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Better Accessibility Needs User Research

by Whitney Quesenbery

An article based on excerpts from Whitney Quesenbery and Sarah Horton's book A Web for Everyone, provided by Rosenfeld Media.

Usability and accessibility are twins separated at birth. Same goals but like two brothers in a fable, they took different paths: Accessibility took a legal rights path. This gave it power, but not a lot of love. Usability took a user research path. This gave it deep insights, but not a lot of power.

What happens when these two meet? Can we get deep insights and great power?

We can start with good interaction design, and follow the guidelines and checklists for accessibility. Getting the technology right is an important first step–one that not enough products take.

But we can reach higher and aim to make the user experience delightful for everyone. That’s where user research comes in. You have to know the people you are designing for. Including people with disabilities.

The challenge is that it can be hard to think about using the web in ways that are different from our own experience. Assumptions about how people use technology are based on our own social and work contexts, individual preferences, and our own physical abilities. For example, some people can’t imagine reading a book without the tactile feel of print; others embrace ebooks both for the new reading experiences they offer and because they fit better into their. Similarly, it may be hard to imagine navigating a website without actually seeing where to click, or read by listening.

If you don’t include people who access technology in different ways in your user research and usability testing, you will never know whether you have created a site that works for them.

The question isn’t whether they are part of the audience, but whether they are part of your user research and usability testing. You might be surprised to find how easy it is to recruit more diverse participants, once you decide to do it.

The first step is to open up the screener a little bit. Ask about how they use technology and look for people who may need larger text, who don’t see all colors, or who may not read well. Leave some time in the schedule to set up a special keyboard or allow someone who uses a screen reader or magnifier to bring in their own laptop.

The result is richer data about how people might really use your products. And while all that variety can make quantitative analysis hard, it can also give you much deep insights into what people really need. In the process, you might come up with some break–out ideas that make an awesome, innovative product.

Because most of all, people with disabilities are people first, with desires and habits, emotional reactions and preferences–like everyone else in the audience.

About the Author

Whitney is an authority on gathering the user insights to “design products where people matter.” She’s authored three books on the subject. The most recent, A Web for Everyone, offers practical advice on making innovative and accessible sites. Follow Whitney’s practical UX advice on Twitter @whitneyq.