Designing for Accessibility

Update: Headers, Visuals, and Resources

For the success of Virtual and Augmented Reality it is crucial to understand any potential user's abilities and disabilities. Not only is it important to be designing for every type of human, but it is also important to include a diverse spectrum of humans in the design and creation phase. More than that - because Virtual and Augmented Reality heavily rely on the body and physical space as a form of user input, designing for accessibility is crucial to the operation of the medium.

The good news is that a lot of this work has been extensively researched and documented. Two resources that I believe are particularly integral to designing content well are Microsoft's Inclusive Design campaign, and Adobe's Inclusive Design Workshop. Both of which I pull most of my Inclusive Design preparation from. I also adore the XR Access initiative as a representative for well thought-out VR/AR Design, I will be linking that and more in the repository section.

Inclusive Design

This product development approach emphasizes human diversity and results in adaptive experiences, inclusive growth, and reduced customer churn. It focuses around three principles:

  1. Recognize Exclusion: Exclusion happens when we solve problems using our own biases. As designers, we seek out those exclusions, and use them as opportunities to create new ideas and inclusive designs.

  2. Learn from Diversity: Human beings are the real experts in adapting to diversity. Inclusive design puts people in the center from the very start of the process, and those fresh, diverse perspectives are the key to true insight.

  3. Solve For One, Extend To Many: Everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities. Designing for people with permanent disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people universally.

"When we recognize how our solutions are exclusionary, and take the time to understand the impact on a person who’s excluded, we then have a choice. We either fix it or we don’t, but we are responsible for the consequences. Either way, it’s an intentional choice, not an accidental harm. Accountability is more durable than inspiration, so that’s where I focus." - Kat Holmes, Microsoft Design Director for the Inclusive Design Campaign

Designing for Inclusive Spaces

The first step of designing with inclusivity in mind is recognizing exclusion within immersive computing and designing for those extremes instead of the average. The average human being is already being designed for, but when we design for an extreme we include those individuals with certain disabilities and extend to any variation in between. There is a gradient in types of accessibility and flexibility that could appear within an application, and should at every point in time include the perspectives, expertise, and known best practices from individuals who are disabled.

Flexible Options

General options for the experience to adapt to user need

Embedded Content

Options integrated into the content to help with the experience's specific feature set

Assistive Technologies

Content designed with assisting people with disabilities in mind

Consider that often disibilities are often joined or intersectional. For example, Physical Disabilities and Mental Disabilities are entangled within themselves and one another, and that an individual may have more than one of these disabilities that also may range in intensity. A person may have a communication disability because of an auditory impairment. A different person might have autism in which they are high in perception and language but low in motor skills. We must consider these overlapping relationships as well when creating a product that is to be useful for everyone.

The Worlds We Build

The most important consideration in designing for accessibility, is to recognize and resolve any unconscious biases we might have. One of the most eye-opening concepts for me personally, was that when thinking about designing for disabilities you shouldn't think about designing for the 'other' but instead designing for your potential future. Never EVER consider it as designing for some 'debilitated' person off in the distant great nowhere suffering and needing you to 'cure' them.

Design a product that you can use if you have a broken forearm, or if you have back problems after a restless night's sleep - but first design it so that it can be useful to a person in a wheelchair. These affordances we are creating are never intended to be used for a singular purpose, but to improve the lives of the many. We have the ability to make every user's life easier.

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