Good design? UX? Accessibility? Can we have it all? asks Sandi Wassmer
An edited version of this article appeared in issue 236 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
The potential technology holds for making our world a better place is utterly mind-blowing, evinced by the social change that the internet has already effected in its short little life. But the internet was not designed to be the commercial beast it is today, and yet its blueprint remains unchanged. We have travelled from the static HTML, text-only, PC-based web to the ambient, mobile, interactive and visually stunning technologies we enjoy today at supersonic speed, and it doesn't look like things will be slowing down anytime soon. Accessibility, on the other hand, seems to have taken a wrong turn and is moving at glacial speed.
Our industry is the fastest growing in the world; truly exciting times for us geeks, but it is clear that we are in a very big pickle. The internet's design is no longer fit for purpose, and we're running the risk of excluding the very people technology should be empowering. But we can't exactly scrap the entire world wide web and start again.
The ideal of an open and inclusive internet is one I wholeheartedly subscribed to, but it has not manifested the way its founders envisaged. As I am a pragmatist, I tried my best to illuminate the issues to those still holding onto these ideals, but no one would listen. I sat on panels, forums, groups and suchlike, and my ideas were not welcomed. I wrote and spoke about my beloved inclusive design, and then it was usurped. It seemed like there was an industry-wide find and replace, with 'accessibility' being replaced by 'inclusive design'. Before I knew it, the two terms were being used interchangeably. I shook my head in despair and watched as my ideals disintegrated. The trouble with accessibility in its current guise is that it is out of touch with reality and, if I am to continue with my transport metaphor, is running on empty.
I long to live in a world where there is no discrimination and all human beings celebrate each others' differences. I know this won't happen in my lifetime, but it doesn't make me want it any less. I am lucky to be working in an industry where I have a chance of making a contribution and so I persevere. I draw inspiration from product design and architecture and particularly good design, where form and function work in harmony. Websites, web apps and mobile apps are just digital products that people interact with, and these digital products respond by changing dynamically with each interaction, so good design in every little detail is everything.
Accessibility, if it is to get up to speed, cannot be about making all manner of technology accessible to everyone on earth - but this is what those advocating it demand. Although I expect that in time this will be technically possible, it would interfere with good design, which is inherently inclusive, and inclusive means including as many people as possible. Sadly this means some will be excluded. Yes. Excluded. I may not like it, but for the foreseeable future there will be a place for technologies that serve the needs of those whose impairments cannot be met by the mainstream, and this is not a line anyone wants to draw.
Having reached what most would deem a dead end, I turned around in search of a different perspective, as accessibility had lost all meaning to me. I took a big step back and pondered the minutiae of the internet pickle, from the rights of older and disabled people to the issues around privacy and security; from the lack of interoperability between mobile operating systems to just how unwieldy and disorganised the internet had become. Wherever my mind wandered, I always ended up at the same place - user experience. I guess that's why I'm an Apple fangirl, because Steve Jobs was obsessed with providing the best end-to-end user experiences possible. Of course, Apple's native accessibility features are invaluable, but if the overall UX wasn't intuitive and seamless, I would be shopping around.
Users, or consumers if we are really going to get down to it, want to "do stuff" when they go online, whether it be to have a chortle watching YouTube on the iPhone, to hold a conference call on Skype or to buy all and sundry at Amazon on their amazingly affordable new Android device. Folk don't go online without a purpose and, with NFC, augmented reality and other exciting nascent technologies on the horizon, ensuring that people can achieve their goals online is what matters. If the internet is to avail enjoyable and equitable digital experiences for as many people as possible, trying to make everything accessible to everyone is just preposterous.
When I want to go shopping at the mall, having a visual impairment means that I won't be driving a car to get there, but I have not been lobbying Aston Martin to bring the DB6 out of retirement and make it accessible. Instead, I can take the tube, the bus, a cab or I can ask someone else to drive me. I can achieve my goal, which is to get to the mall, by having a choice of equitable user experiences. A pushbike would not suit and it's too far to walk, but if I decided I wanted to shop in our high street instead, I would grab my cane and go. Different tools for different tasks.
Reach for the sky
The same principle applies to the web. If I were to demand that folk developing augmented reality apps make them accessible to blind people, this would stifle innovation, hamper creativity and halt progress, and that would just be counter productive. I know that one day I will have a personal navigation tool that dynamically updates with information about traffic, accidents and roadworks, and geolocates to my exact location, but we're not there yet and that's okay with me.
If we want our web to be inclusive, then we must stop naval gazing and start sky gazing: ideas, creativity and innovation are what's on order, as solutions are not one, but many. Just look at the rapid proliferation of mobile apps if you need proof that people are task driven, experience-insatiable and want choice. This is where it all starts to make sense to me, as the freedom to choose is vital to human dignity and is a central tenet of our mixed free market economy; without innovation my life would be very different. I use Siri incessantly, which has transformed my text-ability, and I use a Wacom Stylus Pen to type on my iPad because I am a clumsy one-finger typist. Until I got my now retired iPhone 3GS, I had given up reading books altogether. I now steam through at least one audiobook a week. Although audiobooks have been produced for blind people since the 1930's, they were originally a mainstream product to capture the art of storytelling, so have come full circle. At the other end of the spectrum, eye tracking technology, originally designed for severely disabled people to be able to communicate, is moving swiftly into the mainstream and will soon be found in Smart TVs everywhere.
For the technologies we build today to make tomorrow better for us all, we need to modify the design and development road map and make room for choice. I know that those advocating for accessibility have their hearts in the right places, but great technology is not just about standards or conformance. It's about innovation and the triumph of the human spirit.
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