How to:

As designers, we can forget how much product design is about the more mundane aspects of ensuring simple functionality. One of those elements of functionality is inclusion; realizing that “empathizing” with your users means identifying with all of them, not just those that are similarly able. This is designing for accessibility, and it goes further than simply checking contrast ratios.

What does it mean for something to be accessible? It’s been described in four key attributes: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. Let’s imagine these in the context of the task of shopping at a physical store.

Perceivable

Perception is the first step to access. If something’s not perceivable, we can’t even observe it, and without observing something, it’s very challenging to interact with it. Consider the first task of shopping at this store: entry. Can we discover how to get into this store? Wayfinding (signage) may point us in the direction of the entrance, but once we’re in the right area, can we find the door? For many of us, finding a door doesn’t sound like a hard task, but as the doors below show, a drive towards more modern, minimalist “design” can often end up removing many of the cues we use to identify doors, and for those with a visual impairment, the doors below may be practically invisible. In screen-based products, tools like Stark can help make sure that design elements, particularly the most essential, are readily perceivable to users.

paul-hanaoka-0byB36fjECg-unsplash (2).jpg
samuel-zeller-BgrJ7KBikgU-unsplash (1).jpg
jean-philippe-delberghe-MmanXAs1sKw-unsplash (1).jpg

Operable

Let’s say we can perceive the door. Can we use it? Inoperable doors are everywhere. Many of these are meant to be inoperable. They’re locked or they only open from the inside. Ideally, the latter makes it clear that this is the case by, for example, not having a handle on the outside. Without a handle, we may logically conclude that this door doesn’t open to us. To put it another way, we might call it inaccessible. But for those of different abilities, even non-locked doors can be so difficult to operate that their design acts as a lock. A round handle that requires twisting might be prohibitively difficult for someone with low grip strength. And even things we might not think of as part of the door itself are indeed part of its access, such as any steps leading up to the door that might preclude a wheelchair-bound user from even touching it, let alone opening it.

Thinking like a designer means thinking of this space as a denied area for those in wheelchairs
Thinking like a designer means thinking of this space as a denied area for those in wheelchairs

Understandable

Now imagine we have perceived the door and are able to operate the handle. Do we understand how? How many times have you pulled a door you were meant to push, or vice versa? Such cases are usually easily resolved when you realize it’s not as you had imagined, but this confusion illustrates a point: even if you can physically see and operate a device, it’s not always intuitive how you should operate it.

Robust

Last but not least we consider how robust our system is. Robustness is a broad topic including a variety of considerations, including what we might call adaptability and resilience. When something is adaptable, it works in a variety of ways according to what’s most convenient for the user. This kind of design puts users intent before technological requirement by designing technology to be flexible and assistive rather than rigid and mono-functional. An adaptable website is designed to work as well with screen readers as with visual displays, for example. And when something is resilient, it is durable, long-lasting, and designed defensively. For our door, it means that if someone attempts to open it in an “incorrect” manner, it doesn’t break. It means that our accessibility accommodations don’t fail under varied conditions, like if we built a ramp to accommodate wheelchair users, that ramp doesn’t become slippery and therefore unusable when it rains.

Wayfinding systems like this are nice, and this one is helpfully placed, but is there a better alternative? Good design doesn’t just handle issues, it prevents them. What if a ramp existed here instead?
Wayfinding systems like this are nice, and this one is helpfully placed, but is there a better alternative? Good design doesn’t just handle issues, it prevents them. What if a ramp existed here instead?

At the heart of this work is an understanding and active awareness that people are differently abled. And though it’s often talked about in the context of disability, these are more accurately and fairly characterized as differences, not deficiencies. While a wheelchair user has difficulty going up stairs, they may be able to travel faster through an airport terminal on wheels than someone else could by walking.

These differences are not—or should not be—an afterthought. Too often, those with non-mainstream ability are marginalized as a secondary consideration by designers who think that accessible interfaces require too much time or require making compromises. They’re immediately relevant as first considerations since they involve understanding users, something which almost always is amongst the first considerations in any design process.

This is discussed a lot in the tech industry nowadays, and with good reason. Our users are incredibly diverse, including in physical and cognitive ability. Unlike our store example, we don’t know the location of all of our users. We don’t have humans immediately available to identify and work around accessibility problems in real time, like a store might. And our laws haven’t fully caught up with this new frontier of accessibility; while the store in our example would need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), those requirements for websites are often unclear. The law requires only that businesses subject to some parts of the ADA (titles I and III) develop websites that offer “reasonable accessibility”, allowing for a lot of leeway in interpretation. And enforcement isn’t as strong as it could be, either, and all the more difficult to enforce on the internet, particularly when requirements are so vague.

As designers, we can and should lead this charge. We have a moral responsibility to design in a way that accepts, celebrates, and champions all of our users across the full spectrum of ability difference.

