User Experience and Accessibility | Working with Visual Designers

Ask UXmatters

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A column by Janet M. Six
September 22, 2014

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers questions about two issues that confront UX professionals:

  • Should accessibility be a UX team’s responsibility?
  • What is the best way to work with a visual designer?

Should user experience and accessibility be the responsibility of the same team? Should accessibility be part of a UX team’s purview? When should designers think about the accessibility of a design? What types of disabilities may impact people’s ability to use your products?

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On a different topic, what is the best way to collaborate with a visual designer on a project? What is the best way to start a discussion about how best to approach the project as a team? Who should be responsible for what aspects of design? Who should do what work and when?

Every month in Ask UXmatters, our experts provide answers to our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—Web Design and UX Manager at Royal London; UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Cory Lebson—Principal UX Consultant at Lebsontech; President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Director of the Center for Civic Design; Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Author and Expert at Rosenfeld Media; UXmatters columnist
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience, at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist

Should a UX Team Handle Accessibility?

Q: Should user experience and accessibility be the responsibility of the same team? Some companies treat accessibility as a legal-compliance issue and don’t consider accessibility until late in the development process.—from a UXmatters reader

“Treating accessibility merely as a legal-compliance issue shows a total lack of commitment to user-centered design,” states Pabini. “We know that improving accessibility benefits all users by providing greater ease of use to everyone. Well-designed applications are both more usable and more accessible, so designing for accessibility is an inherent part of the design process. There are well-established accessibility guidelines and standards and, in many cases, applying them to our designs as a matter of course is not costly.

“Approximately 20% of all people worldwide have some sort of disability. Excluding them from using our services and buying our products does not make business sense. Nor would it allow us to fulfill our responsibility to society.

“UX teams should take responsibility for designing for accessibility throughout the UX research and design process,” concludes Pabini. “Of course, checking for legal compliance toward the end of a development cycle is necessary, too, and protects our organizations from lawsuits. That’s better handled by an accessibility expert who knows how to jump through all of the legal-compliance hoops—and who may or may not be part of the UX team. However, correcting any issues that the accessibility expert discovers should be the responsibility of the UX designers.”

“There are two levels here,” replies Peter. “The legal team within an organization has responsibility for ensuring that the organization is protected against legal action, and User Experience needs to work with these teams to agree on their accessibility objective—for example, WCAG 2.0 AA. UX teams have responsibility for the delivery of accessible Web sites and applications, and the effort to ensure accessibility needs to be built into the process way before development begins—into design and the development framework. Trust your developers—most of them are good and wise. Your developers must be your allies in the effort to develop accessible products, because accessibility is critically dependent on their writing robust, compliant code.

“You make a good point about accessibility perhaps not being the responsibility of the UX team! Work closely with your test team. It’s a bad idea to test your own work, so work with your test team to ensure that everyone shares a good understanding of what makes sites and applications accessible and is aware of the automated tools that are available for testing accessibility, which can reduce your testers’ workload.”

Keep Accessibility in Mind at Crucial Points in the Design Process

“This is another one of those questions whose best answer is The Simpsons’ ‘short answer: Yes, with an if; long answer: No, with a but,’” says Jordan. “So, the short answer is yes, accessibility and user experience should be the responsibility of the same team. This assumes that you assign some responsibility for both user experience and accessibility to the entire product team—from strategists to designers to developers. I think user experience and accessibility suffer from the same misconception that one particular person—or department—should accept total responsibility for that component of a project. In fact, different aspects of user experience and accessibility are the responsibility of various roles in most organizations. Some larger organizations have a single group whose primary responsibility is accessibility. If this group exists, there should be processes in place to ensure that they get included in projects at the right time.

“If, as you mentioned, an organization treats accessibility as a legal-compliance issue, there are several W3C regional accessibility guidelines that speak to achieving compliance. Certain accessibility considerations may impact product strategy, information architecture, interaction design, usability, visual design, and even the way a development team creates and formats the code. So, in the same way that a packaging designer wouldn’t forget to designate a place for a UPC code, software and product designers need to understand the implications of achieving accessibility compliance.”

Jordan refers readers to the “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,” on the Web Accessibility Initiative Web site for additional information. To find out more about sharing responsibilities across product teams, Pabini suggests that you read her UXmatters article, “Sharing Ownership of UX.”

“Accessibility should absolutely be the responsibility of a UX team—if you have someone who knows the nuances of accessibility,” answers Baruch. “However, you really cannot create an application or product that is completely usable, modern, and clean without its inherently being accessible. Designing for user experience is inclusive of all user groups—and that includes people who need to use assistive technologies or even just want the ability to personalize their experience so they can better use a product. This means that a UX team cannot consider accessibility only late in the development process. Not all of user experience is accessibility, but all of accessibility is part of user experience.”

Go Beyond the Letter of the Law

“I would expect the same team to cover both user experience and accessibility, because it’s important to propose an accessible design that is feasible and would make logical sense to the subset of the overall user group that relies on a product’s accessibility,” responds Cory. “That said, the UX unicorn does not exist, so there may be accessibility experts who do not have any other significant UX skills, and that is okay. These experts may or may not be part of the same workgroup as those who are responsible for other aspects of user experience. Regardless of where accessibility experts may reside within a company—or despite the fact that they may be external contractors—it is important that they work closely with the UX team when they are strategizing, designing, and evaluating a design for accessibility.

“Treating accessibility as a legal-compliance issue is okay if it provides the justification for making a Web site or application accessible—as long as organizations are willing to understand and follow the spirit of the accessibility laws, not just observe the letter of the law and do the bare minimum. Regardless of an organization’s lens on legal compliance—and like any aspect of UX research and design—thinking about accessibility only late in the development process would make problems more difficult to fix than they would have been earlier on.”

