Lessons from observing people use assistive tech

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Tags: #UxResearch #Accessibility #AssitiveTechnology

When we focus solely on technical accessibility guidelines, it’s easy to miss the nuance of the way people use tools, how they navigate challenges, and what happens when they encounter barriers that they cannot overcome. About a year ago I participated in an accessibility learning series at work. The series aimed to create awareness about how people use assistive tools beyond the code-based guidelines.

Every two weeks, a group of researchers (including me!) partnered with an employee who used assistive technology and interviewed them in a webinar that was shared with other employees. Sessions were semi-structured. Usually I met the participant beforehand and we spoke about websites and apps they commonly used, as well as what assistive tools they used. During sessions, I (or another researcher) would ask research participants to walk through some of the common tasks they completed in each of those websites and apps. We would discuss both the good and the bad accessibility practices of each.

During the last few sessions, we had several blind employees share their experiences. And we learned quite a lot!

Assistive tools come in all shapes and forms

Many participants used tools I would’ve normally not called “assistive.” However, an assistive tool is what ever helps you solve the problem at hand. For example, one participant captured screenshots on his phone to zoom into specific content. Another also showed how he would use image-to-text tools to photograph physical notes (such as receipts and handwritten notes) and convert them into screen-reader legible text.

Contextual inquiry could probably lead to better insights

The more I think about it, I wish many of our sessions had been in-person contextual inquiries instead of virtual interviews. We missed so much by not being able to observe people’s real environments and set ups.

We often had participants talk to us about the tools they had on their desks, but it was hard for us to see them in action. One person spoke about using a Bluetooth keyboard to help him type on his Android phone, but we could not easily see his typing. I even had one participant walk me through how she designed her entire home to have a high-contrast color scheme. The house was not just an expression of her playful personality. Everything made it easy for her to navigate her living space, from the labels on food containers to the checkered living room floors that she decorated with a giant chest game.

Tool knowledge and expertise varies

Different participants had different awareness of assistive tools and how to use them. Some had had low vision or blindness their entire lives and knew what tools helped them best in what situations. One woman we spoke with talked about how she was not yet legally blind, but she was preparing to soon lose her vision. She talked about how she was identifying and learning to use tools that could help her during every day work.

Consistency is key when you see a small portion of the screen

Many participants often relied on muscle memory to complete actions. If websites had big changes or if the “next” button was at the top right in one screen, and the bottom right in the following, completing tasks too much longer. Of course, this can happen to anyone regardless of being blind. However, many of these participants could only see small portions of a screen at a time. With less context available, consistency is even more important.

It’s easy to lose trust with an inaccessible product

I asked one person to walk me through an example of an e-commerce website he felt was difficult to navigate. He mentioned one, and said he used to be a frequent shopper there but he stopped because their search feature became difficult to use. I asked him to show me, and to his surprise search had once again improved. Yet he still felt he could not trust the website fully, and expressed how it had been long since he had visited because of his previous bad experience. Ability to search is a table-stakes feature for an e-commerce website, thus they had lost his trust.

Conclusion

There’s probably a lot more takeaways from these sessions. For example, I could talk about how people turned off screen readers when navigating a familiar page, or when typing into search. Perhaps some of these points are extremely obvious. Yet, if I hadn’t spoken to and observed real people, I probably would’ve not learned about them. This is why speaking with people with different abilities and life experiences is important, especially for design professionals.

On their own, the insights above may not seem very actionable. They are in a stand-alone context. And that's okay for the purposes of this learning series. The goal was after all to create awareness. But if we incorportate people who need and use assitive tools into daily research practices, we could generate insights that could both make our products more inclusive and usable, and inspire fresh ideas.