Ideas

Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust

As designers, we can forget how much product design is about the more mundane aspects of ensuring simple functionality. One of those elements of functionality is inclusion; realizing that “empathizing” with your users means identifying with all of them, not just those that are similarly able. This is designing for accessibility, and it goes further than simply checking contrast ratios.

What does it mean for something to be accessible? It’s been described in four key attributes: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. Let’s imagine these in the context of the task of shopping at a physical store.

Perceivable

Perception is the first step to access. If something’s not perceivable, we can’t even observe it, and without observing something, it’s very challenging to interact with it. Consider the first task of shopping at this store: entry. Can we discover how to get into this store? Wayfinding (signage) may point us in the direction of the entrance, but once we’re in the right area, can we find the door? For many of us, finding a door doesn’t sound like a hard task, but as the doors below show, a drive towards more modern, minimalist “design” can often end up removing many of the cues we use to identify doors, and for those with a visual impairment, the doors below may be practically invisible. In screen-based products, tools like Stark can help make sure that design elements, particularly the most essential, are readily perceivable to users.

paul-hanaoka-0byB36fjECg-unsplash (2).jpg
samuel-zeller-BgrJ7KBikgU-unsplash (1).jpg
jean-philippe-delberghe-MmanXAs1sKw-unsplash (1).jpg

Operable

Let’s say we can perceive the door. Can we use it? Inoperable doors are everywhere. Many of these are meant to be inoperable. They’re locked or they only open from the inside. Ideally, the latter makes it clear that this is the case by, for example, not having a handle on the outside. Without a handle, we may logically conclude that this door doesn’t open to us. To put it another way, we might call it inaccessible. But for those of different abilities, even non-locked doors can be so difficult to operate that their design acts as a lock. A round handle that requires twisting might be prohibitively difficult for someone with low grip strength. And even things we might not think of as part of the door itself are indeed part of its access, such as any steps leading up to the door that might preclude a wheelchair-bound user from even touching it, let alone opening it.

Thinking like a designer means thinking of this space as a denied area for those in wheelchairs
Thinking like a designer means thinking of this space as a denied area for those in wheelchairs

Understandable

Now imagine we have perceived the door and are able to operate the handle. Do we understand how? How many times have you pulled a door you were meant to push, or vice versa? Such cases are usually easily resolved when you realize it’s not as you had imagined, but this confusion illustrates a point: even if you can physically see and operate a device, it’s not always intuitive how you should operate it.

Robust

Last but not least we consider how robust our system is. Robustness is a broad topic including a variety of considerations, including what we might call adaptability and resilience. When something is adaptable, it works in a variety of ways according to what’s most convenient for the user. This kind of design puts users intent before technological requirement by designing technology to be flexible and assistive rather than rigid and mono-functional. An adaptable website is designed to work as well with screen readers as with visual displays, for example. And when something is resilient, it is durable, long-lasting, and designed defensively. For our door, it means that if someone attempts to open it in an “incorrect” manner, it doesn’t break. It means that our accessibility accommodations don’t fail under varied conditions, like if we built a ramp to accommodate wheelchair users, that ramp doesn’t become slippery and therefore unusable when it rains.

Wayfinding systems like this are nice, and this one is helpfully placed, but is there a better alternative? Good design doesn’t just handle issues, it prevents them. What if a ramp existed here instead?
Wayfinding systems like this are nice, and this one is helpfully placed, but is there a better alternative? Good design doesn’t just handle issues, it prevents them. What if a ramp existed here instead?

At the heart of this work is an understanding and active awareness that people are differently abled. And though it’s often talked about in the context of disability, these are more accurately and fairly characterized as differences, not deficiencies. While a wheelchair user has difficulty going up stairs, they may be able to travel faster through an airport terminal on wheels than someone else could by walking.

These differences are not—or should not be—an afterthought. Too often, those with non-mainstream ability are marginalized as a secondary consideration by designers who think that accessible interfaces require too much time or require making compromises. They’re immediately relevant as first considerations since they involve understanding users, something which almost always is amongst the first considerations in any design process.

This is discussed a lot in the tech industry nowadays, and with good reason. Our users are incredibly diverse, including in physical and cognitive ability. Unlike our store example, we don’t know the location of all of our users. We don’t have humans immediately available to identify and work around accessibility problems in real time, like a store might. And our laws haven’t fully caught up with this new frontier of accessibility; while the store in our example would need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), those requirements for websites are often unclear. The law requires only that businesses subject to some parts of the ADA (titles I and III) develop websites that offer “reasonable accessibility”, allowing for a lot of leeway in interpretation. And enforcement isn’t as strong as it could be, either, and all the more difficult to enforce on the internet, particularly when requirements are so vague.

As designers, we can and should lead this charge. We have a moral responsibility to design in a way that accepts, celebrates, and champions all of our users across the full spectrum of ability difference.

