Reflection Point: Usability, Accessibility, and Ethics…

It is easy to think of the internet as nothing more than a way to share selfies or pictures of cats, but in reality, the people use digital technologies for far more fundamental needs

This week, as part of my curriculum at UX Academy, I delved into the subjects of usability and accessibility. The former subject seems to be at the core of good UX design — if the products one designs cannot be learned and do not solve a problem, they have no use — but honestly, I had never given much thought to the latter. This having spent some years in architecture going to lectures — sometimes on weekends — about the Americans with Disabilities Act — the landmark 1990 civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life…in the built environment.

Much of our “public” life today is conducted on the internet

Yet much of our “public” life today is conducted on the internet or via interactions we have with digital products. It is easy to think of the internet as nothing more than a way to share selfies or pictures of cats, but in reality, the people use digital technologies for far more fundamental needs, such as connecting with government services. One study found that blind job seekers were only able to complete online job applications 28% of the time because the websites they had to use were not coded in a way to accommodate their disability. Both Harvard and MIT have been sued by the National Association of the Deaf for not providing captioned content in their Massive Open Online Courses for people with hearing disabilities. Are there any protections for public life in the digital realm for people with disabilities? In 1990, nobody thought of the internet as a public place in the same way that would think of a library or hospital. Whether or not and how the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the internet and other digital products is still being worked out in the courts. Obviously, this is not just an American issue, though, as it affects people around the world.

In 1990, nobody thought of the internet as a public place in the same way that would think of a library or hospital

Accessibility and usability are closely linked. The business case for making accessibility a prime consideration in the design and construction of digital products is pretty clear and straightforward. Accessibility makes digital products more usable to a wider range of people. Approximately 25% of the population will become disabled at some point in their lives (though only 2% think it will happen to them). By taking accessibility into account for digital products, businesses allow disabled users — whether they’re disabled from birth, temporarily disabled, or simply aging — to start and continue to use websites, software, apps, etc. Furthermore, it has been shown that solving usability issues for extreme cases improves the usability for everyday users in a unforeseen circumstances. For example, we can all relate to having to use our phones for something when our hands are not free or when we are unable to see it.

So, accessibility and usability: who’s for it? Everybody. It just makes sense. I assume all of us UX Academy students aspire to making digital products that everyone likes to use because they are so elegant and easy to learn. What’s the problem?

Perhaps there is a fine line between making products that people like to use (for any number of reasons) and taking advantage of the ubiquity of the internet and mobile devices in our modern lives. Recently, CBS raised an ethical concern about “brain hacking,” or the practice of creating products that are intended to create addiction to them, much like a cigarette. Such products tap into the normal reward functions of the brain to create dependent behaviors. Often cited examples are things like Likes on Facebook or Streaks on Snapchat. It is hard to say if addictive behavior is the intended outcome of such features or an accidental byproduct, but there seems to be ample evidence that the effects are real, and the designers and builders of such features stand to benefit through increased usage of their products.

The appeal to the most basic brain chemistry — a dopamine rush, for example — that is created when everyone Likes our posts is the natural consequence of one way in which success is measured in terms of digital products: how long and how often can we grab and hold your attention. Instead, or in addition, maybe we as designers ought to find a way to measure how much we have improved the users’ situation.

This elevates the digital product designer to the same level of professionalism that we hold lawyers, doctors, and architects who have an obligation to the public and not just their client. Of course, those other professions have strict licensing and behavioral codes, and I am not suggesting that for digital product designers. I have no idea how rules and regulations would keep up with the expanding frontiers of technology.

Tristan Harris, the Google product designer Anderson Cooper interviewed in the 60-Minutes segment about brain hacking argues that we, the public, need help from designers of digital products to create a choice about how we use technology. In his TED talk, he proposes an interesting way that design can help create room for users to guard their attention in a way that is also mindful of the needs of potential attention interrupters.

Tristan Harris has some pretty big ideas about how digital designers can re-define how success is measured for digital products: Net New Positive Contributions to Human Life. It does not roll off the tongue easily, but I think he is talking about the same thing (in far more articulate terms) as I was trying to express when writing about elevating the responsibility of digital designers. Of course all of this depends on how much digital designers care.

Eric wrote this story to share knowledge and help nurture the design community. All articles published on follow that same philosophy.

Author: Eric Asato

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