How Designing for Accessibility Can Generate Innovations in User Experience

A few months ago, I was running late to work and needed to call into an early standup while en route — from my motorcycle. My helmet has bluetooth and allows me to make calls, but my ability to interact with the team was limited because I wasn’t able to use my hands. Though the GoToMeeting app is designed well enough, I had to ask our PM Jim ahead of time to mute and unmute me throughout the meeting. If I had something I wanted to pipe up and say, I couldn’t do it on my own; I had to wait for Jim to give me my turn. My ability to participate was significantly constrained.

While struggling to communicate without the use of my hands, I realized that there had been no design consideration in the app for that state of being.

The experience made me reflect on someone I had known years prior, JP, who is quadriplegic. JP has a customized device that helps him communicate, but it still takes an incredibly long time for him to put his thoughts into words. The same company offers special interfaces that bridge the gap between JP’s physical limitations and common platforms like computers and phones. These interfaces bring a much-needed degree of interactivity to people who need them, but they lose some of their effectiveness because the platforms they connect with were not designed to use them.

What happens when we begin the design of our technology with the intention to accommodate other kinds of ability from the start? Those considerations could make devices easier to use for everyone, and so much more powerful.

One example of designing for limited abilities that many people already use is your phone’s car mode. While a lot of people think of driving as empowerment, your driving is severely inhibited if you’re using your phone while doing it. To bridge the gap between driving and the inevitable phone use that will happen in a car, Apple and Google have developed modes for in-car use. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto adapt the phone to the physical constraint of driving your car, effectively removing the default UI of the phone (its screen & buttons), and transferring them to the car itself. In doing this, these companies are designing with accessibility in mind, and extending their platforms around the constraints of driving a car.

Yes, CarPlay and Auto are still screen-centric, but they do begin to use other UI available in the car, such as the integrated steering wheel controls and voice actions using the car’s microphones. By designing the platform around the known constraints (hand & eye movement) and common UI patterns (dashboard, steering wheel), the experience of using your phone is the car becomes easier (and safer).

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Not so different anymore

With the saturation of smartphones & laptops, the opportunities to innovate for the screen are becoming fewer; the design patterns for the screen have been largely figured out. Other kinds of interfaces are still ripe for creativity: Voice Assistance, IoT and ever-emerging devices are providing us with ways to think beyond screens. At their best, these interfaces give us more opportunities to include more people in common spaces and common technologies. If we want to tackle the next layer of innovation, we need to focus on the interfaces that connect us to our digital lives and the platforms we share.

There’s a lot of time and money invested into making our technology user-friendly and delightful, and this is good. But sometimes, as many as 20% of users are getting left out of our design process. They don’t care about a sleek UI or animations — they just want to have the experience of using the thing. When we start with the assumption that we’re building for people with different abilities, we will almost certainly uncover ways to design things that serve the greater good.

Designing for accessibility begins with simply being aware of the host of ways we can make content and apps easier to use for the greatest number of people. If you’re interested in talking more about interface design and accessibility, get in touch with Highland.

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