January 4, 2019

Lessons from the playground

(This article was written for the Bazaarvoice User Experience newsletter, b:focused. Cover Photo by Kelly Sikkema.)

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when beginning to design and develop inclusive products and services is the fear that including everyone is an impossible task. There are so many things people to consider that it can feel insurmountable.

Changing how we think about the problem

When we consider the scale of including everyone, we need to change our mindset. Instead of the daunting "I need to cover every possible condition and set of needs," we can instead focus on the smaller steps to take. Instead of focusing on how high the mountain is we're climbing, we instead focus on the steps in front of us, occasionally checking the map. The problem changes from "solve for everyone" to "recognize when we're excluding someone."

In her seminal work, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes DesignKat Holmes suggests that we learn how to start designing inclusively by considering playgrounds:

"Think back to the objects and people that occupied your play space. Try to remember what worked well for you. It's likely there were moments when you were happy to play alone […and others] when you played together with many children. Can you describe what it was that made those spaces inclusive? It's also likely […you] felt left out, either because there was an object you couldn't use, or because you were ostracized by people around you. What was it that made these spaces exclusionary?"

Kat Holmes, "Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design"

Kat went so far as to work with children's playground designers to see how they approach inclusion, learning about inclusion through gently sloping ramps to the highest lookouts, and sound features such as the harmonious ringing gamelan, an instrument often installed where "you can't play a bad tune."

A child plays a multicolored gamelan in a park, using two mallets to strike pipes of differing lengths.
A child playing with sound on a gamelan in a park

She shared a powerful quote from the playground designer Susan Goltsman:

"We interviewed kids with various levels of disability, and the more severe the disability, the more vicarious the play. So the child who could not move very much was playing full-on in their brain, using other kids out on that play area to play through. So access means a lot of different things to a lot of different people."

Susan Goltsman, from the book "Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design" by Kat Holmes

This struck me, as a parent of a 5 year old and my experience with different playgrounds. When I was a child, playgrounds were still made of steel and wood, monkeybars and platforms. As a kid with balance issues, I never felt comfortable climbing to the top of a steel geodesic dome at my playground—it got too hot in the summer, and I couldn't maintain a good grip and steady myself. I'd watched a friend, more dextrous than I, lose his grip and fall 15 feet, breaking his arm. They don't build 'em like that any more, because of exclusion (and simple liability).

Learning from the unintentional exclusion of others

A jungle-gym style playset, shaped like a steam train, in a sunny park
Playground train at Play for All Park

Taking my daughter to the Play for All Park in Round Rock was a radical departure from my childhood expectations. The park is a case of true inclusion, but even as a pinnacle of accessibility, they are still learning, and in recent years they redesigned and expanded the park, providing more play opportunities for children (and adults) of all abilities.

Swing sets are crucial for playgrounds. As an infant, my daughter watched kids swing with rapt attention; she grew and then started swinging as soon as she could sit up—thanks to the now ubiquitous full bucket swing.

A red full bucket swing, with leg holes and wrap around support for pelvis/torso of a small child.
A bucket seat swing

Now that she's bigger, she can swing in the normal style swing seats. The full bucket swing is a case of designing to fix a mismatch, to fix a certain type of exclusion. At the Play for All Park, however, they have an even broader selection of swing seats, including group swings and larger plastic locking swings for small children and larger kids that need help staying in the seat. But the coup-de-grace is their wheelchair swing, dedicated to a segment of kids (and adults) who may have longed to swing, but had always been excluded.

A swing set with a large fullback harness swing, a traditional seat swing, a smaller full harness swing, and a swing with a platform to accommodate wheelchairs
Four types of swings to fit the needs of different people at play

These change in playgrounds didn't happen overnight. No one sat down and magically considered every play scenario and every moment of exclusion. They learned, and they listened, and they took the steps to improve, to include, and to make it fun for everyone.

We're lucky that this process of gradual, iterative improvement is worlds easier with software than it is with the literal hardware of playgrounds. But like playgrounds, we don't have to relearn from the same mistakes of exclusion every time we build something. We can reference the core wisdom and guidelines of our predecessors, and then take our steps up the mountain by continuing to listen and learn from the needs of the people we will unintentionally exclude.

July 13, 2018

Inclusive by design

The following is an article I wrote for my company's R&D newsletter, and the perspective is angled to that reader.

I was asked one day "is accessibility still a selling point?" I blinked. I'd never considered that ensuring our customers can use our product was a selling point; it's just what they expect when they use it. Others have asked if accessibility isn't just "a checklist of things and tests to do for screenreaders?" People tend to misunderstand the term as being simply a set of expensive things to do so that blind people don't sue you.

