Guest post from Sara Mansell, Design Research Lead for Hybrid Integration, IBM Cloud
“It was so refreshing to hear a person outside of the accessibility department talking about accessibility,” said Gerry Ellis, an Accessibility and Usability Consultant at Feel the BenefIT, after I presented on accessible design at G3ict‘s International Briefing on Financial Services Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities. The event, held in Paris in April, hosted an international mix of financial services, accessibility and technology experts, and the European Commission.
What intrigued me was that I was the only person who was not part of the accessibility department, nor do I have accessibility in my job title. Yet that was not the reason why this comment struck me. It was how sincere this man was. I couldn’t help thinking, “Does he not normally hear from other departments on this topic? Doesn’t everyone care about accessibility?”
The purpose of the briefing was to share insights, ideas and suggestions for how companies in the financial services sector can improve software for people living with a disability and hear about upcoming regulations. So it did make sense that most people attending would be part of the accessibility team within their company, but even so, I expected to see more representatives from design or software engineering. As a Design Researcher and User Experience Practitioner, I know that accessible design is something that should be considered from concept to creation, not as an afterthought during the testing phase.
At IBM, we implement inclusive design by practicing user-centric design. We do this at scale, adopting our own framework: IBM Design Thinking. As part of this approach, the user becomes our “North Star” and leads us to deliver a great user experience. Our software products serve many users, including those with visual, hearing, physical or cognitive disabilities.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2011 Disability Report, there are more than 1 billion people with disabilities in the world. This number is likely to have increased, especially with the recognition and better diagnosis of cognitive disabilities. This is too large a number to ignore, and it is one of the reasons IBM continues to raise the bar to provide the best digital experience for all our users.
The terms “inclusive design,” “design for all,” and “universal design” are subtly different in their meaning but promote the fact that we should consider accessibility as part of the design of a product. Why?
a) We have a moral obligation and a legal obligation.
b) The people using your product will almost certainly include someone with a disability.
c) You never know if you or someone close to you will have a disability in the future.
Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to lead the accessibility module for an IBM Design Bootcamp, a three month onboarding program for new design hires to prepare them for designing at speed and at scale. The aim was an understanding of visual, hearing, physical and cognitive disabilities and how to design for them. The outcome was a set of resources for designers to empathise with an array of disabilities, tools to utlilise whilst designing and methods for accessibility evaluation.
Empathy is such a big part of user-centric design. One example from G3ict’s briefing that really helped me empathise was a simple exercise that VP of Freedom Scientific, Matt Ater, conducted at the start of his presentation. He started by asking for volunteers…
Instantly, hands go up in the room.
“Except I need you to shout or clap because I cannot see you,” said Matt. Everyone lowered their hands feeling rather foolish. Gita Esmieu, Director of the Financial Services Accessibility Program at G3ict, seemed to be the only person not phased and spoke up to volunteer.
“Close your eyes,” said Matt. “These are the complimentary bottles of shampoo and conditioner from my hotel room. I want you to tell me which is which.”
Matt hands her the bottles. Gita feels each one carefully and even undoes the lid to try and smell her way to success but she cannot tell the difference.
Matt’s opening scenario was just one of many faced on a day-to-day basis by those who are blind. This was the first accessibility event I had ever attended and I found this meeting was hugely valuable. It gave me a snapshot of their reality. I couldn’t help but think how much innovation could be had to make designs more accessible to those with disabilities, software-related or not. I was buzzing with excitement at this prospect and looked around me to rally up any other designers who might be in the room. But you already know the answer – there were none.
In fact, in order to create an accessible software product it takes more than just designers. At IBM, multi-disciplinary teams build our software products and software engineering is a large part of that. At IBM, accessibility is a core part of the front-end developer training to teach them best practices for writing code. I was surprised that there was not a large presence of software developers at the accessibility briefing because, like designers, they play an integral role in ensuring technology is accessible too.
Overall, I found the day hugely valuable to gain some first-hand experience of observing and listening to those with disabilities. Moreover, the event was an excellent platform for sharing ideas, best practices and innovation around the subject of accessibility.
My three big takeaways were:
1) Being able to understand the user needs of those with disabilities and gain feedback on designs helps ensure our designs remain accessible.
2) We need more events like this one to encourage cross-industry collaboration and innovation for accessibility, particularly with cognitive disabilities where the standards could be raised.
3) Representatives from all parts of product development including design and software engineering should be attending accessibility events because it takes a whole team to create truly accessible software products.