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Designing with Empathy & Diverse Perspectives

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

Designing with the thought of multiple users takes immersion to fully understand multiple needs. Our design team at the University of Colorado, Denver, put on the lens of another to learn what a user with poor vision would experience while trying to navigate online. Our teammate, Olivia, borrowed glasses from the instructor and began her online exploration through the University portal, and google docs. We have to wonder what we might need to do for a user who really needs our product, but we must design for more than one type of user. In this case we immerse ourselves into observation as Olivia immerses herself into the world of poor visibility. When we focus on designing for users with disabilities, we lend our products to a larger population , creating user diversity.

Inclusive design is about being able to "recognize exclusion, learn from diversity—solve for one, and extend to many". This statement made by Microsoft, says it all. I think when we look at a problem we wish to design for, we immediately understand things for ourselves. If we design using our own bias, the product will be attached to a gender, age range, a set of abilities and skills. If we design with our own bias we cause exclusion. Exclusion should be recognized. With research and testing we can learn so much about the world of users beyond ourselves. Inclusive design is a process. You work to identify and understand many abilities and even disabilities to create a cohesive workflow for multiple users by considering their needs. This does not mean inclusive design is about designing for accessibility. When you work the process, yes things can become accessible. When we work to include accessibility features and perspectives, this helps develop part of the inclusive process. Both work hand-in-hand. The biggest question when this comes to mind is, "how do we solve for so many different types of users?" The immediate person to understand is ourselves, from there we open a dialog for receiving others needs, their ideas, and most of all their hands-on experience. Through empathy exercises we can achieve a greater understanding by trying on other's abilities and disabilities.

When our teammate, Olivia, attempted to navigate through different online tasks , she found it difficult to read some text considering she did not have her normal vision. By looking through the lens of another, and through observation, we were able to see how suddenly the picture was not so clear and the simple tasks we were used to, could not be completed with ease. By also working through the display exercise where the screen font sizes shrunk incredibly , this caused an even greater problem for the visually impaired. By undergoing this empathy exercise we could start to consider designing with a purpose greater than ourselves. Function and flow all became secondary to even being able to find what we were looking for to begin with. Now we are thinking about things a little differently.

During this exercise we can hear the team discussing personal experience with each of their own visual disabilities. What it seems is more often we are seeing people who need reading glasses. There's some age gaps as well which means there's also the issue of natural visual digression over years compared to the younger member. Once the prescription glasses are worn, the Olivia was unable to complete any task She spent the majority of the time trying to make sense of any text instruction she had attempted to read.

For someone who doesn't require a prescription, this exercise gave us some insight into the shoes of someone with visual disability. With this perspective we can consider things that could help these users navigate, operate, and complete tasks with better visibility in mind.

The other exercise that seemed to turn our heads a bit was trying to navigate online and through a collaborative program without using a mouse. Personally, I have to use a mouse for everything! I know a few keys that can help me move around a page, but for basic navigation and trying to complete everyday tasks, this just became a bit tricky. Again, Olivia attempted to look around the canvas program from our University portal. She simply guessed until she found keys to help get her to the next menu or button she wished to click to further explore. We have to wonder how often a user will simply guess themselves to total frustration, and eventually give up.

Without the mouse plugged in, Olivia had to find ways using the keyboard, to navigate, operate and complete tasks. Call it a guessing game.

As you can imagine, Olivia struggled but eventually found her way through, by using the tab key. The problem with this, the tab key required the user to navigate the entire page which means there's no short way of completing any task. Olivia has also had lots of experience using computers so the fact she knew the specific combination of using the function key in combination with underlying key functions, was a total bonus when it came to navigating column by column, a user without this prior knowledge may have stopped much sooner.

Throughout these experiments and throughout the design process, we can only justify over and over again, the importance of inclusive design. We know, with multiple scenarios we can draft a better range of needs, problems, and perspectives. Inclusive design is valuable because it will not pigeon hole a specific type of person, it will offer multiple ways to understand and access the product. We can hand products out with the confidence we have designed a universal method, a universal language. We can expect more people to come to the table with perspective which means, more ways to understand and execute tasks. Through testing we can work on refining designs instead of trying to figure out why the majority of our users can't get past the initial login screen. What does it mean to design inclusively? I like to think... all things considered.

Aside from learning the value and philosophy of inclusive design, the biggest takeaway from these empathy exercises has to do with being open-minded to other's perspectives. It's one thing to be mindful and considerate, but to truly lend yourself to immersion, understanding through empathy, interviews, observation and analysis, we can only apply so much understanding from saying we know what people need. What do we really know about what people need without taking the time to evaluate? What do we really know without walking a mile in other people's shoes? If we truly want to design for people other than ourselves, we have to be willing to let everything we think we know, take all that "prior understanding" and set it off to the side for a moment to immerse ourselves into a world of greater understanding and perspective.

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