Conclusive Design

You have reached the last chapter of my Master thesis, dear reader. All that’s left for me to do is present you a with a clear and ambitious conclusion.

What did this design research teach me?

By using my Exclusive Design Principles to design tailor made solutions for real people with real disabilities I flipped the ability bias. And as my own ability and knowledge was no longer the starting point everything changed. Assumptions turned out to be untrue, best practices turned into dark patterns, and nonsensical ideas turned out to be useful. But most of all it did prove one of my assumptions true: UX for people with disabilities is indeed very poor.

In my research I have only worked with a handful of people with a few disabilities. There are so many more people who have been excluded systematically. Just imagine what it is like to use podcasts when you’re deaf, to get information from your municipality when you have a lower IQ, or when you have to browse the web when you’re motor disabled. To name just a few situations in the context of my niche. Right now these situations are mostly treated as insignificant and exceptional edge cases. Yet a completely new field of design opens up if we realise that we can really improve the lives of so many people if we start involving them in our design. The field of accessible design is vast, and it is wide open. There is so much research to be done in this niche of specialist user interfaces for individual needs.

Study situation

Working with the first of my exclusive design principles — Study situation — showed me that in many cases the situation is even worse than I already expected. The web is not merely hard to use for people with disabilities, in many cases it is impossible to use. Even if a website is somewhat functional, the user experience for someone who uses assistive technology like a screenreader is unimaginably poor. Comparing it to the visual web as most of you probably know it, is like comparing crossing the ocean in a rubber boat to flying over it in an airplane. I don’t believe such an enormous difference in experience is necessary.

In part the huge inequality is due to how screen readers work. The learning curve for using these tools is very steep, and basic knowledge is not enough for regular users. It seems like these tools are mainly designed for expert users. And even when experts use them, unexpected things happen all the time. At the moment they lack any of the refinement and easy of use that we have in our visual environments. A lot of research can be done into how to improve these tools to make them more accessible and less frustrating to all people who depend on them.

Unsurprisingly, the web is almost exclusively built by people who don’t know anything about accessibility. This is to be expected for smaller websites, made by amateurs, but surprisingly the same problem exists in very large organisations as well. I’ve observed blind people trying to order groceries at the largest super market in the Netherlands, and trying to transfer money at the largest bank. All to no avail. A clear hierarchical overview is often lacking, and very often core tasks cannot be found because there’s simply too much stuff on webpages. I would expect serious design teams to adhere to much higher standards when it comes to inclusion. What these higher standards look like is unknown. There is much research needed into what inclusive design means for large organisations and for professional design teams.

Ignore conventions

The second principle of exclusive design — Ignore conventions —  is an important one. Many web designers and developers assume that most UX patterns have been invented by now, and that copying and pasting things from other websites will result in a good enough experience. While it is easily debatable if this would be true for the visible web, my design research has shown me that it is clearly not true for people with disabilities. I have found that many of the patterns that we take for granted — like the navigation at the top of every single web page — make no sense at all from a blind person’s perspective.

I have found ignoring conventions to be an easy and rewarding exercise when it comes to designing for people with disabilities. Replacing confusing patterns with something else, or simply removing stuff that we have come to think is necessary quickly improves the user experience.

Again, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg in the little research I’ve done so far, there is so much design research to be done in this field of accessible user interfaces.

Prioritise identity

I have taken the first exclusive design principle, of studying situations, further. Instead of simply observing, I have actively worked together with individual people with disabilities. The tailor made solutions I made were not created by the sublime genius of a Grande Artiste, on the contrary. They were a logical collaboration between someone who knows what it’s like to be excluded based on ability, and a designer who has detailed knowledge of the possibilities of the web.

This collaboration is important. By simply observing Simon Dogger, a blind product designer, I wouldn’t have decided to do a tailor made redesign of a website with TV documentaries. And I would never have come up with the idea to create invisible animations without working together with Hannes Wallrafen, a blind artist.

I have worked with this principle on a small scale, creating exclusive solutions for individual people. This helped two or three people. The impact of involving excluded people in the design process would of course benefit many more people.

Both the idea of opening up the industry to designers with disabilities and the idea of involving people with disabilities into the design process are relatively new. Indeed, also in this field there is so much room for research.

Add nonsense

A tool that turned out to be very helpful in forcing innovation was using the principle of Adding nonsense. Allowing all kinds of ideas into the brainstorm process is important, especially when designing for such a relatively unknown field as inclusive web design. Ideas that may seem ridiculous could very well turn out to be valuable. This turned out to be true in my research.

It started with the nonsensical idea of working with the exact opposite of a set of very sensible principles. This silly idea turned out to be the basis of this whole master research. And forcing my students, my co-designers and myself to add nonsense resulted in some of the better ideas. Without nonsense there wouldn’t have been a six key typing tool, and I wouldn’t have tried to make screen readers laugh.

My ambitions

Many designers move away from the web. They think it’s boring. And I have to agree with them. If your job is copying design patterns made by others into a yet another mediocre project, that sounds like an unrewarding job to me indeed. There are emerging technologies that look much more interesting. I would like to propose that we call inclusive design an emerging technology as well. It’s new, it’s largely unknown, it’s fun, there’s a lot to innovate, and it’s very rewarding work. And it’s really necessary.

My ambitions when I started this research were rather low. I didn’t expect inclusive design to be such a complicated field. My first idea was to create modules for inclusive design education. The idea was that these modules could be plugged in to all kinds of design classes. The idea of educational modules is still a good one, and someone should definitely work on it. But quite early in my research my ambitions changed.

All accessibility experts will tell you that one of the reasons why the level of inclusive design is so low is because inclusive design is not taught at design schools. In that light my initial idea is not such a bad one. But when I look at all the open plains where no design research has been done, I can only conclude that there is room for better inclusive design education. Of course I, and some of my colleagues will continue to work with inclusive design at the CMD digital interactive design school on a bachelor level. This will create at least a few future designers for whom inclusive design is not an edge case, but a logical first step.

These bachelor students will only in part be able to do something about the growing and urgent need for expert inclusive designers. Inclusive design expertise is needed now that all new government websites must be accessible. But practical expertise alone is not enough to lead such an enormous operation. Inclusive design leadership is needed as well.

This means that there should be a new Inclusive Design Master here in the Netherlands. Such a master could provide room for the much needed research that needs to be done. And it could deliver the leaders the industry needs to make the transition from exclusive to inclusive design.

Such a master could play an important role in the last wide open plain that needs thorough exploring: the fact that our schools are not accessible. At least, the one where I work. We have one blind student, and to our horror most of our classes and assignments are impossible for her to do. Our slides are inaccessible. Our assignments are strictly visual. Our tools are impossible to use. Similarly, Marijn Meijles dropped out of university because he had to write papers. Marijn was graded for his typing skills, which are low since he’s severely motor disabled.

Now that I am done with my Master Design research I am going back to what I like most: Teaching at the CMD in Amsterdam, but this time with an increased focus on inclusive design. And next to teaching I will do my very best to make this new Master Inclusive Design happen.

— Vasilis van Gemert, 2019.