Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Designing for people with disabilities isn't a "special case"

I was sitting on the shuttle bus at San Jose airport the other day, and I looked across to see the wheelchair seating. What I saw truly floored me.

Nestled in the complex array of straps, hooks, and tiedowns was a sign that outlined the 14 steps (in paragraph form, no less) to securing a wheelchair on the bus.

Just reading and interpreting the instructions took me roughly 5 minutes. I'd say that strapping in a wheelchair is probably a 10 minute exercise, and that's after you've negotiated the wheelchair inside the bus in the first place, which would be no small feat. 15-20 minutes is an eternity for a shuttle bus that leaves every 5 minutes and makes a 10 minute roundtrip.

It was clear that they retrofitted the design of the bus to accomodate people in wheelchairs, but like any time design for people with disabilities is treated as a special case or afterthought, the designers failed miserably.

There are only a few things that stick out from engineering school (obviously money well spent), but I had a great course on design and human interaction. One thing that has always stuck with me is that, as an engineer or designer, if you consider how someone with a disability is going to use your product upfront, all users will benefit.

Quiz: Which is easier to navigate for someone pushing a stroller: an escalator or an elevator? Stairs or ramps? Which is easier to use for people with arthritis: those stupid, stiff, round sink taps that turn off when you let go, so that you have to try to hold with one hand while you rinse the other, or taps with long handles for leverage? Know anyone who has kids and has pushed a stroller? How many people have arthritis? Are they a special design case?

Back to the bus - it's also cramped, narrow, and high, so it's egress is difficult for anyone with luggage, especially the elderly. Do you think there might be people with luggage on an airport bus?

How does this translate to software design?

Using low-contrast between labels and buttons, or controls and background, like the trend to "metalize" a UI, may look hip, but it makes it much harder for people with even the slightest visual impairment to use. For example, I'm red-green color blind, which is a very mild color-blindness - in a nutshell, colors don't have quite as vivid contrast for me. When someone uses dark blue against black, the interface is almost impossible for me to use. Careful use of high-contrast makes it easier for everyone, but especially those with vision problems (know anyone who wears glasses?)

Another example in web design - using ALT labels correctly in images makes it possible for screenreaders to tell a blind user what the image represents, but it also makes it easier for the rest of us to know what the image will be while it loads, or search engines to index the page.

So, like me, if you take one thing away from this post, when you design a product, whether it be hardware or software, think about how someone who isn't quite as able bodied as you will use it, and you'll make it easier on all of us.