Anyone May Be “Temporarily Disabled” at Some Point in Time

“I occasionally get into minor trouble with those sorts of large organizations that don’t give accessibility its due,” says Steven. “Because I don’t bolt it on later. I think accessibility must be deeply baked into the structure of any digital product.

“To try to internalize the fact that accessibility is not an edge case, but something that concerns the majority of your users, you can look at all of the interesting facts and figures about how almost everyone eventually has to live with a disability. But my favorite embodiment of this principle is Robin Christopherson’s declaration that we’re all ‘temporarily disabled’ because we’re busy, distracted, tired, or using our hands or eyes for something else. Designing a product to work for every user means it will work better for any user, in every—or at least more—circumstances.

“Another key issue is the psychology behind being disabled. Most people with disabilities don’t feel that they are disabled. They may be in denial, it might have snuck up on them, or they may not perceive an issue as a disability. Often, these users don’t use features or assistive devices that were designed explicitly to address their needs. They won’t open up the accessibility settings on their phone. But designing your product to work better for everyone and making capabilities like controlling text size generally available for everyone means they can at least sort of use it.”

The Far-Reaching Importance of Accessibility

“The shortest answer is simple: yes!” exclaims Whitney. “The separation of accessibility and user experience is something of an accident, based on past history. Accessibility is a legal requirement, and—as the question notes—many have treated it as a compliance checklist for the end of a project. User experience generally grew up within the product design and development processes. Of course, in the early days of user experience, companies also treated usability as something to check off with a big summative usability study just before launch. But we know that—like any quality—both usability and accessibility have to be baked into the design process.

“Accessibility starts with understanding the audience. The ISO definition of accessibility reinforces this, saying that it is usability for people with the widest range of capabilities. (ISO 9241-20) This means thinking about human diversity just as much as we think about the diversity of devices, making applications responsive to different interaction styles, as well as different screen sizes. It means including people with a range of disabilities in our early research, participatory design, user stories, and usability testing throughout the work.

“Most of all,” continues Whitney, “it means embracing the need to create things that provide a good user experience for everyone. This may sound like loading too much complexity onto a design, too early in the process, but you might be surprised at the innovative ideas that working with extreme interaction styles and human needs can produce.”

For further information about accessible user experiences, Whitney recommends that you read her book with Sarah Hughes, A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences. Whitney and Sarah also present an ongoing podcast series on this topic, and have provided online resources, including personas, interviews, and guidelines that map UX principles to accessibility requirements.

Working with Visual Designers

Q: When you’re working on a project for which you are the UX professional and there is also a visual designer, where should you draw the line between what you do and what the visual designer does?—from a UXmatters reader

“This question needs some clarification,” responds Pabini. “When you refer to UX professionals, who do you mean? UX strategists, UX researchers, UX designers? Visual designers are UX professionals, albeit specialists in visual design. I’ll answer this question by considering the relationship between a UX designer and a visual designer because I think that’s its most likely meaning.

“On every project, there should be a lead designer or creative director who sets the vision, or design strategy, and is responsible for all final design decisions for that project. Typically, that person is a UX designer because he or she is responsible for creating a holistic design solution and possesses the breadth and depth of skills that is necessary to make good decisions about all aspects of a design. This person’s role is both strategic and tactical.

“A UX designer or an interaction designer defines workflows and, thus, a screen’s or page’s overall layout. He or she may create wireframes to communicate that layout to a visual designer.

“On a collaborative design team, anyone may contribute ideas about any aspect of design. So a visual designer need not restrict his or her creativity to just the visual aspects of design. But the primary responsibility of the visual designer is the appearance of a user interface. On an application design project, the visual designer’s purview comprehends color palettes, fonts, iconography, custom widgets, and the subtle details of layout. The visual designer may be responsible for defining and documenting visual design principles and standards that other designers will employ in devising their design solutions.”

“This is a tricky question,” replies Peter. “I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some extremely good visual designers! Ideally, the relationship works so you can bounce ideas off each other, sharing ideas and getting honest feedback. Actually, the ideal involves your product manager and technical lead as well, contributing ideas and giving their thoughts on the direction the design is going. But I’m guessing you’re not in that position, so what can you do about it? Start talking. Share ideas and work that you’ve done in the past. Spend a lot of time listening. And consider jointly where you want to take design for the company. Not UX design, not visual design, but design. Standards are great, but agreeing on principles and working to those can be a much more effective and flexible way to move forward.”

Working Together

“I subscribe to the idea of defining roles and responsibilities on a project-by-project basis,” says Jordan. “I think every team is unique, and every project lifecycle is iterative. It’s like a relay race. The projects that I’ve been working on usually have specialists who participate during part of a project, then hand off their work to the next specialist. As in a relay race, there are those few awkward steps where there are two people from the same team running at the same time. Even in running a race, this is a tricky maneuver that takes time to perfect. The better you understand the individual to whom you’re handing the baton, the better you’ll be able to accomplish a seamless hand-off.

“I really wouldn’t recommend approaching a project like going to war—drawing lines around individuals’ respective responsibilities. I’d recommend simply opening a dialog around what you normally do and what the visual designer normally does. If your teammate could win the race if you handed off the baton using your left hand, wouldn’t it make sense to figure out how to do that and just do it that way?”

“As a UX professional, you have a specific skillset,” replies Cory. “Others on the team have different skillsets that may or may not overlap with your own. For example, I do UX research, evaluation, and strategy, but I don’t do interaction design or visual design. So while I’d want to have regular interactions with an interaction designer and a visual designer on a team, our roles would be pretty clear cut. If there is an interaction designer who has visual design skills or a visual designer who has interaction design skills, working well together is a matter of figuring out what skills each will utilize at what points in the project. What would be most efficient and provide the most value to the project?” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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