Designing for Accessibility

I’ve been thinking about accessible design a lot lately. To me, it seems like the amount of truly accessible design that makes it to market has been in decline for years. Do you guys feel this way? If I’m not crazy, I think the decline could be explained by a number of reasons ranging from the introduction of the fancy glowing rectangle to the effect a really sexy instagram render has on designers. Building accessibility into a design feels like an obligation to me, and it bums me out when I see a large scale product that seemingly incorporates accessibility as an afterthought. How can form and function meet if a huge group of people can’t use your product?

I was curious what the people on core77 think. What do you define as accessibility? How do you attack accessibility in a product? Does your industry/ market scale allow for these considerations? Does accessibility have too much effect on the form and marketing aspect? At what point do you as a designer step back from integrating accessible features?

If I may get on a soapbox…

I’d agree that accessibility reached its peak sometime in the mid 90s. Since then, at least in the US, the societal norm has shifted to “what’s in it for me”. Which in turn favors exclusivity instead of inclusivity.

Of course you can make business the bogeyman. They should be doing more accessibility! My only question for that is, why? Business is a one-dimensional beast, it will always look to maximise profit, it is not hard to understand. It has always been that way and will always continue to be that way. It is always predictable, why get upset over that? Business is a follower, not a leader.

Kylie Jenner is a billionaire. Let me repeat that, Kylie Jenner is a billionaire. Pretty much for the only reason that her half-sister made a sex tape. For a few thousand years, religion kept self-interest in check. And just like the printing press did 700 years ago, technology is democratizing the power of information. Imo, it has created the religion of self. While there are benefits, and because of other tech advances, it also creates the opportunity of micro-segmentation. Again, exclusivity over inclusivity.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to rebel against those on a soapbox. But honestly, until there is a swing back to a unifying force, individualization will kill accessible design.

All fair points. I somewhat agree in terms of self focus on the consumer side, though you could argue that social media is successful because it’s inclusive. Also, of course businesses will only call for accessible design when there is a financial case for it, because that’s all most businesses act upon.

However, I’d say that it’s a designer’s responsibility to react to these trends and highlight these UX holes. We should make the argument to be inclusive in most product strategies we get out hands on. It’s a bummer when a designer overlooks or underestimates the impact of an entire user group- especially when a lot of accessibility features can be so easily implemented.

Accessibility can and should be viewed as a tool to build more empathy into a product. Considering how many people are disabled or impaired in some way, it can only benefit a designer to design for them. Additionally, I’d argue that in a lot of cases it’s an oversight on the business side to not consider accessibility use cases since the amount of disabled or impaired consumers is only increasing and will be for some time.

I think there is a difference between availability and trending. Accessibility as a trend was pretty big around '00. Oxo got a lot of press and all of a sudden marketing started pushing accessibility as a feature. Today, I think accessibility is off the radar of popular marketing, but the products may still be available. In fact, I would be surprised if there wasn’t more product available today, but like everything, it requires a deep google dive to find.

Also, ADA is still alive. In terms of the built environment, I think the US is in a pretty good place, at least compared to Canada. Although it’s coming. That’s a tweet on the development of a new public transit system in Montreal. I’m glad they care, but I find it funny that in 2019, we need a VR simulation to figure out how to make something wheelchair friendly? Architects don’t know how to do this already?

I called social media democratization, I would disagree it is inclusive. While it allows anyone to use it (democratization), it also allows an unprecedented celebration of the individual. And the fact of the matter, the more individualization, the more exclusivity, by definition. How exactly is that inclusive?

As for the “designer’s responsibility”. Sorry to be blunt, but what a bunch of hooey. Do you honestly believe that designers drive business? Maybe, just maybe in the slightest niche. But is terms of mass-market, design is a follower and designers have no say in business strategy. And with the ability for micro-segregation, I can easily produce an accessible product and a non-accessible product and sell both, if my business strategy allows.

But don’t put this on the designer. It assumes they have influence. They don’t.

Designers certainly don’t drive business, but they absolutely have an influence. We get hired because our influence on business is inherently valuable. Every feature we add on a product is a business decision that we have to present an argument for. In my experience the most successful design arguments almost exclusively relate to a user group’s pain points. If the user group exists, it should be included in design considerations, no?

Granted, accessibility groups may be relatively small in certain industries- however, accessibility groups are huge in tons of large scale markets. If the business isn’t already addressing accessibility concerns, then yes it 100% falls on the designer’s shoulders to highlight the use cases and present design solutions.

My question is why wouldn’t a designer do this or if they do, why would they do it as an afterthought? It’s a big opportunity.

