Talkin’ Pretty: Design and Accessibility


We’ve got a new twist this week, folks. Since I’ve been blogging mostly about accessibility, I wanted to talk with someone who approaches accessibility from a different perspective than a subject matter expert.

I met with a designer who works for a federal government agency and has a refreshing outlook on design and accessibility. She wanted to remain anonymous, so I’ll call her Design Devotee/DD. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Angela/AH: Thank you so much for sitting down with me to talk about your experience with design at a government agency. Tell me how you decided to become a designer.

Design Devotee/DD: I decided to become a designer because of my love and passion for visual beauty and expressing my personal design taste for all things. I wanted to share and express the taste I had when I was growing up. My attention to detail is a skill that I have, and I just like making things and coming up with new things.

AH: When you decided to create visual art, how did you decide to transition to the web and make it your main medium?

DD: I decided when I was in college and I was taking graphic design courses, and when that was when the web was blooming. I saw that print and desktop design also bloomed, but the web happened. And at the end of my graphic design studies, I decided to integrate the web with graphic design because I saw a need for people to enjoy visuals not only in print, but also on the web. People were starting to expect more from the web and their experiences on it.

AH: Okay, you realized that the experiences people have on the web were more important just the bare pages full text of links. At that time, what was the most important thing to you about the user experience?

DD: To be able to present information not only in a structural way, but a pleasant way, so people could read information and enjoy being on a website. It’s one thing to be on a newspaper website, and it’s different on other sites where there’s a more friendly and inviting experience.

Design can be fun, even comfortable and inviting, and for that, good design could have a place there.

AH: When did it become clear to you not everyone has the same experience perhaps because of barriers in design that hinder people’s…not only their enjoyment, but even their ability to access websites?

DD: It was when I started working for the government, before I was a fed, with a government client. I started learning about Section 508 and accessibility. That’s when my eyes opened to all types of users, and I learned how bad design could impact user experiences. Knowing that there are people who see things differently…it made me more sensitive to how I design.

AH: What do you find challenging or different about designing for a government agency?

DD: It’s challenging…because the output must be a product that is accessible, creative, trending, and usable by all. Working around all those requirements is not an easy task, but it makes my job more interesting.

AH: Since you worked with an accessibility specialist with your client, what do you think accessibility and universal design means to the American public, and how does it benefit them?

DD: It doesn’t exclude anyone, so you have more users that can access information, as opposed to hindering the sharing of information. It also makes us aware that not everybody has the same capabilities. It helped me learn that sometimes the design decisions we make for universal design work even for people who don’t have a disability. So it’s a win-win situation.

AH: What do you think makes a design usable for everyone?

DD: It’s the grouping of content; giving prominence to actionable elements; it’s maintaining clear space between design elements; using colors well, so there’s enough contrast between colors; it also about consistency, whether in the font or size of things; it’s about keeping things in proportion and maintaining the hierarchy of design elements; it’s keeping things simple by eliminating steps that aren’t needed.

AH: When I look at your designs, I note how clean and clear they are. And I don’t see distracting elements that I see in other designers’ works. How did you cultivate that clean design aesthetic?

DD: It’s a balance between visual elements that are absolutely needed and flourishes you add—finding the balance…is key. We tend to add a lot of visuals sometimes, and that could hurt by distracting people from the content and tasks at hand. Maintaining less distractions for users, as well as that clear space between design elements gives breathing room for the eyes, so users can process things easier.

AH: That’s a good point for people who have cognitive impairments because they can be distracted by unnecessary or moving design elements. What do you try to remember about accessibility when you’re working?

DD: I try to remember accessibility can start with design. Simplicity is key; that users will come not necessarily looking for something nice. Great design is invisible, and I try to make that experience not overwhelming, but easy and usable. I try to position myself as someone who may look at the product from a different perspective, and I try to expand my understanding of…how they’re accessing that info. I also try to remember that people who are visually impaired—whether they are blind or colorblind—design matters to them, too.

AH: Ah, people who are visually impaired need good design, too.

DD: Yes! They should be able to take advantage of a good design, too. No matter what their abilities are!

AH: I like your passion about this. What do other government designers, especially those who haven’t understood accessibility yet, what do they need, and what resources do you recommend for them?

DD: It’s good to expand our horizons and try to be inclusive as we share our designs, and keep in mind the different types of people, accessibility challenges, or even device challenges, that they may have. It’s important that we test our products in a robust and thorough way.

Usability testing is important, including people with and without disabilities, and testing at the content, design, and functional levels. As far as the tools, a good color contrast tool. Using best practices for good design, and WebAIM has a accessibility in design infographic. It’s a good place to start.

There’s a lot of talk about mobile design patterns [she recommends UI Patterns and Pttrns]; be aware of what people are responding to for mobile devices. Be familiar with them, and make sure you consider people with disabilities.

There’s a template for mobile that helps with fingers and text sizes…it’s the 4ourth Mobile Touch Template.

AH: Thanks for your time and your outlook!

DD: Thank you. I’m glad to share.

Angela Hooker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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I am a long time government employee with a visual disability. It’s hard to see let alone read. This wasn’t a problem when I worked at NSA where everything was published in the Government Printing Office Standard Times New Roman 12 font. Recently I’ve seen lots of what I shall refer to as scramble in Italics and strange font. Sometimes, I just don’t bother to read it. If I click on a blog where people have entered lots of those blinking figures, they are so distracting from the text that I can barely see it. I never return to such blogs. When I managed a classroom I used to reserve a seat for the disabled by taping a sign to the tabletop. More times than not, when I returned the sign had been removed. Today a woman on the train was giving a woman with a visual disability a hard time. Is there a reason people don’t confirm to standards and even take extra steps to remove attempts to accommodate the disabled?

Angela Hooker

Hi, Carol,

Thanks for commenting. I’m so sorry you’ve had those experiences! I’ve had similar ones, too, and I know how disappointing they can be. I wish I had an deep, insightful answer for why people don’t meets standards and hinder accommodations. In my experience, some people just don’t understand and haven’t been taught properly, and some people are just unkind and unfeeling; they don’t care about their behavior and don’t consider how it affects other people.

I do have great hope for those people who truly care and just need a bit of education so they can understand and appreciate people with different abilities—or how their actions, in fact, create barriers for people.

Our work to enlighten people continues, but the good thing is that people are listening!

All the best to you!

Jason Leow

“…sometimes the design decisions we make for universal design work even for people who don’t have a disability. So it’s a win-win situation.” LOVE this! It’s something I learned from design thinking for the public sector, that by designing for ‘extremes’, it works out for everyone else in the middle. But often, public servants worry about pandering to the vocal minority of these ‘extreme’ users, and how they might be just deviant cases and not relevant to the majority. This case proves otherwise! 🙂