INNOVATION / ACCESSIBILITY
DESIGN INNOVATIVE PRODUCTS FOR EVERYONE
Innovation / Accessibility: Designing Innovative Products for Everyone
Alaina Bryan, 2022
In the most romantic light, innovation can be an exciting process of pushing boundaries and expectations.
However, there can be another side to innovation, one that is often overlooked or minimized.
Throughout history, people who have been unable to adapt to new technology have been left behind.
Designers of the past tried to mold humanity to new technologies, and if you couldn’t be molded, then you couldn’t be helped.
Thankfully, designers today are committed to helping all kinds of people access new tools and products:
This is accessibility.
From the start, innovation and accessibility have had a chaotic relationship.
We often imagine innovators as brave pioneers who will stop at nothing to revolutionize society with their genius- this person seems unlikely to pause in their efforts to consider accessibility.
While some innovators have treated accessibility as an inconvenient hindrance to progress, others have used accessibility to drive their innovations.
This article will discuss the relationship between innovation and accessibility, using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and UX design heuristics to explore how designers can balance accessibility and innovation, and recognize the advantages of accessible design.
WHAT IS ACCESSIBILITY?
The U.S. Government’s website for design accessibility defines accessibility as:
“Usability for people who interact with products differently.”
Working with this definition, we might first explore accessibility by asking:
“What are the different ways that people interact with products?”
These differences can be divided into physical and cognitive impairments:
A missing arm would be permanent
A broken arm in a cast is temporary
Holding a baby would be situational
Accessibility means designing for users experiencing one or a combination of these impairments.
Accessible designs have been shown to help able-bodied and neurotypical users navigate digital ecosystems as well:
Video captions help users listening on mute as well as those with auditory impairments2
High-contrast text helps people reading on screens in bright sunlight
Closed-captioning has become a tool for people to learn new languages3
Any user, whether they are disabled or not, has felt the irritation of trying to navigate a badly designed website or interface. What most people would consider ‘bad design’ can actually be understood through the lens of accessibility.
The standards set by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) offer a variety of highly specific guidelines, detailing contrast ratio, orientation, hover controls, and much, much more: all incredibly useful information for designers who recognize the importance of accessibility. These guidelines are grouped into four categories:
While there are many aspects to building an accessible, inclusively designed product, the first three WCAG factors provide a great overarching structure for understanding the needs of disabled users.
Accessibility aside, we can benefit from asking if our products are perceivable, operable, & understandable. A history of failed start-ups and botched product launches has shown us that missing any one of these factors can be lethal.
For an analog example of botched operability, look no further than Nintendo’s 1996 release of the Nintendo 64, with a triple-pronged controller. While the controller’s design was highly innovative on many fronts, it was awkward to hold, and impossible to operate all the buttons using any one grip. Users could perceive all the buttons and understand their functionality, but were still unable to operate the device.
A product might be perceivable and operable, but lack understandability, like Burger King’s 2013 ‘Satisfries’ campaign. The supposedly healthier fries (fried in a different butter) were more expensive, and despite marketing and good reviews, customers continually failed to understand how the fries were any different. This failure was an understandability issue on Burger King's part.
Is it a coincidence that these accessibility standards are so crucial to the market success of innovative products?
To further explore the relationship between innovation and accessibility, we'll take a look at some well-known design heuristics, and the research behind them.
This heuristic has strong implications for accessibility and innovation, because it suggests that one way to make innovative products more accessible is to make them more aesthetically pleasing.
But wait- doesn’t aesthetic value vary from culture to culture, person to person?
By making designs with low visual complexity, innovators can use simplicity to enhance usability.
Prototypicality refers to the extent to which elements of a design align with a user’s existing mental models.
Mental models are the way users think something should work.
In a simpler sense, prototypicality in design can be understood as consistency.
Respected designer Jakob Nielson endorses consistency with his 4th design heuristic, which recommends that designers “follow industry and platform conventions”.
Ben Shneiderman, a scientist specializing in human-computer interaction, has consistency as the first of his eight golden rules of interface design, recommending the use of familiar colors, icons, menu hierarchy, and user flows, which allows users to navigate the system “without the need to learn new representations for the same actions.”
For example, choosing three horizontal lines (colloquially known as a hamburger menu) to reveal a hidden menu, rather than inventing an all-new unrecognizable icon for it.
A button is more perceivable, understandable and operable if it is in a consistent location, marked with a consistent icon and color, and performs a consistent function.
For example, how would your ability to find and use a ‘Log in’ button be affected if the button were located somewhere other than the top right-hand corner?
Innovation is the creation of something that is new or different in some way, but the task of learning how to use the new feature can be a huge roadblock for accessibility.
When designing an innovative product, it’s easy to get caught up in the winds of change and start finding new ways to redesign every element. Unfortunately, this can result in a totally inoperable final product, something so unusable that the value of the innovation itself gets buried.
To harness the powerful usability benefits of simplicity and consistency in the innovation process, we must ask, what really needs to be changed?
By using as many pre-existing mental models as possible and keeping things simple, we make it so that users will only have to learn when it comes to the innovating change, not a whole new way to click buttons or log in (unless that’s your innovation).
Designers should keep simplicity and consistency in mind, especially when designing innovative products that will require users to do any amount of learning.
Innovation is a nebulous concept, and has been defined differently by every entity, individual or company, that seeks to employ its catalytic power. At the most basic level, innovation is creating new value- but it can also be as dramatic as a groundbreaking invention, changing an entire industry, and causing a shift in the way our society functions. Accessibility, instead of creating obstacles, can actually be a stimulant for this process:
The inventor of one of the first typewriters, Pellegrino Turri, developed the revolutionary machine in the early 1800s to help his low-vision friend continue to write letters to him7
Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, began studying acoustics to help with his mother’s progressive deafness7
Today’s speech technology, such as that of Siri or Alexa, originated in 1978, from Ray Kurzweil’s Reading Machine for the blind6
A 2013 research project using Xbox Kinect creates an avatar proxy to help translate different versions of sign language between non-hearing people- the technology was suggested to have commercial applications in hotels, airports, or other transit locales where language barriers might arise6
These stories show us how people have always been and continue to be inspired by physical and cognitive diversity, and how that inspiration results in changes that help move everyone toward a brighter future.
Put simply, innovation is change, and rejection of the status quo in pursuit of a better alternative.