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MidwestUX 2018: The Importance of Accessibility in Design

A few members of our experience design team in Chicago attending the MidwestUX 2018 conference.

This past October, five members of our design team traveled to Chicago to attend MidwestUX 2018. MidwestUX is an annual conference focused on bringing the design community together to collaborate and challenge us to advance the Experience Design industry. The CQL design team spent two days attending sessions, gaining a fresh perspective on the future of UX and its impact on other industries. Below we share some of our design insights from MidwestUX 2018. 

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One of the themes this year was designing for accessibility, both from a user standpoint and from a designer’s perspective as a fellow employee. As designers, we often focus on usability for a specific set of personas that may not dive deep enough into other barriers. We can give our persona a name, age, motivations, and goals, but are we also thinking about their physical, educational, and economic obstacles? I may decide to use a specific shade of gray on a project because it works well with that client’s brand, but how many of their users will have trouble seeing it due to vision impairments? Likewise, our team may use verbiage on an app that sounds clear to us, but what if half the users are low-literacy? 

User Accessibility  

This year at MidwestUX, Dana Chisnell, from the Center of Civic Design, lead a session that questioned how accurately our designed experience matches reality. She focused on two massive gaps in the U.S. voting process, discovered through the collection of thousands of stories from voters, taken over a five-year period. 

Gap #1: There is a huge disconnect between the people who administer elections and the voters themselves regarding the voting process. A staggering 49% of Americans are low-literacy, adding an extra layer of difficulty for these voters and a need to truly understand the barriers they face in the voting process. This really brought home the need to think through the language being used on sites. Who’s the audience? Is this headline clear? Is there a simpler, more direct way to word this?

Gap #2: There is a large gap between privileged voters and burdened voters, explaining why it is harder than it should be for many of us to vote. Dana walked us through the journey for a privileged voter and the journey for a burdened voter, both of which were very different than the anticipated steps. Travel, geography, expense and literacy were all major factors. What really stuck out to me was how different the user journey for a “typical” voter was, compared to reality. It reinforced the need to obsessively interview, test and truly understand the obstacles our users face on a daily basis.  

Employee Accessibility

Accessibility is equally important from an employee perspective. How many of the talented designers you work with seem to be wired a bit differently? Neurotypical employees are individuals of typical developmental, intellectual and cognitive abilities. Atypical employees are individuals who are on the autism spectrum or have other developmental differences. Are you doing everything you can to make the work environment healthier and more flexible for both neurotypical and atypical employees? 

Amy Johnson, a Senior Mobile Visual Designer from Allstate Insurance Company, lead a discussion that walked us through tools she has used first hand to thrive in her career as a neuro diverse team member. Besides being so successful in her work, she has made great efforts to share the benefit of hiring those with atypical brains.  

For a long time, Amy was unemployed after a layoff. She went to interviews but didn’t get hired because hiring managers informed her that her facial expressions were inappropriate. She had great work and a solid skill set but she didn’t make enough eye contact. This led her to investigate why she was being turned away from great opportunities. She found out, just shy of 30 years old, she was autistic. After becoming educated on her diagnosis she found a job at Allstate and was able to truly thrive and collaborate with others. Her efforts at Allstate have paved a better future for other atypical designers. Below are some of Amy’s insights on identifying and working well with atypical team members.  

Signs of someone who is atypical:

  • Difficulty in understanding unwritten social rules
  • Little or no participation in group conversation
  • Extreme honesty 
  • Reluctance to ask for help
  • Excessive questioning 
  • Bad reactions to interruptions 

Ways to better the work experience for atypical employees: 

  • Low sensitivity areas such as a health room
  • Flexibility with working from home 
  • Goal setting with manager for bettering oneself inside and outside of work (Amy and her boss had a goal taking on public speaking and this year at MWUX she was able to accomplish that)
  • Various types of seating throughout the office
  • Getting involved in culture focused groups or committees 

Although user accessibility and employee accessibility may seem quite different on the surface, they both influence our ability to make our experiences more impactful. As technology continues to advance, there is no excuse for having inaccessible designs and work environments. This year’s MidwestUX conference made me take a hard look at the users I design for and the people I work with, asking myself, “Do they feel accounted for?” It’s a simple question, but it’s ultimately the first step down the path toward true accessibility in design.  

Spoiler Alert: MidwestUX 2019 will be hosted in our own backyard – Grand Rapids, Michigan. We hope to see you there!

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