UX Series 2: User Experience and Digital Accessibility

Posted on Wednesday, 8 July 2020 by David Sloan

In the first post in this series, we introduced the concept and practice of universal design. This post introduces user experience, a term that is widely used to describe a key quality of a website, app, or other digital product or service. But what is user experience? And how does it relate to digital accessibility strategy and universal design? This article looks at user experience’s common definitions, why it’s such an important quality of a digital product, and why a focus on user experience for people with disabilities requires more than accessibility-standards conformance.

Evaluating the quality of a digital product

We can measure a digital product’s quality in many different ways through metrics and technical attributes. From an organizational perspective, we might think of important direct metrics like number of unit sales, page views, or successful transactions, such as product purchases or document downloads. Important indirect metrics of success might measure positive impacts on other areas of an organization, such as fewer calls to customer support or a reduction in time spent on paperwork. From a technical-quality perspective, a product’s quality might be measured in terms of attributes such as download time, security, and stability.

But when we think about quality from users’ perspectives, additional evaluation criteria emerge. Is the product easy to use? Can tasks be completed quickly without making mistakes? When we’re finished using the product, did it feel like we had to expend a lot of effort? Did we enjoy using it (or at least not get frustrated using it)? Attributes like ease of use, effort, and enjoyment relate to the quality of the experience of using the product—or the user experience.

Definitions of user experience

Let’s look at some definitions of user experience, one from a well-established user-experience consultancy, and one from an international standard.

“‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

“…a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service” (ISO 9241-210 Ergonomics of human-system interaction)

Both definitions emphasize user experience as an umbrella term that covers many aspects of a digital product or service, including how it appears and how it behaves. This perspective makes user experience extremely context-specific for a given product. Who are our users? What are they trying to do? Under what circumstances are they trying to use the product?

The five planes of user experience

Designing a great user experience requires an understanding of these contexts. As one approach that may help us understand this complex space, Jesse James Garrett defined user experience in five “planes” in his influential 2003 book The Elements of User Experience. Each plane is intended to help organizations make strategic user-experience design decisions.

From abstract to concrete, these planes are:

  1. Strategy—the organizational objectives and user needs that the digital product needs to satisfy
  2. Scope—the functional and content requirements that the digital product needs to meet those needs and objectives
  3. Structure—the behavior and information architecture needed to provide structure to the requirements defined as the scope
  4. Skeleton—the way that the content elements are presented logically to help users find and interact with content
  5. Surface—the interface’s visual design

This definition emphasizes that user experience is more than the user interface, and it’s more than ensuring that a digital product has the required functionality.

Connecting user experience with digital accessibility

The breakdown of user experience into components, as Garrett does with his planes, helps us to consider user experience strategically and comprehensively. This is particularly valuable when we think about the relationship between user experience and strategy for ensuring accessibility to people with disabilities.

Accessibility standards and guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), help organizations achieve a baseline level of accessibility. A commitment to meeting accessibility standards and guidelines is critical to any accessibility strategy. But these standards are by necessity generic so that they can reasonably be applied across a diverse range of digital products. Technical conformance provides a solid platform for an inclusive user experience. It doesn’t on its own guarantee that a digital product can be used by people with disabilities.

For people with disabilities, a digital product’s compliance with a technical standard is less important than whether the product can be used to complete tasks and achieve goals without undue effort. So we need to consider the needs of people with disabilities in each element of user experience.

If we use Garrett’s planes of user experience to focus on disability, we can define each plane:

  1. Strategy—ensuring that the organization’s objectives and user needs have been influenced by the needs of people with disabilities
  2. Scope—ensuring that the product’s functional and content requirements include the needs of people with disabilities
  3. Structure—ensuring that the behavior and information architecture are defined in a way that optimize interaction and information location for people with disabilities
  4. Skeleton—ensuring that the way that content elements are presented helps people with disabilities find and interact with that content
  5. Surface—ensuring that the interface’s visual design doesn’t present barriers or issues for people with disabilities.

Providing an exceptional user experience for everyone doesn’t happen by accident—it’s the result of a series of deliberate, informed design decisions. And quality user experiences for people with disabilities are the outcome of design processes that provide for people with diverse sensory, physical, and cognitive capabilities. We’ll explore the user experience, or “UX” design process and how it can harness the principles of universal design in the next article in this series.

More reading

This article is one of a series of introductory articles explaining the importance of user experience’s importance to digital accessibility strategy and practice.

Read all posts in the series:

For more in-depth information, read our Inclusion Blog’s UX articles. To learn more how we can help you integrate UX best practices into your digital accessibility strategy, view our UX Services or contact us.

David Sloan is User Experience Research Lead with The Paciello Group. He joined TPG in May 2013, after nearly 14 years researching, teaching and providing consultancy on accessibility and inclusive design at the University of Dundee in Scotland. He is an active participant in a number of W3C accessibility-focused groups, and is an Advisory Committee member of the annual W4A Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility.


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