product design

I recently returned from an event in Toronto where I had the chance to meet technology leaders from both academics and industry. We were in the Distillery District – a neighborhood of cobblestone streets, open cafes, and hidden lofts supported by dark wooden beams. The venue was beautiful but felt a bit elitist, so I was really happy to discover that the conversation turned to accessibility for the impaired and the challenge of building technologies that can support everyone.

The point was made that most companies view accessibility features as an add-on to existing products. In the worst cases, it’s obvious that accessibility is an afterthought. It’s tempting to whitewash already built features with a bit of high-contrast, variable font-size, and tooltips that can be spoken – but I think that misses the point. Shouldn’t we consider the broadest set of users when designing a new feature at the outset?

In this post, I want to show you a feature we built by considering the diversity of users at the outset, as early as the innovation stage, or ‘how do we want to address the needs of the user?’. But before that, I want to make the case that it is important to think about accessibility as part of your design that can lead to better products.

Try and think about accessibility in a much deeper way. What if we built products from the innovation stage onward with the broadest audience in mind? I don’t like separating some users (such as those that are impaired) from others when inventing and designing products. After all, it’s not controversial to think about the needs of both the new and expert user when building a UI. Why wouldn’t we also include those who are visually impaired, those who can’t walk, or those whose experience with technology is limited due to income or cultural background? These are other personas that should be considered when introducing technology to solve problems.

It’s an interesting exercise to think about how your product would be used by everyone. The National Research Council thought about this challenge extensively and included this in their report on ‘Every Citizen Interfaces’ as part of National Cyber Infrastructure ‘More than Screen Deep Toward Every-Citizen Interfaces to the Nation’s Information Infrastructure.’ The gist of the report is that while building technology infrastructure we have a societal imperative to be inclusive. This involves the interface to technology, but also the technologies themselves. I truly believe that as inventors and futurists, we need to consider economic class, background, cultural differences, as well as variability in physical capabilities for our users.  Beyond that report, you can get a tactical view of what’s important to consider when building products by taking a close look at the latest Voluntary Product Accessibility Template or VPAT 2.1 report. This report defines accessibility standards that are important as a baseline.

It’s not enough to just think about font sizes, contrast ratios, and clear tooltip language that can be spoken. I think it’s important to consider the environment in which the technology will be deployed. How will your users discover and interact with your product? Does it require considerations of mobility?

An interesting case-in-point is our approach to the soon-to-be-launched annotation feature we call ‘Collaborative Ink.’ Digital whiteboards, touch displays, and annotation systems may be able to check the box on many of the requirements you’d find in the VPAT document. They all have one failing as far as usability – you have to physically approach the display in the room to make use of them. It’s difficult enough to expect a user to get on stage in front of their peers to use a digital whiteboard. Imagine the challenges for someone who is in a wheelchair. Is the height of the screen even appropriate? What obstacles in the room will need to be moved for that user to move close enough to use the technology?

These are the things we envisioned when building Collaborative Ink. Everyone would agree that user engagement and joy are both great goals to have when designing a product. When we looked at existing whiteboard systems, we found that for those who have impaired movement were simply not meeting the challenge. In response to this, we developed a markup tool that works with the device you already have (your smartphone) and can be used without approaching the screen. The user can simply click and draw via gestures from anywhere in the space, which they can emphasize to get their point across. We even considered those users whose motor skills won’t support easy drawing, instead we fit a smoothing function to everything related to draw so all users can use the product equally. Here’s a short video of the prototype that we’ll release later this year – sorry to our marketing team for stealing your thunder!

This is what I mean by inventing in ways that broaden the category of users your product can reach that force us to stretch technology to accommodate all of us. This is what I mean by building for everyone.

About Christopher Jaynes

Jaynes received his doctoral degree at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he worked on camera calibration and aerial image interpretation technologies now in use by the federal government. Jaynes received his BS degree with honors from the School of Computer Science at the University of Utah. In 2004, he founded Mersive and today serves as the company's Chief Technology Officer. Prior to Mersive, Jaynes founded the Metaverse Lab at the University of Kentucky, recognized as one of the leading laboratories for computer vision and interactive media and dedicated to research related to video surveillance, human-computer interaction, and display technologies.

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