V. Usability = Accessibility

In June of 2019 I joined the team at Mississippi State University Libraries as the User Experience Specialist. My first task was to ensure that our website was in compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Universities have an interest in Accessibility mainly out of a fear of legal action, but with a large active user base and a mission to provide access to all citizens of the state, universities are great place to learn what is needed and see the direct results of our actions.

At first, WCAG can be overwhelming and confusing. I did my best to approach the problem as a UX designer and learn from people with disabilities and users of Assistive Technology. This all started to seem familiar to my UX work and it hit me that what is required is to simply expand what we consider to be “usable.” Accessibility cannot be an added feature at the end production, it must be part of every stage right from the beginning.

With that being said, here are a few of the lessons I have learned over the last couple of years:

  1. Get it right from the beginning – Proper markup and content labeling covers most of the ground toward Accessibility. Ensuring Accessibility from the very beginning of a project is much easier that trying to retrofit an old website. It is like trying to add ramps to an old building, leading to awkward compromises that may only make things worse for everyone.
  2. There is no such thing as an “edge-case” – As a UI designer we all have biases about what we accept as “usable.” For example, we believe “usable” color contrast is whatever range we can read the text on whatever screen we happen to be designing on, that is until we learn that not every screen is the same and other people do not necessarily see what we see. As designers we fall in love with our designs and don’t want to accept that they might not work for everyone. Is there some percentage we can say is acceptable? If it works for most users can we just forget about the others? OF COURSE NOT. Our job is to make it possible for ALL users to achieve their goal. No one gets left out.
  3. Users can’t be simulated – I am talking about the widely accepted use of personas in UX design. The idea sounds good, like a shortcut to building empathy for your users. I could never seem to do it. I felt I was putting them in a box. I could never create enough of them to represent even a very specific audience. I figured it was just me, and then I started hearing others warn against them, especially in presentations at Accessibility and Inclusion Design conferences. For example, if I were to create a persona for a user with low vision I would think about all of the difficulties they face and how frustrating it would be. A person with a disability, on the other hand, develops all sorts of work-arounds and strategies that I could never image. My persona will most likely lead me in the wrong direction, while speaking with an actual user would reveal what is really going on. You can’t replace actual user feedback with a simulation.
  4. Users of assistive technology (AT) are highly skilled experts – A sighted person using a screen reader for the first time to test a website is not having the same experience as a user of AT. This is similar to the previous item in that there is no substitute for actual user testing. There are automated test to tell you if your website is compliant with WCAG and has all the proper labels, but that doesn’t mean your site is usable. Use of AT is an acquired skill and we must seek out expert users and compensate them properly for testing and reporting on the usability of our sites.

Thank you for the opportunity to share some of my work with you. I would love to tell you more about my journey as a UX designer and how eager I am to bring all that I have learned into big bold projects that aspire to change the world for the better. -Troy DeRego