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2 April 2020

Universal design by the curb-cut effect

How designing for minorities can benefit the majority

Today’s corporate brand guidelines typically include a section on accessibility. Design teams must comply to ensure their outputs can be positively experienced by everyone, including those with disabilities.

It’s time for designers to change their thinking. Accessible design shouldn’t be perceived as ticking the ‘corporate social responsibility’ box, but rather as part of the overarching design problem that can actually benefit everyone.

Volume down, captions up

During your next morning commute, look around. Heads down, eyes glued, fingers scrolling through endless feeds. Everyone’s watching something. It’s easy to notice that more people are watching videos in silence. Maybe you’re doing it too? Flicking off the volume and reading captions so your fellow commuters won’t overhear which Spice Girl earns the most or what a $777 burger looks like.

Social media has made captioning videos the industry standard, as 85% of video on Facebook is watched without sound.

Our discrete video-watching is possible thanks to closed captions. Initially introduced to make video content accessible to the hearing impaired but now adopted by social media content creators. These captions not only transcribe speech, but enhance video with quirky remarks, pop-up facts and memeworthy jokes.

With quasi-silent videos becoming the norm, more creative emphasis is being placed on captions. No longer an afterthought to be slapped on in post-production, captions are now being considered at the beginning of a video’s production plan, with a keen focus on how to best integrate them with scripts and visuals.

Accessibility refers to building products and digital content that can be interacted with by a wide range of people, including individuals who have visual, motor, auditory or cognitive disabilities. And accessible design considers a wide range of needs and results in more usable and user-friendly experiences. There are also instances where everyone requires a more accessible design.

Reading the fine print

Have you ever mixed up the shampoo and conditioner? Whether it’s those tiny travel-sized bottles or the sleek high-end products you’ve spent too much on, it seems to happen all the time. When the bottles are identical except for a single tiny word you’re trying to decipher with eyes full of soapy water, it’s easy confuse products and find yourself washing and re-washing your hair.

Half of Australians wear glasses or contacts, and more than 80% of those aged over 45 have a vision disorder.

Ageing isn’t kind to our eyesight, but neither are package designers who, in their efforts to be elegant and minimal, use type that’s too small. Whose vision is 20/20 when they’ve just rolled out of bed into a steamy shower?

Minimalism shouldn’t equate to minimal usability. It can feel like the more you pay for a product the harder it is to read. Accessible design would result in a more intuitive experience. And more good hair days.

When an accessible design becomes a mainstream expectation, we see the Curb-Cut Effect come into action.

The Curb-Cut Effect

They’re useful, they’re everywhere, and you’ve probably walked up to one today whether you noticed it or not. Curb-cuts are ramps for footpaths where people cross the road. They are commonplace in any area with foot traffic and make traversing the city considerably easier for pedestrians in wheelchairs, but also walking frames, prams, trolleys, bikes, scooters, unicycles and people that hate steps.

Nowadays, most of us no longer consider curb-cuts as an accessible design. We simply accept them as part of the footpath, and they make life easier for all of us. But 50 years ago the absence of curb-cuts was sorely felt. Most city corners featured a sharp drop-off that made moving between blocks without assistance nearly impossible for wheelchair users.

“If you’re trying to get across the street and there are no curb cuts, six inches might as well be Mount Everest.”

Lawrence Carter Long, Disability Rights Education and Defence Fund

Fed up with needing friends and strangers to lift him at every street corner, activist Ed Roberts and his fellow Berkeley students fought for more accessible footpaths by busting up curbs at night and building ramps. Advocating for equal access to public spaces, Roberts’s fight led to the introduction of mandated curb-cuts and transformed the design of street corners the world over. Listen to the full Curb Cuts story in an episode of 99% Invisible, a weekly podcast about the impact of design.

Hey Siri, make my life easier

Today’s smartphones host a wealth of accessibility features that demonstrate the curb-cut effect. Sometimes, we all need a little assistance.

Mum can’t read the menu in the dimly lit restaurant?

Show her the Magnifier — she’ll love you for it.

Driving home and the sun is in your eyes?

Ask Siri to read your messages out loud.

Trying to use your phone with one hand (while using the other to stuff your face with a burger) but your fingers are too stumpy to reach the top of the screen?

The Reachability feature is a game changer.

Need to order a ride home after the Christmas party, but all the buttons appear twice and out of focus?

Just ask Siri to order you an Uber.

A thoughtful and more flexible web

Designers can get a bit tense when web accessibility is brought up, with visions of monochrome, text-only websites coming to mind. Today, the best digital experiences weave together creativity and accessibility, no longer requiring such drastic trade-offs. This is thanks to coding that can be stylised for visual web pages and structured for screen readers.

Screen readers convert text into synthesized speech and empower visually-impaired users to hear and navigate websites with ease and independence. Accustomed users will often speed up the reading rate to over 300 words per minute!

For the 36 million blind people worldwide who may use screen readers, the structure of HTML web pages is crucial as a screen reader dictates content in the order it is coded. Thankfully, the integration of screen readers with intelligent assistants such as Siri offer the future of multi-tasking, where we can all take advantage of well-coded pages.

Salespeople can ask Siri to read out the LinkedIn profiles of prospective clients as they drive to their next meeting. Students with headphones can scroll through Instagram on the bus, as Google reads out their study notes.

It should be the goal of all designers to not only make experiences possible for people with disabilities, but to make them enjoyable.

So we challenge designers — embrace making your website WCAG-AA compliant or the colour scheme of your brochure highly readable. Accessible design shouldn’t be considered as a secondary task. It should be considered a fundamental design principle to create universal and enjoyable products for all.

Visions of the future — time to get on board

As more and more organisations mandate accessibility, it also makes financial sense to embrace the updates early.

It’s estimated that accessibility being retrofitted to make a website conform to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is up to 30 times more expensive than the cost of building it in progressively.

As our population ages, visual accessibility becomes more important than ever. The answer? Smart glasses. While it may feel very Blade Runner 2049 to mount a screen in front of your eyes or directly project a camera feed onto your retina, this eye-opening future is nearer than you may realise.

Apple is developing next-gen screen technology to be used in augmented-reality glasses, while Sony has a patent for contact lens computers. Early adoption makes clear a future where AI will be used to identify text and objects for the blind. But it’s easy to extrapolate and conceive how the military sector, gaming industry and eventually, everyone, would benefit from these new technologies.

In this future, will manually clicking around for a search result be viewed as a relic of the past, just as slow and tedious as we now see writing a letter on paper, licking a stamp for the envelope and finding your nearest postbox? Until then, let’s all ensure our physical and digital worlds are accessible and inclusive — for everyone.

If you would like to discuss how good accessibility practice can be incorporated into your next digital or print design project, please get in touch.

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