As for the social media thing, I’ll play devil’s advocate- Individualization and democratization doesn’t directly translate to exclusivity. Social media is a participatory experience and people participate in whatever they want whether it be a community or a celebrity. It’s the participation/ feeling of being involved in a community or another person’s individualization that drives social media- that’s why likes, hashtags, comments, DMs etc… are so important. Kylie Jenner isn’t famous because her sister released a sex tape (though that helped), it’s because her mommy leveraged social media and entertainment to get more visibility and bring people into their life. People feel like they’re a part of things when they participate in social media. My question is how is social media exclusive?

I think you overestimate.

Designers have nearly zero say on what problems to solve. They have nearly zero say on the limits put on the solutions. All solutions/features have been narrowly defined long before a designer gets any influence. I’d love to hear how many anything goes brief examples you have received. I’d also love to hear an example where a huge accessibility group is ignored.

As for social media, you entirely missed the root cause for Ms. Jenner, and Mrs. Jenner for that matter. If you choose it ignore it, there is nothing I can say to persuade or dissuade you. It is exactly the same when discussing a platform that allows people to celebrate the individual/uniqueness. Personally, I love celebrating the individual. No single person is the same as another and I think celebrating it is awesome. If you want to post selfies, what you are eating, ancestral history, sexuality, places, things or whatever, I really want you to do whatever floats your boat. However you want to fulfill your life and tell the world is all good by me.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of social media is that it magnifies us versus them, that’s just human nature. Conflicts now occur at much granular level, unpresidented imo. Don’t agree with my micro beliefs, well then, you can’t be a part of my decisions and life. Exclusivity. I would agree the conflict is likely overblown. But who is fanning that fire? Social media. Please tell me how to break that cycle and I’m all in. Until then, society will shift further to “What’s in it for me?”. Not exactly the message you want for empathy.

Going a bit OT here but I think that assessment of social media is correct. I also think it is just the next step in the technology of connectivity. I’m not judging it as right or wrong, just plotting a course. Think of a time pre telegraph, pre mail even. You lived in your village with your 50-100 people? You pretty much had to get along. The more technology has connected us (mail, telegraph, telephone, email, forums like this, social networks, social media) the more we spread out those 50-100 connections around the globe. Maybe it give people the power to disagree vehemently because they have had the ability to find people they agree with passionately that they would not normally be connected to.

Technology also made the tools for decimating information, ideas, and trends so available. From the town square stages, to newspapers to radio, to TV and movies the cost to distribute information got more expensive. With the advent of the internet the cost to disseminate information became almost zero (well, add dollars, but those flow both ways). Think of design. You had a couple of magazines in the 90’s (I.D., Design World, Innovation). Then comes along in 1995 and all of a sudden design news is spread daily not monthly. News is submitted by anyone and still passed through an editorial filter, but that filter is much more open. Then the forums come online in 2000 I think. Now anyone can post and reach engines scrape that content. Now Instagram removes that, and an algorithm in effect becomes the editor. That algorithm is supposedly tuned to what you like (and also what people pay for you to see). As you like more and more things, the algorithm’s editor gets tighter and tighter until you see a continuous feed of only things you like which means only things that are similar to things you have liked, which means a sea of agreement.

Is this good or bad? I think there are good and bad things about it, but certainly the net effect on society seems a bit taxing.

How the heck does this relate to the OP’s questions? Not sure. Just something I’ve been thinking about.

As to how much say designers have in orgs, it depends obviously on the company. If there is a design executive in an org, that person will have more influence, but the person that is promoted to a level of design executive likely has some experience in business and is amiable to the company’s goal of maximizing profit, increasing sales, building the brand to increase company value (that is why they were hired). I think companies that do these kinds of things like focus on accessibility might more typically privately held snd run by a founder or small group of founders with a passion and a vision. As soon as that scales with investors, private or public, it probably gets much harder to control that. Look at OXO. The original story is really compelling. Founder was in housewares his entire career, wife develops arthritis, he develops products she can use. As the company scales, goes global, gets acquired, it seems to become more difficult to stick to the original vision.

OXO was founded by Sam Farber, an entrepreneur in the housewares industry, and his son, John Farber.[2] Sam Farber chose the name “OXO” as an ambigram that renders the three letters in “OXO” the same regardless of their orientation, either horizontal or vertically.[3] Noticing that his wife, Betsy, who suffered from mild arthritis in her hands, was having difficulty gripping ordinary kitchen tools, he saw an opportunity to create more comfortable cooking tools that would benefit users.[3] The first group of 15 OXO Good Grips kitchen tools were introduced to the U.S. market at the Gourmet Products Show in San Francisco, California, in 1990.[3]

Sam Farber sold OXO to General Housewares Corporation in 1992. General Housewares Corporation was acquired by World Kitchen LLc. in 2000.[2] In June 2004, Helen of Troy Limited bought OXO housewares for $273.2 million.[4]

Samuel “Sam” Farber (November 16, 1924 – June 16, 2013) was an American industrial designer and businessman. Farber and his son, John Farber, co-founded OXO, a manufacturer of kitchen utensils and housewares.[1][2] Farber is credited with revolutionizing the kitchen utensil industry by developing and introducing a line of utensils with plastic-coated black handles through OXO.[1] While more expensive than traditional utensils, the new soft, black handled utensils proved to be a success with consumers.[1][2]

so in that case a designer has a lot of influence, because he founded the company. But I assume the company is no longer run by a designer.

