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Why (and How) to Pay Attention to Accessibility in Design

When it comes to design, there's no such thing as edge cases. Lauren Isaacson explains why. 

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

There’s a phrase that we all need to erase from our design vocabulary. It’s one that has been used to gloss over if not outright ignore a small but important subset of our users.

That phrase: edge case.

You’ve likely heard it before. Maybe from a stakeholder discussing a project’s scope, or a well-meaning team member about user recruitment. Edge cases represent the rare circumstances that disrupt the intended user experience.

However, edge cases are also your users. And the phrase is used too often to refer to those users whose needs many feel we can ignore.

The user who’s visually impaired, struggling to use your website because of your font and color choice.

The user with cerebral palsy who can’t use your app because of the layout.

The deaf user who can’t watch your videos because you don’t include sign language or closed captions.

They exist—and it’s time that we design with them in mind.

That’s a cause that market and UX research consultant Lauren Isaacson has been championing for years. Over the course of her career, she’s helped embed inclusive design practices into places like TELUS Digital. Now she wants to make sure that we all do it too.

"Bias is everywhere,” Lauren says. “It affects design choices, product decisions, whom we hire, how we live. It’s like polluted air — impossible to avoid, but possible to identify and filter. By becoming more aware of different types of bias, we can make better decisions about the qualitative and quantitative research we conduct and analyze.”

We recently sat down with her to discuss her work, best practices for inclusivity and design, and her experiences getting it wrong.

Many rural areas don’t have good broadband access. And so being able to make sure that their voices are heard, and have people to participate in your study is difficult. If you want to be accessible, you want to make an effort to hear from these voices.

Lauren Isaacson

dscout: You recently gave a talk on qualitative research at home. What insight do you have on accessibility and inclusive research needs in a post COVID-19 world?

Lauren: With the pandemic, the biggest thing that we need to be aware of, especially when we're doing research and we're focusing on remote methods, is that the Internet is not evenly distributed.

For example, people in financially well off urban areas may have access to really high quality, fast Internet and good data plans on their phones. That is not the case for everyone who may be interested in your product or may benefit from your product or your service, such as people in urban areas that are not financially well off or people in rural areas.

Many rural areas don’t have good broadband access. And so being able to make sure that their voices are heard, and have people to participate in your study is difficult. If you want to be accessible, you want to make an effort to hear from these voices.

Are you asking them to share video? Are you asking them to contribute to an online bulletin board or use dscout? Are they going to be able to do that in a way that is easy?

Do you have an example of that?

I'm working with a nonprofit that is trying to help other nonprofits in Africa. I was talking with one of the nonprofits in need that they connected me with, and I was really looking forward to it. 

Then I started talking with the person who led the nonprofit, and found out that the only way we could talk with stakeholders was through WhatsApp. And even then, we couldn't talk voice-to-voice or face-to-face. We had to communicate via text messages.

I started to learn more about his situation and came to find that they don’t keep records of volunteer information. The org doesn’t even keep the contact info from their donors. And so there was a week of figuring out their level of access and what they could give me. They ran everything off of one guy’s phone. He didn't have a computer. 

In planning to research similar nonprofits I had to dig into how to do research just using WhatsApp. We had to rethink how we asked questions, the kind of depth we're going to get back, and the entire focus of the research.

There was a presentation at a conference I went to recently done by an African market researcher. She talked about how she uses WhatsApp to do research in the African continent. So I thought. “Great, this is doable. We’re not going to get the same quality and depth that you would get from a face-to-face conversation, but we're going to get something." And it's going to be better than if we just isolate the people who can access a platform that they need high bandwidth for.

What got you interested in inclusive research and accessibility?

It's always been in the periphery for me. And it's not something that we talk a lot about in research.

But I know a lot of designers, and I'm very much in that world of user interface design, and accessibility is something that’s often talked about. I know people who specialize in accessibility because they keep beating that drum of how important this is and how much this matters. I was able to make that connection that this is something that we should be talking about in the research community too.

Why do you think people weren't talking about it?

It's the same reason that a lot of companies are paying attention to accessibility on the back end now. They always thought of it as an edge case. It's a very minor set of people. But now there are lawsuits forcing them to pay attention and realize that it matters.

That's starting to trickle down into our world as well— at least slightly. People are becoming more aware. The culture is becoming more aware of how we marginalize people and how the majority has a tendency to ignore the needs of the minority.

And it doesn't matter if it is due to a disability or whether it's due to institutionalized racism. As a global culture, we are becoming more aware of those inadequacies. This is the right kind of topic at the right time. There has to be an inflection point culturally, where people start to start to go, "Oh, okay. Now I get it." In the market research world, it's very common for clients to ask researchers to specifically exclude people from studies, who don't fit what they see in their mind as their customer.

