Usability & accessibility

In my work in the context of UI/UX design, my core interest has always been on topics of making technology accessible and usable for everybody. Just as accessibility is not only about designing for the needs of the disabled, usability is not just a feature of user interfaces, but extends into service concepts and ultimately their worth for the user – a concept I refer to as “holistic usability”.

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From my first-hand experience, this lightweight research process described by Rian Van Der Merwe is incredibly efficient. In the article it is summarized as chosing:

  • The RITE testing method (Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation)
  • The right remote usability testing tools
  • The right fidelity
  • The right people to talk to
  • The right way to analyze and communicate results
  • The right way to put it all together

Being able to run a large-scale, representative, extensive UX study is an inspiring undertaking. But so is a rapid iterative process like RITE that naturally includes user research in the product development process: verifying one’s work as you go takes the guesswork out of a project and provides valuable information to identify issues and opportunities.

As the author states, each form of research process has a context where it fits best – and this is a highly suitable one for small teams, with small products and small budgets.

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Mischa Andrews lists five reasons how the web, an accessible medium by default, ended up in an inaccessible mess:

  1. We can (and do) learn to make websites without learning accessibility
  2. We’re not held accountable for inaccessible products
  3. Assumptions guide us astray
  4. The legislation doesn’t tell us what to do
  5. New trends push technology into untested territory

The article is a great analysis of often invisible biases affecting how websites are built today – and it leads straight to very concrete steps to improve the situation, among which the maybe most important:

[…] identify the perceptions you need to change: that accessibility is only for accessibility specialists, or that it’s not important, or that no one will notice, or that it’s too much effort, or that it doesn’t matter.

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Using the “Cognitive bias codex” for design concept evaluation

Cognitive bias – the tendency of the human brain to interpret information based on unrecognised irrational factors – is a phenomenon that has been fascinating me for well over a decade. There is no more efficient way to improve the quality of a design concept than by doing a heuristic evaluation on potential cognitive biases […]

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Ian Bogost, in this piece on The Atlantic, expands the notion of “precarity” from the economic into the technological sphere – the instability and unpredictability of (technological) objects:

The frequency with which technology works precariously has been obscured by culture’s obsession with technological progress, its religious belief in computation, and its confidence in the mastery of design. In truth, hardly anything works very well anymore.

From self-flushing toilets, through autocorrect and Amazon algorithms, to Facebook’s and Google’s business models, the author expresses the concern over the increasing gap between what humans need and what technology provides:

Technology’s role has begun to shift, from serving human users to pushing them out of the way so that the technologized world can service its own ends. And so, with increasing frequency, technology will exist not to serve human goals, but to facilitate its own expansion.

In the final paragraph, Bogost draws an image that moves the dystopia of robots taking over a technologized world from SciFi movies into the techno-centric culture of today:

It won’t take a computational singularity for humans to cede their lives to the world of machines. They’ve already been doing so, for years, without even noticing.

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The results from this large-scale study by Nielsen Norman Group are significant not so much for what usability issues they identified to be most common, but the fact that these are still the same basic problems that have been around as long as websites have:

The big news? None of the top issues today is new or surprising. Web design has come a long way. But these persistent problems remain. Modern design patterns and aesthetics change, but underlying user needs remain the same. Users still need to find information, be able to read it, and know what to click and where it leads.

Hence, the authors come to the simple conclusion that baseline issues keep occurring because baseline processes are lacking:

Many, if not all, of the mistakes listed above could be easily identified by including user research and usability testing in the website-development process and paying attention to the findings from that research.

…but also an important reminder that learning is a gradual process – doing research and testing on something new rarely invalidates findings from earlier phases:

When doing user research, hold on to old findings. As design preferences change 5 years from now, those old findings may keep you from making the same key usability-related mistakes a second, third, or fourth time.

UX consistency, I believe, is the most significant challenge for many organisations in terms of website usability.

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A great read on how the long history of discrimination by design continues in the realm of the digital.

It’s likely that as long as humans and their institutions hold prejudices and bias, their designs will reflect them.

This upsets me every time I see yet another shiny digital product that embraces what its designers assume to be “industry standard” but at a closer look primarily serves their own demographic only. Why is this so difficult?

Two decades ago architect Ronald Mace imagined a new standard, in which anything humans make — a new piece of technology, a public park, a household product — is usable by everyone. He called this idea “universal design.”

Yet another great example of why interaction design with a critical mindset is so valuable.

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Social media and usability – people-centred design in communications

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Social media and usability are words rarely expressed in one sentence. Publishing in social media means adherence to a strict corset: the services limit the length of texts, unify the appearance of messages and profiles, and define the interactions enabled around them.

If usability in only seen as a question of easy-to-use and smooth interfaces, the means to make an impact are indeed limited. But considering technical usability along with context of use and individual worth for the user, communication professionals can largely improve the usability of their organisations’ social media channels.

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Ignoring social inequality in design: poor customer experience

As sociologists, we frequently use inequality as a lens to examine various dimensions of social life. A blog post by Jenny L. Davis illustrates how the non-use of technology (in this particular instance, due to lack of access) may not only be a manifestation of the so called “digital divide” – the topic of the […]

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MoMo – the anxiety that strikes when friends become non-users

The impact of social technology’s non-use on its users is sometimes abstract to explain. But every now and then, the issue surfaces in very accessible manner as in an editorial piece by Radhika Sanghani on the Telegraph. While active social media users, through constant sharing of detailed accounts from their lives, can cause their friends […]

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The job anniversary that wasn’t

A few days ago, I noticed an interesting item on my LinkedIn feed that serves to illustrate one of the instances how non-use may manifest itself in social web services. A message featured in the news feed encouraged me (and likely a large number of others) to congratulate a former colleague for her 5 year […]

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Scarcity of personal time resources as a reason for quitting Facebook?

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project published some interesting non-use related numbers related to Facebook, in a report titled “Coming and Going on Facebook”: 61% of current Facebook users say that at one time or another in the past they have voluntarily taken a break from using Facebook for a period of […]

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Designing for social interaction – value and experience beyond the interface

The IxDA Helsinki October meeting was an evening filled with discussions about the current state of interaction design, the industry and new ideas. Paavo Westerberg rocked the house with an insightful and lively presentation about 15 Golden Rules for creative processes and event host Idean shared some impressions by their US-based staff in a video […]

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Social littering: When “social media” turns friends into spambots

“Press ‘Like’ and win an iPad”. “Share your workouts with your friends”. “Complete your profile to tell more about yourself”. Digital services bubble over with calls for users to share more about themselves, about products and people they like as well as about their digital traces from software tools or web services. The primary motivation […]

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