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How can we identify what needs to be improved?

This article explores how user-centred design is used in the design of accessible interfaces.
An empathy map with sticky notes on a whiteboard

Designing interfaces for accessibility is deeply rooted in user-centred design (UCD) methodologies.

UCD is a design process that places the intended user at the centre of every decision that is made by the development team. As referenced on the Web Accessibility Initiative’s (WAI) page on UCD, Jeffrey Rubin, author of Handbook of Usability Testing: How to Plan, Design and Conduct Effective Tests (1984) lists the principles of UCD as:

  • Early focus on users and tasks:
    Gather as much information about the target user as possible and use advice from experts when designing user studies.
  • Empirical measurement and testing of product usage:
    Test prototypes with actual users with a focus on ease of learning and ease of use.
  • Iterative design:
    Ensure your product is designed, modified and tested repeatedly with allowances made for possible overhaul of design decisions based on user feedback.

These principles identify the user as the most important source of information regarding the use and effectiveness of the product. With these principles serving as a foundation, the whole UCD process can be implemented in a well defined, methodological manner.

Image of user centered designUser Centered Design Process

The WAI, created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), describes the steps involved in the UCD process as follows:

  • Analysis
    As a first step, it is critical to carry out well structured and thorough market research in order to identify who the user is. This allows the development team to accurately define the vision and goals of the project and the challenges that they are trying to address. Once the analysis has been sufficiently carried out, the team can then move on to the design step.
  • Design
    This part of the process involves creating storyboards and wireframes of the product. This leads to the creation of paper prototypes, or online mock-ups in the case of a web application.
  • Evaluation (iterate back to Design)
    The evaluation step then involves design walk-throughs and usability testing which again involves the target user and gathers feedback about the product. It is common then to return to the design step to implement any user feedback in the hopes of improving the final version of the product.
  • Implementation
    Using all the data collected during the first three stages of the cycle, the product is made.
  • Deployment
    The product is then released.

The UCD method places a lot of importance on the processing and analysis of user feedback and market research, particularly in stages 1 and 3. You can find out more about this UCD approach on the WAI website linked below.

The above steps are a very brief description of the whole UCD process. It can vary from product to product and can get very complex. Incorporating accessibility principles into the UCD process from an early stage can be very beneficial and, in practice, can be easy to do if you already have a UCD methodology established.

According to Shawn Henry Lawton in his book Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Through Design (2007), accessibility can be incorporated into a UCD process in the following ways:

  • Business and usability goals should include meeting accessibility requirements.
  • Understanding user characteristics includes users with various disabilities.
  • Environmental aspects for a mobile device includes hands free operation.
  • Hands free scenarios include the use of assistive technology.
  • Usability testing includes participants with disabilities.

Alongside user testing, there are also clear guidelines provided for accessible web design by W3C. In fact, W3C also provide opportunities for a designer to audit their product according to the guidelines. The result of this audit gives the designer a rating of either A, AA or AAA. If a website is AAA then it has achieved the highest level of accessibility according to the W3C guidelines.

Have your say

Within a UCD approach, a large emphasis is placed on including the user in the cycle.
  • In practical terms, can you think of ways that designers ask the users for feedback?
  • What types of analysis do you think are involved in assessing the feedback?
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Introduction to UX and Accessible Design

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