Universal Design & Dynamic Disability

Design for everyone by designing for disability.

Imagine for a moment,

You’re carrying a box into your building, your hands are full, it’s just you. There’s nobody else around to help. You come up to the security door, your key-fob is in your pocket, you’ve got to grab it, but your hands are full. So you put down the box, push the key-fob against the reader, press the wheelchair door opener, wait for the door, and then you’re in.

But what if, when you walked up to the door, it recognizes your key-fob from further away, the door opens automatically and you can walk right in?

The experience of holding that box is a temporary disability, you can’t perform a simple task, “getting into your building” Because of it. By designing for this impermanent disability you would make getting in and out of your building easier for those with mobility needs, parkinsons, seniors, or anyone with their hands full.

By designing for disability, we make life better for everybody.

You’ve got a product. Where’s your box?

What could keep a user from easily completing this task? How could you change it to make it better for them and everyone?

According to Rohan Mishra (2018) Universal design relies on designing for the outlier, not the average. If the outlier (anyone with a disability) can use the website or application easily and enjoyably, then everyone else will also be able to use it! Perhaps even more efficiently and enjoyably.

Empathy is deeply relevant on our quest to build more accessible products, so, what if you applied your empathy to the disability instead of personas and user maps? Instead, you can probe your product, how could it be hard to use? Could it confuse someone easily? If you’ve never seen the product before, could you quickly understand and interact with it? Does it meet the guidelines for those with autism, dyslexia, low vision or hearing loss? Could someone with limited motor control use your product? What could block people from using it?

Temporary Disability and Adaptations:

Dynamic adaptations are when you hold the box, but you’ve got your keys in your back pocket, so you press your butt against the sensor and press you butt against the door open button to get in.

The designers who created the system never saw this coming.

It’s up to us designers to anticipate these adaptations so that we can incorporate better solutions into our designs. I couldn’t imagine the designers of your buildings entry expected the circumstances that plague its users. By designing for disability you can predict these circumstances and ensure that users do not have to make adaptations, because the experience is as user friendly as possible from the get go.

“Designing for inclusivity “” reflects how people really are. All humans are growing, changing, and adapting to the world around them every day. We want our designs to reflect that diversity.” — Microsoft Inclusive Design.

Outlier Audit (Anticipating Temporary Disabilities)

Here’s several probes you can apply to your product to ensure that it is a Universally usable product. These probs will help you craft an audit of your product, it will help you understand the outliers, and build a truly accessible design. Each probe is designed to help you empathize with the outlier.

  1. Where has a user created a unique bypass?
  2. Where are users failing to use your system?
  3. Where does it take more time for users to proceed?
  4. Is there a tolerance for error, or do users get stuck and can’t get out?
  5. Where did your user adapt to your product?

Ruthlessly explore how and where your product can fail, empathize deeply with your users, even the smallest detail you take for granted can be a stumbling point for someone. Break down your product and scrutinize every choice.

Working to not disrupting subconscious rhythms

We only have a limited amount of attention, when we interact with a product or service our focus is either there or somewhere else completely, a seemingly infinite numbers of factors can distract us from the task at hand. When we don’t habitually know how to interact with a product, it interrupts our subconscious which can often be annoying and agitating. When re-designing for inclusivity, its imperative to be able to bridge a persons existing abilities to the new experience, this makes it easy, and enjoyable.

To better understand users subconscious rhythms you can conduct a covert user test on your product. Watching how people interact with your product in the wild is the only way to understand how they learn and adapt to your product and where they fail as well. Watch for the box.

Personas fail designers.

Designers often create generalized research-based “personas” to remind themselves who they are designing for. It helps keep the design relevant to the user’s needs. The limitation of personas is that real people rarely fit into such neat cookie-cutter archetypes.

There’s a high degree of arrogance when we try to take human nature and condense into a sliding 1–5 bar of how outgoing and likeable a fictitious person can be. It’s frankly nearly impossible to imagine ourselves as someone else with a high degree of accuracy, to believe you can is wildly incorrect.

We’ve been wasting our time as designers trying to do what Adam Smith tried to do, take human nature and make it predictable, modern economists know that human nature is wildly chaotic and irrational the vast majority of the time.

You cannot quantify a wild irrational creature.

What you can do is find the box, where people fail. What are their wild solutions that you never expected to see. Look for the outliers, understand the circumstances for the most able bodied and capable and least capable users.

Where do you go from here?

First, stop designing for the average user. Design for everyone by designing for those with disabilities. This way, you not only include those with disabilities, but also everyday people with temporary disabilities.

Second, recognize that you will never understand another person in all their complexity, or even as a generalized persona. Instead, explore what you can know. Observe what your users do. Look for their strengths, weaknesses and adaptations. Consider these to strengthen your design.

The best designs recognize everyones needs first, everything else comes after.





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