Designing for accessibility – By Ady Pantofaro

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Everyone knows the wheelchair icon, the stick person and their large circle. It is common to see the banner for the hearing impaired, of the ear with the line going through it.

There are subtitles for the deaf, and audio cues at crosswalks for the blind.
No one is a stranger to measures taken to make the world more accessible.

 

But what about software? How does one make that accessible?
Thankfully, building the accessibility ramp in your application is easier than you think.

The most important thing is remembering there are core issues to every predicament. Focusing on these issues will make your application accessible, and increase the comfort of your abled users as well. Let’s go over some of them…

 

 

The challenges

While every software designer knows these things are important, not everyone knows where the traps lie. What do we take for granted?

 

 

Colors

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You can do a lot with black and white, but the world is in color. Problem is, we don’t all see it the same. 8% of males and about 1% of women are diagnosed with color blindness, while many go undiagnosed, especially women.

Your designs may be lost on these people, and hide parts of your application outright.

Colors can also cause difficulties for people with focus impairments.

 

 

Fonts

Fonts are far from harmless. The size can be tricky, especially if your application runs on mobile devices. Some fonts can also be problematic for people with difficulty focusing, either because of eye problems or other conditions, such as autism.
To them, decorative and unique fonts can make your text unreadable.
 

Animations and flashes

It’s important to stand out from the crowd, and animations can help you do that.
However, it can also throw users into a catatonic stupor.

About 4% of the populace will be diagnosed with some form of epilepsy in their lives, and more will remain undiagnosed until it’s too late.

While not from the field of software, a well known example is an episode of the popular series Pokémon. The episode displayed red-and-blue flashes in high frequency that caused headaches, nausea, and blurry vision. Some even reported loss of consciousness. The episode was recalled world-wide.
 

Sounds

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Perhaps your application plays audio tracks. Maybe you have a video on autoplay. Chances are you’re only playing music, but you might also start things with a bang.

This can cause discomfort to various groups. People with ruptured eardrums are sensitive to loud sounds. People with PTSD are vulnerable to sudden noises. Some people on the autistic scale find such noises harmful and intrusive.

 

 

The guidelines

These issues seem threatening, but they are simple to deal with if you have the right approach.

Here are some tips to get you started.

 

 

Start early

It’s tempting to put this aside for later, reduce it to an item on your checklist. But we all know it’s much cheaper to design things from the get-go, rather than change them later.

The eventual accessible design will also look better if it was built cohesively from the get-go, rather than patched and changed awkwardly later.
 

Show your design to a diverse demographic

Chances are, someone in your company has something to say. They don’t? Then they probably know someone who does.

Don’t pretend to know what bothers people – ask.
 

Options are good

Your designers worked hard on your application, and you should release their vision. But don’t have it be the only option! Built-in themes are a good solution that combine your vision and more accessibility. Granted, the more customization you put in, the better, but each application to its own.

 

Listen to your user-base

No one likes to give feedback that will be ignored, especially when that feedback is “I had a seizure after your recent graphic update”. For each user who let you know about it, many silently uninstalled.

Be open to usability feedback, and remember, you can’t please them all, but no one knows what hurts your users better than your users.
 

Educate yourself

You don’t need a medical PhD to design software, but your users are human beings. Knowing what some of the most common deficiencies are before you even begin designing, will only do you and your product good.
Barring that, it’s always good to look up things others have learned before you, such as section 508’s knowledge base, this list of Autism-friendly guidelines, and some specialized color theory.



Why bother?

Why, indeed? One might look at the percentages presented above, maybe even look it up on your favorite search engine, and think to yourself – it’s negligible.
But is it, really?

The more widespread your application is, the more people hide in that percentage. Why intentionally lose out on revenue?

While you’re at it, you could make life better for your existing users, who might not have been diagnosed, but still enjoy your software so much more now.

It’s true Pokémon did more of the same, but still that episode did something different and was taken down – no one is immune. Now true, they survived the PR blunder, but not everyone can.
On the flip side, it’s amazing how far word of a good, accessible product can go.

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