints will give you new ideas to explore that will lead to better products for all of your users.”

The Takeaway

Given the sheer volume of potential users of a publicly available digital experience like a website or app, the emphasis on accessibility in those contexts is understandable. However, it’s important to also realize that accessibility applies beyond those contexts. It’s a mindset of allowing more people to use and enjoy what you’re making in a way that absolutely does not play into the risk of “if it’s for everybody, it’s for nobody.”

In a competitive environment where we have to stand out or target specific niches, that will still be possible and a challenge regardless — “boring” is a consequence of comprehensively boring design or marketing, not because of maximizing accessibility. Besides, we’re already moving past the importance of surface-level “delightful” design towards design that favors user experience, which inevitably should include the experience of diverse users.

As long as we continue to emphasize accessibility and inclusion in designs for people, especially in non-digital contexts such as fashion, we’re going to see more and more options of how innovative (and sustainable), beautiful and accessible design will look and feel. This means new avenues of creativity and innovation. Whenever we get that combination right, humanity benefits and the designers that find it will get paid.

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