They get too focused on what they can perceive as their target audience or their target market.

And sometimes they only want the “pretty” people in the room for the video.

We haven't had to think about it. Because if someone can't participate in the study because they have a disability, then the recruiter just finds somebody else. And professional recruiters haven't been really thinking about that either.

You've worked a with long standing utility organizations like BC Hydro, and TELUS Digital now. What are some of the most common issues that you've seen?

They're big and they have a lot of history, but they have digital transformation teams. And the transformation is there. It's just lumpy and not evenly distributed.

You're fighting against a lot to inertia as a digital team.

I see people who are given a task like, "You are now the director of customer experience,” or “You are now the director of digital." And they have this huge mandate to transform how this very old established company has always done things. And they're given very little power and resources to affect the change they see is necessary. Because there are a lot of moving parts. There's a lot of politics involved, and change is frustratingly slow.

That’s why when you’re talking to people, you should ask a lot of questions. How do you want to be referred to? How do you want to be understood? What are your pronouns? How would you define yourself to someone who does not know you? How would you like to be treated? What can I do for you?

Lauren Isaacson

Do you think that’s the reason they don’t see the value in it?

I think there are a lot of factors like changing the way that they traditionally do things.

When it comes to people's way of life and their livelihood, being able to embrace and accept change is not an easy ask—especially when you don’t know where it’s going to go.

What do you consider some of the best practices a researcher can include people with special needs or disabilities (“edge cases”) in recruitment?

If you want to involve people with disabilities, just ask.

Ask users, "Do you identify yourself as having a disability?" And then if yes, “What is your disability?" Then you can inquire with the person, like, "Hey, you're great. I definitely want you to participate in this study. This is what we're going to be doing. What do you need to make sure this is going to work?"

If you want to actively get people with a disability to participate in your study—maybe you’re looking into whether or not your touch screen works for someone who has a tremor or some kind of motion limitation—then what you can do is you make sure you’re looking for that in the screener.

Tell your recruiter, "I specifically want someone with a disability." And you can say, "Do you consider yourself having a disability? Yes or no" and "Does your disability affect one of the following ... ?"

There are also organizations that do recruiting that have their own panel of people with disabilities that are able to participate in studies. And that costs money, but you will get people who are ready and willing to do that.

Not all are created equal, though. It's not like when you're working with a recruiter who's going to prepare those people to participate in the study. A research recruiter is going to know what's up and make sure participants are ready. Sometimes accessibility panel organizations aren’t as prepared.. There can be a lot of miscommunications. So you might end up doing a lot more work to make sure this person understands what's being asked, what you need from them, and what they need from you in order to participate in the study.

It’s interesting that you said we should ask them if they identify as having a disability, because you once said that not everyone who is disabled identifies that way.

No. I actually had someone call me out on that.

In one of my talks there was someone in the audience who was deaf. She had her sign language translators there, and she asked me, "You wear glasses. Do you consider yourself to have a disability?" And I said, "Well, technically yes. You could say I have a disability, but I don't think I would be doing the community any favors by identifying myself as being disabled."

It turned out that she didn't consider her not being able to communicate verbally or hear me as a disability. She considered it a language barrier. And it is. I can't communicate with somebody who speaks Russian any better.

Do you think identification is almost an archaic idea when it comes to research?

It’s personal—and should be personal.

That’s why when you’re talking to people, you should ask a lot of questions. How do you want to be referred to? How do you want to be understood? What are your pronouns? How would you define yourself to someone who does not know you? How would you like to be treated? What can I do for you?

And the accommodation has to come from the able person first. Do not expect a person with a disability to make the first accommodation. It's on you because they do enough just to exist in a majority white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied world.

You don't want to make participants feel uncomfortable or alienated. What are best practices for researchers to foster a safe and also insight-nourishing environment for everyone?

Ask all those questions: How do they want to be referred to? How do they want to be understood? And then it's about the basic interaction etiquette for someone with a disability.

So ask to help. Don't touch them, their devices or any of their personal aides without asking first. And then if it's someone who is in any way deaf or needs an interpreter, don't talk to the interpreter. Talk to them and let the interpreter do their job. So make sure that happens.

And it happened to me. I know this. I know these rules. I approached this person who was deaf, and I said, "Hey, I want to improve so if you could talk to me about your experience and how you think I can reshape how I talk about this, that'd be great."

The person who was the interpreter was on the other side of the table, and she didn't hear me. So she came over and I repeated the question to her, and then deaf person had to say, "Hey, can you just talk to me, not to her?" So speak directly to the person you’re addressing.

Be really patient too. I once interviewed with someone who has severe cerebral palsy, and it was hard for him to articulate what he was saying. It took him a long time, but he was getting there. Allow time for that person to express themselves, because it's going to take them longer than someone who doesn't have that problem.

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Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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