On this special occasion of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we sat down with one of our exceptional Lead Design Researchers, Azia Ali, whose passion and expertise has been instrumental in creating inclusive and user-centric experiences.
Tell us a little bit about yourself – what’s your background, and where does this interest in accessibility originate from?
“My journey into the field of accessibility began years ago during my studies. Back in 2004, I conducted research on accessibility in dyslexia for my dissertation, which truly fascinated me. It was during this time that I developed a strong curiosity for understanding the way people think and delving into their unique stories and perspectives. I firmly believe in avoiding judgement and instead seeking to comprehend what drives individuals and what makes their thinking distinct.
Throughout my professional journey, I gained a reputation for my enthusiasm which grew into expertise for accessibility research. However, I must confess that I found certain aspects less fulfilling. For instance, what I refer to as “checkbox exercises” didn’t resonate with me. These exercises often involved recruiting a limited number of accessibility users or focusing primarily on technical testing rather than genuine, in-person interactions. For me, the true value lies in conducting hands-on testing and directly engaging with individuals, allowing me to gain deeper insights and foster meaningful connections.”
How does your role as a design researcher contribute to creating more accessible experiences for users?
“My role as a design researcher allows me to dive deep into the experiences of individuals facing accessibility barriers. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of meeting individuals with various disabilities, such as visual impairments, partial sightedness, and even those who rely on physical screen magnifiers just to access content designed for sighted users. It’s incredible how they navigate a world that often overlooks their needs. For instance, did you know that many ATM machines have 3.5-millimeter audio jacks for individuals who are blind, allowing them to listen to instructions? I was astounded when I discovered this through a recent financial study we conducted at Spotless.
These encounters with people facing diverse challenges, including those with autism, ADHD, or speech disabilities, have fueled my passion for accessibility. I find it fascinating that their experiences involve multi-layered systems and intricate adaptations. Picture a screen reader on top of a website, alongside additional applications and physical devices like braille-oriented keyboards. It’s a remarkable journey of discovery.”
Can you share an example of a project where your research insights directly influenced the design decisions to improve accessibility or the one that stood out the most to you?
“Even though I am unable to provide details about the projects, some of our research insights and user interactions had a significant impact in making digital experiences more inclusive for all.
For one project we conducted at Spotless, we recruited around 30 individuals, including those with visual impairments, auditory and mental health issues, and caregivers for people who required support in decision making or could not make decisions independently. These users faced technology-related challenges and felt intimidated by inaccessible systems and people with a lack of awareness of disabilities or vulnerabilities. Our goal was to understand their needs and how we could make the world more accessible for them.
Through in-depth interviews, we uncovered the interactions that caused anxiety or problems due to their disabilities. This insight allowed us to work closely with one financial institution, enabling them to cater to these needs. The institution already offered support options where customers could indicate their specific requirements, such as needing a quiet room for appointments. However, our research helped identify additional support needs and user groups that were previously overlooked. The institution listened to our findings and is now incorporating them into their services, expanding their support offerings.
Another notable study I worked on involved a broadcasting company where I had the privilege of meeting a wheelchair-based mute user. It was a humbling experience as we communicated through his type to talk device, discussing website experiences and gathering feedback. Witnessing his resilience and appreciation for aspects of the website that worked well while expressing the areas that needed improvement was truly inspiring.”
Stay tuned for part 2!
Ben is on hand to answer your questions.