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Accessibility beyond the ‘obvious’

Posted in Accessibility and Design

When we think of accessibility, we often focus on the tools people use to access digital content on a practical level. We might picture someone who uses just the keyboard for navigation; screen reader users; people who use speech recognition software.

It’s true that designing and building with accessibility at the front of our minds helps prevent placing barriers in these people’s way, but accessibility goes much further. Here’s a wee story to illustrate my point.

In the summer, my wife took care of booking flights to Barcelona, where her half of our family live, so I thought I’d even things up by doing the online check-in. I wasn’t surprised to find the experience unnecessarily stressful, but what really irked me was thinking about how someone with a cognitive disability might fare.

To illustrate my point, here are some ‘highlights’ of my check-in experience:

  • A ‘Booked flights’ section at the top looked like a banner advert, so my eyes automatically skipped it and went straight to the too-subtly labelled ‘Past flights’, which told me I was flying from Manchester; cue a mild panic that we’d somehow got to get to Manchester and back again
  • I then noticed the Manchester flights said ‘October’, where I expected ‘August’, and worried that we’d booked the flights in the wrong month
  • A mixture of anger and relief when I saw that that ‘advert’ my brain had ignored was in fact my up-coming booking, and the October flight from Manchester were return flights we got for my mother-in-law last year
  • Then came the first pop-up, warning that my session was about to end; I had taken more time than I would have liked so far, even though I hadn’t paused to complain to my wife (yet!), but it didn’t feel long enough to be logged out already!
  • The button on the pop-up that asked if I want to stay logged in required a press of a “Keep alive” button; that’s some dramatic language… What would happen if I let my session ‘die’?
  • After adding some more details, I found out that I needed to provide information about Covid vaccinations that I wasn’t told about in advance
  • The time-out pop-up appeared again, making me worry that my session would ‘die’ while I was gathering our vaccination details
  • Once I’d found the details, I noticed a tab component that was so under-designed that it didn’t actually look like it was there; lucky I did, as I nearly missed adding some vital information in the second tab
  • More luck when I spotted some very small text that told me I had to print the boarding passes; a Google search revealed there would have been a £20 per person fine if the four of us had turned up with only the digital boarding passes!

I could go on, but you get the picture. Now consider how other people might fare; maybe someone:

  • with anxiety
  • with ADHD
  • less digitally proficient
  • arranging the flights in a hurry due to bereavement

Some free advice for the airline?:

  • Be clear about what information is required at the very start
  • Go easy on those anxiety-inducing session timeout modals
  • Dial down the dramatic language
  • Make the place to add every bit of information clear and un-missable
  • Break the journey down into more digestible steps
  • Save information the logged-in user enters as they progress through the steps, and let them know this is happening
  • Don’t use dirty tricks to eek a few more pounds out of your customers
  • Test with real users to ensure your designs work for everyone

Accessibility goes way beyond practical input and output; most of the problems I encountered here amplified an already stressful situation, when what was really needed was simplicity and clarity.

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