Accessibility: Putting Yourself in the User’s Place

I once worked at a building where, oddly, the handicapped parking spaces were not in the row closest to the building, but rather in a long strip perpendicular to the building (simplified picture below). The row closest to the building was partly visitor parking spaces, and partly open spaces.


As an employee I didn’t give it much thought, and frankly, I was happy on the rare occasions that I got one of the coveted spots close to the door.

That was, until the day my father and I attended a Saturday seminar at the building. My father is in his 80s and walks with a cane. Getting around is slow and physically taxing for him. He had his handicap placard, and we looked for a handicap parking place. But there were no close places, and in fact some of the non-handicap places, although not close, were still actually closer than some handicap spaces!

Seeing the experience through my father’s eyes put a whole new spin on it.

I tried to imagine the reasoning of the people who designed the parking lot. Did they justify their choices because handicap spaces near a building’s entrance are often empty? Did they think the handicap places were “close enough”? One thing was clear to me: I doubt they had ever accompanied a handicapped person as they tried to find a close parking place on a busy day.

I came away with some much needed-reminders:

  1. Test designs with differently-abled users, and strive for win-win design.
  2. Frequency of use is not synonymous with importance. Even if my father only needed that parking place for a few hours on a Saturday morning, that need was very important for him.
  3. We can’t excuse ourselves in failing to address accessibility.
  4. Shortcuts and assumptions compromise user experience.There’s no substitute for understanding one’s users, and that understanding means putting ourselves in their place.

User-Optimizable Design

We who work in user experience typically want to delight our users. However, doing so can be challenging: not only is our user base typically diverse, but our users’ needs and preferences change over time. They become more familiar with our product or system, and even with technology in general. In addition, their devices are often quite diverse as well.

Well, with a little creativity and a lot of user understanding, we can delight more of them more often. What’s the key? We could call it “user-optimizable design”: giving users some key choices to allow them to customize their experience in a way that’s best for them.

Here are a few of my favorites.

My Life Organized: Compact vs. Standard View

I love white space sometimes, but not on my to do list. I’d rather see more of my items at a time so I can plan appropriately. That’s why I love the way my favorite life management application, My Life Organized, gives a me choice of standard and compact view. Sounds simple, but it’s a big deal for me because the compact view makes my user experience so much better.

Compact View
Standard View

Gmail’s Reply-to Function

Frequently I bring up an email I’ve sent and reply to it when I need to send additional information to the original recipient (probably because I forgot something in the first email!). When I do this, virtually every email client puts my email address in the To box, which is almost never what I want. Why would I bring up an email I’ve just sent, and re-send it to myself at the same email address?

To my surprise and delight, I discovered that gmail knows what I really want to do. Even when I reply to an email I’ve sent, it places the original recipient’s address in the To box instead of mine. Every time I use that feature, I’m grateful a company took the time to understand its users.

Choice of Tips at Startup

Some applications, such as Techsmith’s Snagit Editor, allow users to choose whether to see a productivity tip each time they start the application. Techsmith understands that users may appreciate a helping hand at one point, but later get to the stage where they don’t need it.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Not everyone cares to use keyboard shortcuts, but for those who type a lot, they’re a major time-saver. Adobe Dreamweaver and Corel WordPerfect allow users to customize their keyboard shortcuts so they make the most sense fo the user. As a bonus, WordPerfect allows users to choose whether to display keyboard shortcuts on menus.

Ancestry’s Suggested Records

Anyone sleuthing for information on an ancestor likely wants to know about any and every record that exists. In a stroke of genius, added a Suggested Records panel on the screen that shows information on a single record. Based on the user’s search parameters, Suggested Records shows records that are probably for the same person. Sure, not all the records turn out to be relevant, but the bulk of them are, which saves time and alerts researchers to records they may not have known existed.

Of course, user-optimizable design can be carried too far. Too many options for customization can be confusing and actually reduce usability. But if we understand our users well enough, we can provide them with some key customization options that will give them a better user experience.

The Irony of Force

Recently I borrowed a DVD from the library. After watching the previews, I started the movie. But partway through I had to turn it off and take care of some other tasks.

Later, when I was able to watch the movie again, I tried to start where I left off—but I couldn’t. Navigation was disabled and I was forced to go through the previews again. This happened several times.

So did I gladly watch the previews over and over again each time I put the DVD in? No, I either muted the sound or turned my attention to other things. Finally I discovered I could at least fast forward through them.

I found myself wondering about the motivations of the company who configured the DVD to make viewers watch the previews each time the DVD was started. They seemed to think that if they didn’t force us to watch them, we wouldn’t. (That in itself says something about their confidence in the appeal of the previews!) But what if I’d already seen them? What if I were in a hurry? What if the movies being previewed didn’t interest me?

Did they think that forcing me to watch the previews would sell more DVDs? The truth was, it made me not want to buy the DVD I’d borrowed or the ones being advertised! They thought they could make viewers watch the previews, but their plan backfired and left me with a poor user experience.

Whenever possible, designers should give users a choice instead of forcing a given configuration on them. Obviously, there may be times when offering users a choice is not feasible. In that case, it’s crucial for designers to understand users, not make assumptions that end up frustrating them.

Apples vs. Apples

Many web forms have two buttons at the bottom of the page: Submit and Cancel (or their equivalents). A user who accidentally clicks Cancel when she meant to click Submit could unintentionally lose all her form data—frustrating for any user.

In an online discussion on this topic, a poster suggested that the primary action should still have a button, but the secondary should be changed to something completely different, like a link, to avoid this type of confusion.

Would this reduce the number of times users click something they don’t mean to click? Possibly, although as mentioned in The Problem of Proximity, I still accidentally clicked the option I didn’t want out of a button and link pair because they were close together.

The trouble is that changing one button to a link introduces a new set of problems. When we mentally process elements on a page, we tend to see things in terms of their functions or category. Buttons at the bottom of a form to fall into the category of “possible actions I can take on this page.” When one option appears as a button but the other appears as a link, it looks like the two options are not in the same category. In addition, hyperlinks have a semantic meaning: they are supposed to link to related information. The fact that they can be scripted to behave like buttons doesn’t mean that it makes sense, or that doing so provides a good user experience.

As an analogy, consider the confusion that would result at a traffic intersection if the stop signal were a red light, but the go signal were a green sign. Stop and Go are possible actions at an intersection, and drivers expect them to be different variations on the same type of control: a red light or a green light.

And there are times I do want to take the secondary action. In that case, I don’t want the option to look drastically different. I want to be able to tell at a glance that it’s one of the possible actions I can take on this page.

Here’s a real-life example from When I create a source, I see a bright blue button labeled Save at the bottom of the page. Next to it are two other options presented as links. For quite a while, I didn’t even realize those options were there because my eye was drawn to the large blue Save button and I subconsciously ignored the things-that-are-not-buttons when considering actions to take on this page.

But even later, when I realized that the Save and Attach option was available and would save me time, I still found myself forgetting to click it because it didn’t grab my attention and didn’t look like a button. I had to force myself to create the habit of clicking something that didn’t look like it should be clicked to process the form—definitely not an optimal user experience.

Google did a good job with their Insert Image dialog box. The primary button is clearly highlighted, but the secondary option is still the same type of control: a button.

In other words, they’re both apples. There’s no need to make one look like an orange, especially when it’s confusing to the user.