Designing Accessible Products

On Thursday, Microsoft announced Soundscape, an app that aims to make it easier for people who are blind or visually impaired to navigate the cities, by enriching their perception of surroundings through 3D cues.

According to Microsoft:

"Unlike step-by-step navigation apps, Soundscape uses 3D audio cues to enrich ambient awareness and provide a new way to relate to the environment. It allows you to build a mental map and make personal route choices while being more comfortable within unfamiliar spaces."

To me, this appears to be a wonderful idea, and an app like this could eventually make a huge difference for people who are visually impaired, helping them to navigate unfamiliar environments and make a better use of everything the cities have to offer.

I've been very impressed by the commitment Microsoft demonstrated to building more accessible tools, while interning at Microsoft this summer. If you're interested to learn more about the work they are doing, there is a dedicated section on the company's website, highlighting the principles Microsoft utilizes to think about the inclusive design, and providing specific examples of their work.

Of course, Microsoft isn't the only major tech company that has demonstrated a commitment to building products that are truly accessible. Apple has been long known for their attention to the accessibility, and continues to work to make its products accessible. Google, while not necessarily doing a great job in the past, seems to be catching up. And Amazon finally made its Kindle e-readers accessible once again in 2016, after 5 years of producing devices that weren't suited for those who are visually-impaired (the early versions of Kindle readers were actually accessible too, but then Amazon has given up on this functionality).

And yet there are a lot of areas where tech products' accessibility leaves much to be desired, and many companies simply don't pay enough attention to it. Those often come up with multiple reasons to justify it, too. Some companies state that designing with accessibility in mind is too hard or too expensive, or that it just makes their products look dull. Others believe that by ignoring the accessibility issues, they're only foregoing a small percentage of the market (the figures typically mentioned are 5%, or less).

To be clear, none of those arguments should be viewed as acceptable. Moreover, designing with no regard to accessibility today is often classified as discrimination based on disabilities, and over the last 25 years, it has been made illegal in multiple countries (including the U.S. and U.K.), with the customers successfully suing companies who weren't providing accessible options.

But even if we put aside the legal aspect of the issue, do any of the excuses typically used by companies to avoid paying attention to accessibility actually have merit in them? As it turns out, not really.

According to the U.S Census Bureau, in 2010 nearly 1 in 5 People (19%) had a disability, with more than half of them reporting their disability being severe. About 8.1 million people had difficulty seeing, including 2.0 million who were blind or unable to see. About 7.6 million people experienced difficulty hearing, including 1.1 million whose difficulty was severe. About 5.6 million used a hearing aid. Roughly 30.6 million had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker. About 19.9 million people had difficulty lifting and grasping. This includes, for instance, trouble lifting an object like a bag of groceries, or grasping a glass or a pencil.

Now, if you look at those numbers, the argument that by ignoring the accessibility, the companies are foregoing only a small chunk of the market, proves to be obviously incorrect. Even if you single out a particular disability, like having difficulty seeing, it still affects millions of people.

What is perhaps even more important, those numbers don't necessarily include everyone who might benefit from the products being designed with accessibility in mind: a well thought-out design might also benefit people who are temporary disabled, or the youngest and the elderly users. So it's not just about ensuring that the people with disabilities would be able to use your products, but also about creating better products in general.

Here is one great quote related to this discussion, from the article "The Blind Deserve Tech Support, Too: Why don’t tech companies care more about customers with disabilities?":

"When you make a product that’s fully accessible to the blind, you are also making a product accessible to the elderly, to people with temporary vision problems, and even to those who might learn better when they listen to a text read aloud than when reading it themselves. This is the idea of universal design: that accessible design is just better design."

Is designing for accessibility time-consuming and expensive? Sometimes, but overall, it really doesn't have to be. A lot of it has to do with learning about and following the best practices related to accessibility, and ensuring that the products you build adhere to the industry standards. Starting to do that might require a certain amount of resources, but in most cases it would be a one-time investment. Besides that, some of the things related to accessibility require very little effort on your part, e.g. adjusting your color scheme to make it easier for people who are color-blind to interact with your product. And in the process of making your products accessible, you are likely to materially improve the experience for your current users as well.

Finally, we are entering an era when the new technology (AI, voice assistants, VR/AR, novel ways to input information, etc.) can contribute a great deal to making it easier for people with disabilities to interact with the products around them. Take, for example, this description of what could be achieved even with the current generation of voice assistants, from "Brave In The Attempt" article on Microsoft's accessibility efforts:

"One of the best Windows tools for people with mobility challenges is Cortana. Just with their voice, users can open apps, find files, play music, check reminders, manage calendars, send emails, and play games like movie trivia or rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock. The speech recognition software takes this even further. You can turn all the objects on your screen into numbers to help you choose with your voice. You can vocally select or double-click, dictate, or specify key presses. You can see the full list of speech recognition commands to see all that it can do."

Isn't such a tremendous opportunity to empower people to live much richer lives worth working just a little bit harder for?

The Struggle Over Snapchat's Controversial Redesign

When a tech company rolls out a major update for a b2c product that's been in use for years and has an army of loyal followers, it is fairly reasonable for it to expect to see a certain amount of backlash, especially if the changes affect the way the users interact with the app. After all, we tend to heavily rely on the acquired habits when dealing with a lot of tech products, and when those habits are being disrupted, even for good reasons, we become frustrated.

Still, when Snapchat introduced the redesigned version of its app back in November, I doubt that the company expected the backlash to turn out to be so severe. Since then, the complaints have never stopped, with an incredible number of users weighing in to demand the reversal of the redesign.

In the tech world today, reversing updates is not entirely unheard of, but it can be exceedingly tricky, especially for a major redesign like this: nobody wants to cave in to the public opinion and admit failure. However, what's more important is that in the world of continuous deployment and constant A/B testing, the decision to introduce major changes is never made blindly. Chances are, Snap had some sound reasons to go forward with this redesign (which, as they were most likely aware of, wouldn't necessarily be taken kindly by the users) - such as, for example, the expectations that the new design would help the company to better monetize the app. The fact that the recently released earnings beat the expectations, sending Snap's share price soaring, only confirms this hypothesis, as many observers connected the improved performance to the redesign.

So, it didn't came as a surprise when earlier this month Evan Spiegel (Snap CEO) defended the redesign, and announced that it's here to stay. That, however, wasn't the end of the story. As it turns out, a month ago, a user from Australia started a petition on, demanding Shap to reverse the update. Well, as of today, more than 1.2 million (!) people signed it. As a result, yesterday Snap responded to the petition, promising some changes to the app that, according to Snap, would help to alleviate at least some of the issues that the users were complaining about.

This is an interesting development, and definitely not a very common one: even though Snap haven't actually agreed to reverse the redesign (which, again, is totally unsurprising), the amount of backlash they received has ultimately forced them at least to try and communicate the upcoming change to the user community in a more transparent way, and possibly to make some concessions along the way as well (we don't really know whether the announced upcoming changes were planned in advance).

And while I personally don't agree that using to make such a demand was justified - in order for it to remain an effective vehicle to drive change, the users need to be cognizant of the social significance of the petitions they start - it certainly proved to be effective in this case, which might set an interesting precedent for the future battles between tech companies and their users.