Accessibility is a result. Inclusion is an action.

Being accessible is something you ship. It's the end goal. But what does that mean? Matt May, head of Inclusive Design at Adobe and co-author of O'Reilly's Universal Design defined accessibility as

"the goal to ensure that products support each individual user’s needs and preferences".

That's a lot broader than whether a screen-reader can parse your UI. It sounds more like a CSAT score, and with good reason. To achieve an accessible product, we must practice inclusive design. Inclusive Design has been defined as "design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference".

When you do so, a the customer is more satisfied with your product (i.e., higher CSAT score) because they didn't hit a wall built by ignorance of their needs.

For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: Please climb that tree.

Exclusion hurts everyone

I recently went on a trip with my 4-year-old daughter. Infants are pacified with a rattle or food; toddlers have expectations. My daughter expected access to an iPad loaded with games. On the flight, she got frustrated. "It not work!" she said as she tapped at the game's loading spinner. I tried quitting the game and restarting. Nothing worked. Later I would discover that the app only worked with an internet connection. This game had no internet features, no social aspects or in-game updates, but it wouldn't work without an internet connection. This isn't something you can explain to a toddler. There were tears and my scramble to find something to placate her (namely jelly sharks and watching Big Hero 6 on my phone).

A crying toddler with parent on airplane

"I demand satisfaction!"

We've all had that moment: something broke or frustrated you due to an aspect you had no control over. With that game, the developers had insisted on connecting to a server before the

Microsoft's Inclusive Design impairment matrix

Microsoft's Inclusive Design guide provide's examples of how major impairment types range across a wide variety of situations.

game would load. I have no idea why—maybe it was an anti-piracy concern—but it made perfect sense to them while building the app. Quite possibly they didn't even know the app did this… a bug left over from development. But it meant that game did not work and the whole plane got to hear about it. I wanted to scream at the game company, but without a wifi on the flight, I had to wait and forgot about it when I was calm.

Inclusive design helps us avoid these types of problems. By looking beyond ourselves and our expectations, we are able to avoid or rectify situations and patterns that cause our customers grief or block them from using our product. I've read posts about "designing for everyone" and, while I work daily on a client tools that serve business users, it's easy to see the writing as slanted entirely toward consumer apps, where the audience can be wildly broad. "Surely that doesn't apply… I'm just working on a product picker or reporting mechanism for someone in a cubicle somewhere," it can be tempting to think. "And anyway, we don't have the time to design for everyone! I have a deadline!"

Include your customers

How Inclusive Design differs from "design for everyone" or "universal design" is that it accepts that being inclusive of all your users' needs and expectations is a journey, not a deliverable. Part of that is scoping expectations, but always trying to be inclusive of more customers' needs as you go. To climb a mountain, your goal is to move upward, one step at a time.

Example of CVD affecting a pie chart

Color Vision Deficiencies, commonly referred to as "color blindness", can have drastic impact on how you perceive data.

One key aspect that makes Inclusive Design more realistic is focusing on your customers—that is, the customers in your market. Designing for toddlers and designing for business users are two different things; you don't have to explain dropdown menus and buttons, for instance. But just because a business user at retailer or brand is a (hopefully) literate adult, it does not mean that they are you. They may speak a different language, may have different expectations around providing their name, or might not want to provide their email address. Yes, they very well could have vision or motor impairments. Or they could be someone using a 5 year old computer in a poorly lighted and distractingly noisy office environment. They may not have 20 minutes to complete the workflow you built, because they answer calls and have meetings all day.

We should not expect that our customers will use our product exactly as we designed; We should expect that our customers are a diverse mix of people who just want to get work done.

"When you call something an edge case, you’re really just defining the limits of what you care about." – Eric Meyer

We're living in a world where every day, people do things without considering the consequences. From Uber to Facebook to politicians to you throwing a plastic bottle in the trash, we're facing consequences for taking the easy road and skipping our ethics. In his ⁠Design Ethics manifesto, Mike Monteiro wrote,

"Every human being on this planet is obligated to do our best to leave this planet in better shape than we found it. [You] don't get to opt out."

We don't strive for inclusion and accessibility because they are trendy, legally required, or selling points; we do them because they are the Right Thing To Do™.

June 18, 2016

Mastering hexadecimal color codes

Let's understand what those 6 character codes we've been putting in our spec and CSS actually mean.

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