I think a lot like the original poster - I make it a point to circle over to universal design principles several times in every project I tackle. Years ago, while at Stanley Black & Decker I pushed the benefits of universal design principles and it fell flat with the global design groups (as did recycling communications, global icons, and other valuable initiatives) but I nonetheless pushed on and was able to design some products that won awards for their effectiveness with different user groups (the elderly, women, etc). But I think the results of products that take into account specific accommodations for various user capabilities can only be judged by the reactions and feedback from those users themselves. I never design products to impress other designers, I think that’s a real miss.

Sounds nice but I disagree - being more focused on individuals makes designers and developers more aware of unique needs, plus democratizing technology allows us to create tailored solutions unleashed from the power of mass government or a sort of top-down unification idea.

Glad to hear this, I would love to see those black & decker products if they’re available. Did you ever find it difficult balancing universal principles with branding/ visual image? At what points in the process were you circling back on those principles?

Great points! To sum up, would you say social media facilitates something like tribal polarization? (totally pulling that term from the air) If it does- to bring it back into the accessibility thing, does it make sense to attribute the presumed decline in accessible design to that?

Also love the Oxo example. Michael I know you are very well traveled in the ID world- do you think the amount accessible design has declined?

The LZR6 (sold as the 310 here in the States) won an annual Castorama Award for Products Designed for Women in 2006. I designed the controls, mounting method and laser projection flexibility (how it rotates, how it turns on the various beams) to be as intuitive as possible and friendly for users of all skill levels. Castorama felt the design catered well to women who sometimes find tools to be intimidating.

Black & Decker owned the screwdriver market for year and years, but we heard from a lot of older users that while their powered screwdrivers were useful, they weren’t easy to hold. They didn’t want to step up to a drill (that was too serious for the few uses they had), so I established two goals for the PD600 and PD360 screwdrivers - make them easier to hold for users with reduced grip strength (arthritis, smaller hands, etc) and make the products more useful like a drill. For the easier-to-hold goal, I took a page from Oxo but I reversed their pattern, I made ours a convex pattern of “nubs” on a flat surface which provided better grip friction for the palm in a wrapped-around hand position. For the more-useful goal, I integrated bit holders, a tape measure, two speeds and a three position pivot to bring screwdriver + drill together. This one won a few smaller awards (Handyman, Consumers’ Digest, etc).

In both those cases, I was more concerned with making sure the product fit the users’ needs than hitting random marketing dots-on-a-box targets, so I circled to marketing and the project manager regularly to lobby for what was right for the user. At each iteration in the design process I referred back to my goals and to universal design principals as my guardrails.

Probably my bad. I have always defined accessible design as inclusive. A universal design for a wide range a abilities. Matter of fact, in the early 90s a lot of folks did call it universal design. I’m just old. :frowning:

To reiterate my view, business today can target smaller and smaller groups, micro-segmentation. Again, exclusive over inclusive. Which, from your post, it seems you would agree. I’m not saying differently-abled is ignored. I’m saying it is its own segment that gets served. There is little reason that segment’s solution needs to be the same as another segment’s solution. If there are segments not being served, let me know, because it is an opportunity. I love those.

Again, that goes to my definition of designing for accessibility. Like I replied to Ralph, I’m old and am using a definition from the early 90s, universal design - single solution that serves many abilities, exactly like OXO. They were the poster-child for universal design 30 years ago.

Today, there are more ways to slice the differently-abled pie, and because of because of business changes, all of those slices can have a different plate. (Yes, a horrible metaphor, but dammit yo, I’m a designer, not a writer - and yet another indication of my old age)

My bad as well - I agree with IAB, I see universal design as “design that fits all” without screaming it. I believe the best products, in general, can serve all segments equally - the features or details that cater to those whose needs are unique can simply be an interesting design cue/graphic/characteristic to the average user, but he/she remains unaffected by its presence. I’ve found that users with special needs don’t want to have a spotlight shone on them, they want to achieve goals just like everyone else, right along with everyone else.

Of course, if we’re talking about specializing products by GEN’s with vanity as the driving factor, that’s a whole different ballgame - have at it, we call those derivative-mods where we utilize as many common elements as possible while specializing the product otherwise to best appeal to the target user. And there I agree with others’ posts, we have a lot more control now with short run parts/protos/CMFs. My daughter doesn’t want her laptop to look like mine, my son doesn’t want his electric scooter to look like the one down the street. My Mom doesn’t want her furniture to look like her neighbor’s.