A case for incremental change and accessibility

A graphic showing squares going through a machine and emerging as different types of wheels.

When we think about computer accessibility, we often focus on compliance with Section 508, the law mandating that websites, IT resources, and electronic documents procured and maintained by federal agencies are accessible to people with disabilities. Current best practices in the broader UX world also look to ensure minimal accessibility standards. At Ad Hoc, our work must meet these standards, but we strive to go beyond them.

In my work with Medicare beneficiaries, I’ve learned that the challenges of ensuring a diversity of people can access electronic resources go beyond what can be described in a set of standards. For many individuals, aging is accompanied by changes to their vision, hearing, manual dexterity, and/or cognitive abilities. As they’re managing these uncontrollable shifts in their lives, the constant modifications introduced by updates to websites, applications, and operating systems can make using computers an ongoing struggle for many people.

There are lessons for digital accessibility in the accommodations people create in the physical world. Blind and cognitively impaired people rely on memorized paths and landmarks when they navigate city streets. I’ve observed many individuals using similar techniques online. They can get around their computers and websites because they know where things are. They find ways to ground themselves in where they are and to simplify navigation to familiar steps, with home pages and bookmarks, or known routes through familiar sites.

People are also creative in adapting their digital environments to their needs. In order to accommodate weakened visual acuity, they clip magnifying lenses onto their screens, or they increase the font size and adjust individual page magnification. Some people adjust screen resolution to the point where others may find it blurry, but what matters is how it appears to them.

In our frequently changing, constantly updating digital world, sometimes streets get torn up and familiar routes and personalizations suddenly disappear. There are often good reasons for changes and updates. Security patches help keep our data and devices secure, bug fixes improve performance. Much of our work at Ad Hoc is focused on developing improved flows and user interfaces that are meant to reduce the need for such accommodations. Yet sometimes developers change existing tools simply for the sake of doing something new. This is not limited to the digital world — have you ever noticed how new cars always move the cupholders between model years, as a sign that the 2019 model really is different from the 2018?

Sometimes we do need to completely tear up the streets to make necessary improvement. But it’s often possible to make the improvements with as little disruption as possible for the end user. Many sites create so much disruption because it’s more work to minimize it. As we consider accessibility, we also need to keep in mind the impact of disruptions, particularly for audiences who rely on predictability and for whom recreating accommodations can be a painful process.

Recently, after a routine Windows update, my father found that many of the settings he had on his computer were no longer what he expected them to be and that it was not easy for him to recover his preferences. I did my best to help him from afar, using a phone call and a screen share. He wanted Outlook to magnify not only the main screens but also individual emails when he opened them. This setting was lost, and he had to magnify each email individually. He had also lost the setting for his home page in his internet browser. While setting a home screen may be second nature for tech professionals, it’s an infrequent task that is not necessarily intuitive to typical users. Small icons compounded with low vision created additional impediments for him. I quickly realized that naming icons was not helpful, so I guided him with directions such as “go left, go left, go down, go up.” These were not a pathways he had memorized and put into his personal navigation repository.

Disruption through unexpected change is not a problem limited to a single operating system or form factor. Although smartphones and tablets are touted as user friendly and are preferred by many seniors, they’re also guilty of shifting the landscape on users. In 2013, when Apple “flattened” the appearance of iOS 7, plenty of users complained. For people with poor vision, these new features were harder to read and see. For individuals with cognitive challenges, it was more drastic — a once-familiar interface had changed in ways that were not necessarily easy to comprehend. Even the most recent iOS update added new apps and moved the location of information in the status bar, small changes that can be disruptive to people who navigate in small or large part based on familiarity.

Even when design changes have been tested as arguable improvements, we need to keep continuity in mind – how much change is too much? How will a current user navigate the change? What will future users expect? Not all of these questions can be answered with user testing, but we can learn and iterate based on observing, learning, understanding, and empathizing with our users.