Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Usability, accessibility and affordance.

I have recently been associated with a workgroup that is evaluating our organization’s web-based products and services for accessibility and to help chart a course for the organization that will lead us to develop new products and services with accessible usability (!) in mind. That has caused me to revisit my personal understanding of the concept of “universal accessibility” and to try and better understand its implications for our organizational future.

For many of us designers, accessibility is often served by a small, nondescript hyperlink usually at the bottom of a web page that leads to a Section 508 statement which sounds something like: “We are committed to making our site accessible to everyone. Contact us if you have any problems accessing any of our content.” While that may be in the spirit of accessibility, it certainly falls short of the ideal. And, very often we wait for criticism or comment before expending the effort required to address accessibility issues. Basically, “if they ain’t complaining...it ain’t broke.”

It was helpful to remind myself of the differences between universal and accessible design, and there are many. To further muddy the water, there is another term that is bantered about in this arena and that is “affordance”. Affordance refers to an object’s inherent understandability. If a user can look at a web page (or cell phone, for that matter) and intuitively understand how it works and what actions need to be taken to get desired results - then the design is good and universally usable - right? Nope - that is affordance. I may understand that certain buttons on my cell phone need be pressed to reach my desired party, but if I have no fingers that knowledge does me little good. On the other hand, curb-cuts - those wheelchair-friendly ramps at street crossings and the like - not only benefit those rolling in wheelchairs but also benefit parents with strollers, movers with dollies and me on my speed skates. That is universal design. When affordance meets universality there is often a true accessibility. (Just kidding about the skates).

So, is a universally accessible design always the best solution? Not necessarily, and that is a point frequently driven home in my day to day work as a web designer for it is not always required that we build to the least common denominator, and it is often simply wrong to do so. What may seem obscure and confusing to a casual web user or one accustomed to doing things in a particular way, may seem efficient and intuitive to the savvy users you are addressing with your latest product. The key to that dilemma is to understand completely who your customer is and what his expectations and capabilities are. It seems we often miss that.

All that said, it is almost always better to develop products with accessibility in mind - not just for those who “need” it, but for all of us who may simply use it. We should stop thinking of all of this in an “us” and “them” context and focus on doing what is best for everyone. Usually.

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