More death to more bullshit

Together with Simon Dogger we created an alternative version of the 2doc website. Simon is a product designer who happens to be blind. Simon is not an expert screen reader user. He understands some basics, but doesn’t know how to use features like quickly navigating all headings, or directly jumping to the main content. Instead he has two ways to browse a website.

  1. Sit back and let the screen reader read everything on the page from the top left to the bottom right, and start interacting when it seems like it has reached the thing he is looking for.
  2. Actively skip past all links until he has reached the thing he is looking for.

Both ways are time consuming, and take up more time if there’s more content on a page, like Bram Duvigneau demonstrated during his expert conversation.1

When we met for the first time I observed Simon trying to do some fairly simple, common online tasks like browsing an archive of online video documentaries, and buying groceries. Simon was unable to do any of these tasks by himself.

Death to bullshit

In 2013 Brad Frost gave a talk with the title Death to Bullshit at a Creative Mornings meetup in Pittsburgh.2 In his own words, Death to Bullshit is a rallying cry to rid the world of bullshit and demand experiences that respect people and their time.

On the one hand this talk was born out of frustration. Frost was frustrated by the fact that websites were slow, they were hard to use, and that as a visitor he was often not respected, or downright deceived, and that every website was trying to scream as loud as possible for his attention with banners, pop-ups, newsletter subscribe thingies, etc.

But on the other hand it was triggered by a more practical reason. Frost had been a vocal promotor of responsive web design for a while, and he knew that a simple website is much easier to make responsive. And of course this line of thinking fits in an older engineering idea that says that you should always try to keep things simple.

Frost shows that our websites are superfluous, cluttered, clunky, or needlessly complex, among other things. This makes things complicated for people to use. But all this complexity is amplified for people with disabilities.

More death to more bullshit

All the sites I tested with Simon Dogger had one issue in common. There was so much stuff on each page that it was very hard for Simon to find the material he was looking for. On the groceries website he had to listen to 25 links that have nothing to do with ordering groceries before he can start with the ordering process. Since Simon is not an expert screen reader user it took him a very long time to reach his goal.

When he opened the website with all the Dutch documentaries he was welcomed with the message that there are 80 headings and 150 links on that page. After a few tries he simply gave up, he couldn’t find the one link he was looking for that would give him an entry-point into the archive.

The same thing even happened on his banking site with one of the core tasks: He could not find the link to the page where he could transfer money.

Reconsidering our stuff

Almost all webpages start with a navigation with all kinds of links that try to convince you to go to another page. If you think about this for a minute it sounds ridiculous. Why would you want to start a webpage with pointing people in other directions when they just followed a link to this specific page?

Yet it is one of the most common patterns on the web: There is a bar with several navigation items right at the top of each page. For people who can see and use a mouse or a touch device it’s easy to simply ignore this navigation. But it’s exactly this navigation pattern that forced Simon to first listen to 25 links that tried to convince him to go elsewhere. For people like Simon it is a literal hurdle.

A navigation at the top is such a common pattern that nobody really thinks about it. It’s what everybody does, and it’s what we’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. Without any research it’s placed at the top of each new project to start with.

The navigation pattern could use some exclusive design workshops. It shows that simply following conventions is not always a good idea. It clearly illustrates that the current conventions are not the right starting point. It also shows there’s a lack of expertise when it comes to designing for people with disabilities. If we had been working with people like Simon in our design research in the past, we would have come up with other, less obtrusive navigation patterns.

Let’s work with people like Simon.

So what happens when you remove all the bullshit? In the next chapter I tell about the prototype of the 2doc website I made together with Simon.

  1. Bram Duvigneau in gesprek met Vasilis van Gemert. Online video. 2018  ↩

  2. Brad Frost. Death to Bullshit. Creative Mornings Meetup. Presentation. 2013.  ↩