Earlier this year members of our design team attended World Information Architecture Day 2019 in Pittsburgh, a day-long event of thought-provoking workshops and presentations given by remarkable speakers. World IA Day is an annual, global, conference that celebrates the field of Information Architecture, with local events coordinated by volunteers and all following the same theme.
This year’s focus was Design for Difference, or understanding the impact that a user’s disability—or even their specific circumstances at the time of use—can have on their interactions with your product. It was an eye-opening, because it emphasized that what I have always thought of as “having a disability” is surprisingly narrow from an information architecture and design perspective. Yes, I always ensure that those with color weaknesses* can use our designs, that contrast ratios meet AA or AAA standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2, and that font sizes are appropriate for those in need of (but not wearing) reading glasses. But I hadn’t really thought about how a person recovering from a concussion or a migraine, or even just suffering from normal amounts of sleep deprivation might have great difficulties with my interfaces.
The speakers and workshops also delved into discussions of disabilities that are temporary, like a broken hand, and those that are acquired with age (changes in vision, hearing, taste and smell, touch, and cognition), versus those that are congenital or acquired due to accidents and injuries later in life—the ones that we typically think of when we think of “disabilities”. Even difficulties of use related to financial and social access to services and products were touched upon, as were language barriers, differences in cultural understanding and expectations, and simply differences in experience that certainly tie in with many of the social issues that often make headlines in our current culture.
My colleague Andrew said that “World IA day was inspiring this year because the speakers were able to broaden the topic of accessibility, as well as inherent bias in the designers as a barrier to truly accessible products. As an industry that is predominantly white and male, there is a lot of inward reflection that needs to happen, and I think all attendees left the event that day with their eyes open to the hazards of bias”.
Our office has been inspired to delve deeper into this issue, with some of us looking beyond WCAG and taking the first steps to become Accessibility Certified.
* Color blindness is a complete misnomer. A person who suffers from “color blindness” more often than not merely has an altered perception of that color, and those altered perceptions can range from very mild to truly being blind to a color. But that is a topic for a future post.