Flipping things

In the summer of 2017 I asked Léonie Watson to give a guest lecture at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam where I work. I asked her if she could talk about pleasurable user interfaces for people who happen to be blind, like herself. I hoped that if the visitors of this lecture would see interfaces that are nice to use with a screen reader, they would be inspired to start designing similar interfaces themselves.

Unfortunately Léonie couldn’t answer the question. To her an interface is a pleasure to use when she’s able to fulfil the task at hand without any help. And even then her demands are low: if necessary she can fulfil the task by using the developer tools to change the technical workings of the website. From an interface design perspective these standards are unacceptably low, yet for Léonie this is the highest she can imagine.

There is a huge gap between the level of knowledge about designing interfaces for ourselves and designing interfaces for people with special needs. With this knowledge gap in mind I looked at a set of inclusive design principles.

Inclusive Design Principles

In 2017 a group of experienced web accessibility experts published a set of inclusive design principles.1 Léonie Watson, one of the people behind the principles, explained why they made these principles in an email:

We created them because we think there is more to accessibility than technical conformance, and wanted to express that in a way other people could use for themselves.

The idea is that if you use them, your websites will be more accessible. This set of principles was, in a way, the base of my research. But instead of using them as they are, I flipped them. At first I flipped them to test them. As Alla Kholmatova explains in her talk about design principles:2 If you can imagine that someone else might be using the flipped versions, your principle is a good principle. In other words, the opposite has to make sense as well.

Another thing she explained is that a good set of principles has between three and five items in it. This makes it easier to remember them. There are seven principles in the original set, so I combined a few of them, and turned them into four.

The four original principles, with their flipped counterparts
The four original principles, with their flipped counterparts

These are the four principles I flipped to see what happens.

Consider all contexts → Study situation

If you want to create an inclusive website it is important to understand all the different contexts in which people will use it. For instance, you have to consider people’s abilities — do they have fine motor control, do they have eye sight? — you have to consider their hardware — do they use a large of a small device — and the software they use — is their browser up-to-date or ancient, and do they maybe use assistive technology like a screen reader. It could be argued that there are endless amounts of contexts to consider.

I agree that it is a good idea to consider all contexts, but only if the design team really understands these contexts. A lot of knowledge in the field of web accessibility is based on hearsay. It’s knowledge gained from reading blog posts and books, and knowledge copied and pasted from code examples. Usability tests are not very common in the web world, let alone usability tests with real people with real disabilities.

One way to gain expert knowledge is by focusing on one single context for a while. And so the principle Consider all contexts turned into the first exclusive design principle: Study situation. That’s what I did during this research. Together with a group of students we observed how Marijn, a visual keyboard user, controls his computer. And I studied Simon Dogger and Hannes Wallrafen, both screen reader users, while they tried to use different websites. Which leads to the next principle:

Be consistent → Ignore conventions

The second principle says that you should Use familiar conventions and apply them consistently. If you have a convention that works very well in all different contexts, you should use it consistently. This is of course a very good idea. Inconsistency can confuse people.

This principle assumes that we have familiar conventions to work with. Again from observations I did, and from conversations I had with accessibility experts, I have to conclude that for certain users there is no such thing as a familiar convention.3 Patterns we take for granted, like a navigation at the top of every page, make no sense to certain screen reader users.

So in order to come up with better patterns we should not be afraid to ignore the current conventions, especially if studying different situations leads us to the conclusion that the conventions might not be as convenient as we assume.

Prioritise content → Prioritise identity

The third principle tells us to help users focus on core tasks, features, and information by prioritising them within the content and layout. This sounds almost too obvious to be a real principle. And flipping it seems to support this: The opposite of prioritising content would be something like neglecting content. There are certainly websites that could use more attention when it comes to their content, but I find it hard to imagine that someone would consciously use neglect content as a design principle.

But there’s another way to look at this principle. Apart from good content, there are other factors that define the quality of a website. For instance identity plays an important role as well. Identity is interesting. There’s brand identity, there’s the identity of the design team, but there’s also the identity of the people who use your website. We use these identities all the time. But what happens when we use the identity of people who have been excluded from the digital world? For instance, what if we use the identity of Hannes Wallrafen, a blind photographer I worked with? What if we use his worldview, and his webview as input for our designs?

Add value → Add nonsense

The last principle is hard to flip as well. It says to consider the value of features and how they improve the experience for different users. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to not do this.

In the first two principles I concluded that we don’t understand the different contexts, that we haven’t studied the different situations enough yet, and that because of that we cannot assume that the conventions we find familiar are familiar for everybody.

So before we can add value for different users, we have to research different ways of adding value. One good way of exploring the possibilities is by allowing the design team to come up with ideas that may seem nonsensical. This is a rather common practice in early phases of design sprints. Ideas that sound ridiculous to some, might make sense in someone else’s context.

I have used this principles in a few projects now, as I describe in the chapter about adding nonsense, and these nonsensical ideas sometimes turned out to be very valuable.

The idea of adding nonsense is of course not something I invented myself. For instance, it is also the whole idea behind the Ig Nobel Price. Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded to honor [scientific] achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. For instance, in 2018 the Economics Prize was given to a team that investigated whether it is effective for employees to use Voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses. And the 2018 Anthropology Prize was awarded for collecting evidence, in a zoo, that chimpanzees imitate humans about as often, and about as well, as humans imitate chimpanzees.4

The Ig Nobel Prices show that apart from being useful, adding nonsense can be fun as well, which is a good reason in itself.

In summary

A short summary of this chapter is in place, since it is the basis for the projects I’ve worked on:

I asked a group of students to use the Exclusive Design Principles while designing an interface for Marijn. We started with assumptions, based on existing knowledge about keyboard interaction. And of course these assumptions turned out to be false.

  1. Swan, Henny, et al. “Inclusive Design Principles.” Inclusive Design Principles, Pacielo Group, 2017, inclusivedesignprinciples.org/  ↩

  2. Kholmatova, Alla. “From Purpose to Patterns.” CSS Day. CSS Day 2018, 14 June 2018, Amsterdam.  ↩

  3. See my public conversation with Bram Duvigneau  ↩

  4. Winners of the Ig® Nobel Prize. Improbable Research. Website. 2018. improbable.com/ig/winners/  ↩