Why usable design matters, and what we can do about it

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.

rob_parking_lot

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.

2 Comments

  • Posted 30 September 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    For those who don’t know, Kathryn and I worked together at the building referenced in this post.

    My guess is that we did it because the people who owned the building before us did it that way. Who knows why they did it that way. I’ve been sitting here racking my brain trying to come up with a plausible solution, and I can’t.

    The funny thing is that I understand they are going to change the parking, not to move the handicap spots closer, but to add additional visitor parking along the rest of the front of the building. Yet still nobody questions the underlying assumptions regarding why the original decision was made.

    Here is my question: distance-wise, if you look at “number of feet to the building entrance”, I wonder how the current handicap access plan would compare to the idea of putting handicap stalls all along the front of the building. I mean, close stalls would still be close. But is walking horizontally along the walkway from the farthest spots to the building entrance significantly shorter than walking vertically from the farthest spots to the entrance?

    I guess you could make the first several spots on each row handicap and maybe minimize distances, but then you need to think about wheelchair access ramp location and snow removal. With the current setup, snow removal happens all the way down the column between handicap stalls. If you moved the handicap stalls closer to the door, but out into the parking lot, would you make it harder for people during inclement weather?

    I think it is late and I’m overthinking this, but maybe this is an example of how sometimes what appears on the surface to be a simple issue is often much more complex than it seems.

    Ok. Off to bed for me.

  • Kathryn
    Posted 3 October 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Paul, very true—often something that seems simple is more complex than it looks.

    Your comments sparked a possible win-win idea: what if the first four or five spots of the front row on either side of the door were handicap spaces, and the first four or five spots on each side of the center column? The furthest spaces on the center column aren’t much use, but the closest ones are helpful.

    Is there someone we can give these ideas to, since the parking lot is being redesigned? :)

    Thanks for your comment!