Updated continuously • Last edited on
9.10.23
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Ideas

Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust

No items found.
Updated continuously •
Last edited on
9.10.23

As designers, we can forget how much product design is about the more mundane aspects of ensuring simple functionality. One of those elements of functionality is inclusion; realizing that “empathizing” with your users means identifying with all of them, not just those that are similarly able. This is designing for accessibility, and it goes further than simply checking contrast ratios.

What does it mean for something to be accessible? It’s been described in four key attributes: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. Let’s imagine these in the context of the task of shopping at a physical store.

Perceivable

Perception is the first step to access. If something’s not perceivable, we can’t even observe it, and without observing something, it’s very challenging to interact with it. Consider the first task of shopping at this store: entry. Can we discover how to get into this store? Wayfinding (signage) may point us in the direction of the entrance, but once we’re in the right area, can we find the door? For many of us, finding a door doesn’t sound like a hard task, but as the doors below show, a drive towards more modern, minimalist “design” can often end up removing many of the cues we use to identify doors, and for those with a visual impairment, the doors below may be practically invisible. In screen-based products, tools like Stark can help make sure that design elements, particularly the most essential, are readily perceivable to users.

paul-hanaoka-0byB36fjECg-unsplash (2).jpg
samuel-zeller-BgrJ7KBikgU-unsplash (1).jpg
jean-philippe-delberghe-MmanXAs1sKw-unsplash (1).jpg

Operable

Let’s say we can perceive the door. Can we use it? Inoperable doors are everywhere. Many of these are meant to be inoperable. They’re locked or they only open from the inside. Ideally, the latter makes it clear that this is the case by, for example, not having a handle on the outside. Without a handle, we may logically conclude that this door doesn’t open to us. To put it another way, we might call it inaccessible. But for those of different abilities, even non-locked doors can be so difficult to operate that their design acts as a lock. A round handle that requires twisting might be prohibitively difficult for someone with low grip strength. And even things we might not think of as part of the door itself are indeed part of its access, such as any steps leading up to the door that might preclude a wheelchair-bound user from even touching it, let alone opening it.

Thinking like a designer means thinking of this space as a denied area for those in wheelchairs
Thinking like a designer means thinking of this space as a denied area for those in wheelchairs

Understandable

Now imagine we have perceived the door and are able to operate the handle. Do we understand how? How many times have you pulled a door you were meant to push, or vice versa? Such cases are usually easily resolved when you realize it’s not as you had imagined, but this confusion illustrates a point: even if you can physically see and operate a device, it’s not always intuitive how you should operate it.

Robust

Last but not least we consider how robust our system is. Robustness is a broad topic including a variety of considerations, including what we might call adaptability and resilience. When something is adaptable, it works in a variety of ways according to what’s most convenient for the user. This kind of design puts users intent before technological requirement by designing technology to be flexible and assistive rather than rigid and mono-functional. An adaptable website is designed to work as well with screen readers as with visual displays, for example. And when something is resilient, it is durable, long-lasting, and designed defensively. For our door, it means that if someone attempts to open it in an “incorrect” manner, it doesn’t break. It means that our accessibility accommodations don’t fail under varied conditions, like if we built a ramp to accommodate wheelchair users, that ramp doesn’t become slippery and therefore unusable when it rains.

Wayfinding systems like this are nice, and this one is helpfully placed, but is there a better alternative? Good design doesn’t just handle issues, it prevents them. What if a ramp existed here instead?
Wayfinding systems like this are nice, and this one is helpfully placed, but is there a better alternative? Good design doesn’t just handle issues, it prevents them. What if a ramp existed here instead?

At the heart of this work is an understanding and active awareness that people are differently abled. And though it’s often talked about in the context of disability, these are more accurately and fairly characterized as differences, not deficiencies. While a wheelchair user has difficulty going up stairs, they may be able to travel faster through an airport terminal on wheels than someone else could by walking.

These differences are not—or should not be—an afterthought. Too often, those with non-mainstream ability are marginalized as a secondary consideration by designers who think that accessible interfaces require too much time or require making compromises. They’re immediately relevant as first considerations since they involve understanding users, something which almost always is amongst the first considerations in any design process.

This is discussed a lot in the tech industry nowadays, and with good reason. Our users are incredibly diverse, including in physical and cognitive ability. Unlike our store example, we don’t know the location of all of our users. We don’t have humans immediately available to identify and work around accessibility problems in real time, like a store might. And our laws haven’t fully caught up with this new frontier of accessibility; while the store in our example would need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), those requirements for websites are often unclear. The law requires only that businesses subject to some parts of the ADA (titles I and III) develop websites that offer “reasonable accessibility”, allowing for a lot of leeway in interpretation. And enforcement isn’t as strong as it could be, either, and all the more difficult to enforce on the internet, particularly when requirements are so vague.

As designers, we can and should lead this charge. We have a moral responsibility to design in a way that accepts, celebrates, and champions all of our users across the full spectrum of ability difference.

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