Designing For All: The Role of Design Research in Accessibility & Our Advice for Agencies

6 min read
Evelina Molis
Marketing Manager
Design Research

Last year, we had the pleasure of interviewing Azia about her journey into the field of accessibility and her role in this field as a lead design researcher (check it out!). Today, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, she returns to share her insights on common misconceptions surrounding accessibility in design research, approaches to better understand diverse needs and challenges, along with practical tips for creating more accessible and inclusive products and services.

Banner "The Role of Design Research in Accessibility"

What are some common misconceptions about accessibility in design, and how do you address them in your work?

  1. "Failure to include people with disabilities from the start - there have been many times throughout my career that I’ve worked on propositions to prototypes where customers with disabilities are not overtly considered and are often an afterthought or just make up one or two token participants in a study. Given that there are several disabilities, two really isn’t enough. As a result, the design of products and services have been questioned and these experiences have highlighted the importance of considering accessibility early on.
  2. The phygital design is important. It’s not just about the digital products, it’s about the physical products and space too. Maybe an obvious one but what’s the point in building super tall shelves for your products when a wheelchair user can’t reach the device they need? It’s crucial to include diverse disabilities in target profiles and design processes.
  3. Research with people with disabilities requires more foresight, planning and, therefore, time. For example, when conducting sessions with individuals who communicate with BSL (British Sign Language), I will always allocate longer timeframes, typically 90 minutes instead of the standard 60 minutes. This allows me to triangulate between both the participant and the BSL translator, ensuring effective communication and understanding.

In my work, I like to address these misconceptions by challenging clients to think about why they want to include users with disabilities and encouraging them to consider a broader range of disabilities. I aim to question their choices and push for inclusivity across different categories of impairments."

Banner "Key Elements of Inclusive Design"

In your opinion, what are the key elements that make a design truly inclusive and accessible to a wide range of users?

"In my opinion, the key elements of a truly inclusive and accessible design involve considering both physical needs and the nature of the product itself. It's important to make smart decisions that include the appropriate user groups. For instance, if a product relies solely on audio, it may not be suitable for someone who has lost all their hearing, but why not include someone with partial hearing? It's about being thoughtful and inclusive in your choices and knowing that researching in-context can sometimes be of more benefit to view different types of digital setups, which can be difficult to replicate in a lab setting. 

When building physical devices like ATM machines or interactive walls, it's essential to consider factors like accessibility distance for interaction. Engaging with people, creating user groups, and paying individuals with disabilities to participate in research can provide valuable insights. Building internal panels of diverse users and utilising them as a sounding board can greatly contribute to the inclusivity of the design process."

How do you approach understanding the diverse needs and challenges of different user groups during the research phase?

"That's a brilliant question! When understanding the diverse needs and challenges of different user groups during the research phase, it's important to consider practical logistics such as session format and whether to run them individually or in groups. In my experience, one-to-one sessions have been most effective for discussing concepts and gathering insights. I’ve found that individual sessions allow for a more focused and personalised discussion.

It's also crucial to have a clear understanding of the end product and its purpose. This helps in guiding clients to recognise the types of users who will require accommodation. While working on low-fidelity prototypes, involving wheelchair users or visually impaired individuals makes sense. However, for more advanced prototypes or coded versions, decisions may need to be made regarding specific user groups due to digital technical limitations that would impact the participants' experience.

Last but certainly not least, planning plays a vital role in ensuring inclusive design. Pre-work should be done to the extent possible, considering technical constraints. The final version should undergo testing with assistive technologies like screen readers. Overcoming challenges is facilitated by working in agile, collaborative teams where ideas can be bounced off one another, which also enhances the quality of insights and ensures that the best decisions are made collectively."

How do you stay updated with the latest accessibility guidelines and best practices, and how do you incorporate them into your work?

"I rely on a combination of methods. Accessibility News, LinkedIn speciality groups, and, of course, keeping track of the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) online. I also engage in continuous learning on the job and stay informed by reading posts and insights from industry peers. Learning from others' experiences and expertise helps me stay up to date with evolving practices.

In my present position, I have found that actively engaging in hands-on work is the most effective approach to stay abreast of accessibility learnings. I consider myself fortunate to have acquired significant knowledge in this area, benefiting from continuous exposure to both in-house and remote accessibility research efforts. This ongoing involvement provides me with valuable insights and opportunities to enhance my understanding of accessibility practices. When working remotely, I ensure proper preparation, including tech checks, to facilitate smooth and effective sessions."

Banner "Overcoming Challenges & Creating Impact"

What role does empathy play in designing for accessibility, and how do you cultivate it within your team and design process?

"Empathy is crucial in designing for accessibility. It helps us understand the experiences and challenges faced by users with disabilities. Personally, I recognise that I'm not infallible and may make mistakes, so I value the input and perspective of others in my team. Cultivating empathy within the team involves encouraging open communication and a willingness to learn from one another.

To foster empathy, immersion is key. I strive to put myself in the shoes of the user, experiencing their perspective firsthand. For example, when interacting with someone using an assistive device like screen readers or screen magnifiers whether these are digital or physical. I actively engage and ask questions to gain a deeper understanding of their needs. The truth is, I don’t know everything, and that’s okay, it’s why I want to learn from others and how I can uncover better solutions or journeys. 

As for cultivating empathy within the team and design process, I believe in running regular sessions where team members can share their experiences and insights. It's a valuable practice that encourages empathy and collaboration among team members. I am also very happy that we can share experiences like this during Spotless monthly “Sh*t That’s Cool” sessions, really looking forward to mine this year!"

Banner "Insights & Advice for Design Agencies"

As a design researcher, what advice would you give to other design agencies striving to create more accessible and inclusive products and services?

"My advice to design agencies striving for accessibility and inclusivity is simple: start early, include people with disabilities, stay informed about guidelines, best practices, include vulnerabilities and nurture empathy. By embracing these principles, you'll create remarkable, inclusive designs that positively impact diverse users. Let's embark on this exciting journey together!"

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