I was intrigued when the movie Finding Dory was released. Not just because I loved the original Finding Nemo. Nor because it was the highest grossing animated debut ever. I was simply fascinated to see the Twitter disabilities community continually singing its praises. This weekend I finally found time to see the movie. It is astoundingly good.
With my passion for digital accessibility in UX, the movie started me thinking about how we design for diversity. How we can leverage the potential of people who are differently-abled. How to make a more accommodating and productive UX for all.
Because as a UX Strategist what keeps me awake at night is that while Human Centred Design knowledge has grown, while device capabilities have increased dramatically, we are still in danger of creating a world where people can physically get to work but are not able to work when they get there.
In many countries building properties for diversity is commonplace. Ramps, handrails, ambulant and disability-friendly bathrooms are almost taken for granted. But building software for diversity is far less common. Far too often I come across apps with poor colour contrast, poor readability, inadequate zooming, no keyboard navigation, and no screen reader labelling.
If we don’t build for diversity, our UX designs place unconscious limitations on user adoption. Limitations that unnecessarily narrow recruitment pools, shorten retention periods, increase absenteeism, and silently lose us customers and partners. This is not a minor issue. Computer Vision Syndrome alone is estimated to negatively affect up to 90% of people. We ignore accessibility at our peril.
What frustrates me is we already have the solution available to us. Just as the property industry has building codes to follow, in the software industry there are well-established accessibility guidelines. But disappointingly few people are aware of them. As UX designer, I find a little awareness can get me further faster than empathy alone.
What makes Finding Dory special, is that it’s so rare to see positive role models of people with disabilities. Finding Dory is not the typical tragic story with a miracle cure fix at the end. It’s a movie replete with disabled characters. There’s Dory with short term memory loss; Nemo with his tiny distorted fin; an octopus called Hank with a missing tentacle; a near sighted whale shark called Destiny; Bailey, a beluga whale with faulty echolocation; Gerald the sea lion and Becky the bird who both have cognitive issues.
No-one suggests these characters need to be cured or fixed. Instead all of these characters are essential to helping Dory find her family, not in spite of their disabilities but because of them. Dory’s memory loss gives her courage & positivity; Nemo’s fin makes him sensitive to others; Becky’s cognitive issues make her unusually reliable.
Like the Paralympics in Rio, the focus of the movie is on celebrating strengths rather than commiserating over weaknesses.
The reality is that all of us have strengths and weaknesses. Just like our career development plans, our UX designs should help us enhance our strengths and manage our weaknesses. None of us can do it all.
I think of myself as good at presenting, authoring blogs, design and development. But to do my job I rely on people whose strengths are in commercial contracts, procurement, resourcing, project management, logistics, negotiation and diplomacy. There’s no reason why all of these people need to have the same capabilities in vision, hearing, motor skills, cognition, and neurology.
In the movie, because the characters recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, they even collaborate more effectively. They aren’t tempted to the conceit of thinking they can do it all on their own. In one of the most suspenseful scenes of the movie Destiny, Bailey, and Hank work together to help Dory, Marlin and Nemo negotiate a maze of pipes between different parts of the Marine Biology Institute.
There’s a similar idea behind the SAP Autism at Work program. Autism is a type of neurological diversity with incredible strengths in focus, concentration, and attention to detail. Although 1% of the world are on the autistic spectrum, 80% of autistic adults are unemployed. By recognizing the prodigious strengths of these people and accommodating their weaknesses through buddy programs, SAP benefits from rare access to a recruitment pool of extraordinarily talented individuals.
Neurological diversity is just one area of opportunity. I work with Public Sector organisations who willingly employ people with diverse physical and cognitive abilities. Although I have sometimes heard people in the Private Sector claim “we don’t employ people like that” as an excuse for not accommodating them, commonsense would suggest that between an ageing workforce, illness, and injury there’s plenty of diversity to be found in all workplaces.
In other words, digital accessibility is not about catering for a severely disabled minority, it’s about designing for a naturally diverse majority. Vision impairment statistics from Australia and the USA confirm that corrective lenses (spectacles, contact lenses) are common in over 50% and possibly as high as 75% of the population, and rise to 90-95% in over 55 year olds.
Of course, the difficulty with relying on empathy alone to guide UX design for diversity, is that sometimes empathy that leads to effective design can be very difficult to achieve. Empathy is difficult when your user’s abilities are very different to your own. Where there a lack of role models, unconscious bias, misleading frames of reference, and the unrealistic hope for a miracle cure.
These barriers to empathy can lead us into error. Graeme Innes, Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner (2005-2014), himself a talented & vision impaired social justice and human rights lawyer calls this “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. In the movie Nemo confronts his able dad Marlin for “making her [Dory] feel like she couldn’t do it”.
Even for experienced designers the difference between an inaccessible and an accessible user experience can be subtle. It’s frighteningly easy to create apps that respect the Fiori principles of Simple, Adaptive, Coherent, Role-Based, Delightful, but are still not accessible. I know because I’ve seen them. I know because in a past project I’ve accidentally created them.
Fortunately we already have the solution available to us. This is where guidelines are invaluable. They are like the shells that guide Dory to her family. Accessibility guidelines such as WCAG 2.0, BITV 2.0, and US Section 508 give us clear guidance on how to accommodate diversity in our designs. These guidelines save us from common avoidable missteps.
Is there still a place for empathy in accessibility design? Absolutely. The shells that guide Dory to her family are not the end goal, just a way to get there. Family is a place where Dory is celebrated for who she is. Where her abilities are more than just accommodated, they are celebrated and leveraged. By the end of the movie, the catch cry is “What would Dory do?”
When we design for diversity we open up new possibilities, new potential, and new collaborations. Marlin admits to Dory that by following her example he’s “done stuff I’d never dreamed of doing”.
Just a couple of weeks ago a new O’Reilly ebook Designing Voice User Interfaces was published. I like to think that if I was creating a Voice UI I would be able to collaborate with someone who relies on voice recognition daily, who knows the strengths & weaknesses of that technology deeply.
Only a few days ago I saw a news story where a woman with cerebral palsy will use eye-tracking to play music with the Australian Piano Quartet at the Sydney Opera House.
My hope is that if more of us design for diversity all our user experiences will be, like the last word in the movie, “unforgettable”. UX that will let us all make the most of our strengths and, as Dory’s mother Jenny proclaims, “do whatever you put your mind to”.