Amplifying User Abilities: The Behavior-Changing Magic of Digital Accessibility
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In the digital product design landscape, digital accessibility has gained ground over the last few years. Yet, it is true that for most product design processes, accessibility is still overlooked, neglected, and even avoided. We are failing to see its power to amplify users' abilities and be a catalyst for a more inclusive, and behavior-changing digital product experience.
The ability spectrum
Consider the spectrum of abilities that encompass our human experience, from visual and auditory capabilities to motor skills and cognitive functions. We all navigate life with different strengths and challenges. When we design with digital accessibility in mind, we create features and foster interactions that recognize and adapt to this dynamic spectrum of abilities accommodating both high capabilities and various ability impairments.1
The crucial role of ability in behavior change
According to Fogg's Behavior model, a user's behavior change depends on 3 factors: whether the user is sufficiently motivated, has the ability to act, and whether an adequate prompt is provided.2 According to Fogg's model, even if a user has low motivation, we can still strive for behavior change if the ability is high (meaning it is easy to accomplish).3 Above all 3, as designers, we directly influence the user's ability. Essentially, when user experience (UX), user interface (UI), and product designers create features, they define their interaction complexity through affordances and visual cues. This means the more complex product features are the The greater range of ability we ask from the user.
The question then becomes: How can we guarantee that our users possess the necessary abilities to interact with our product? The answer is complex; we could opt for user training or provide them with tools. However, both solutions present challenges, as many people tend to resist learning new or overly complicated things.3 Instead, we turn to the only option that we can actually control: We amplify users' abilities by decreasing the system's complexity. Decreasing complexity means making things simple, but more importantly, easy to use,2 with low time investment, and low physical and mental effort for the user. Meaning that users should be able to interact with the product with the abilities they already possess.
Oftentimes, when we look to design seamless interactions, we base our decisions on good usability practices and user testing. But, we fail to consider the ability spectrum. So, we assume everyone has the same type and level of ability, and fail to account for any deviation. As a result, we end up creating digital products that are intuitive for some but create a digital barrier for others. By failing to take into account various types of abilities, we inadvertently diminish the capabilities of certain users, hindering the potential for behavior change within a group.
Here is where accessibility plays a crucial role. At its core, Accessibility does not only focus on making products easy to use, (as usability does) it makes sure they are usable for everyone. Accessibility amplifies the diverse spectrum of abilities by providing flexibility. For example, it allows individuals to navigate a website according to their specific needs using features such as keyboard navigation and voice commands. This ensures an inclusive approach to behavior change, leaving no one behind.
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Design as an ability amplifier rather than a barrier
Let's say we want to encourage students to learn history. We have understood the student's motivations and barriers and found that the best alternative is to develop an interactive website full of readable content. We develop an amazing website and conduct user testing to ensure usability. We feel secure as there are indications that we are on track for success, however, we have failed to recognize that there are students with different abilities such as dyslexia, for whom reading long text places barriers.
In this scenario, the student with dyslexia will try to read through the content, but the visual clutter, lack of adequate font formatting, and low screen reader compatibility will have a big cognitive toll that will lead to frustration and hinder the student’s abilities. In addition to this, the lack of consideration could lead the student to feel left out, affecting their confidence and their motivation. If we turn back to Fogg's model, the website is placing unintentional mental and cognitive barriers that affect 2 out of the 3 factors required, consequently, behavior change cannot happen.
Design can be a barrier, but can also be an amplifier. By carefully considering accessibility requirements and designing for people with all kinds of abilities we can harness the power of design to create an inclusive experience. What makes it compelling is that oftentimes designing features meant to benefit one group ends up benefiting a much wider group of people.4 That is the case of closed captioning, which was originally incorporated into videos to amplify the abilities of people with hearing impairments, but it ended up also helping people who have a situational disability like impairment in a noisy environment.
Returning to our example, if we were to go back in time and prioritize accessibility during the initial design of the educational tool, we would not only take into account the needs of students with dyslexia, but we would also incorporate considerations for other learning disabilities. As a starting point, we should use a dyslexia-friendly font, we ensure color contrast and screen reader compatibility. We must also adjust and format content to make sure we use clear and hierarchical headings, break up content into short paragraphs, and use concise sentences. This way, we amplify the ability to learn for our student who has dyslexia, but at the same time, we have empowered others like students with ADHD, ASD, and even students with visual impairments.
Accessibility inside the behavioral design process
The benefits of accessibility inside behavior change are clear, it helps us to avoid design barriers and drive behavior change, but it also helps build an inclusive digital experience. Regardless, accessibility is often neglected, it is still suffering from a lack of widespread awareness and the people who know about it perceive it as a complex and daunting task. Above all, in the fast-paced world of digital products, tight deadlines and limited resources are the main obstacles to accessibility. Overcoming these challenges requires a cultural shift within the design community, where we can recognize the need for accessibility and its benefits.
In summary, as we delve into the world of behavioral design, we should recognize accessibility not as a constraint and obstacle inside our design process but as an essential aspect that drives positive behavior change for all. Only by recognizing that we must design for a broad range of abilities, we can design products that are not placing barriers in users' abilities they are amplifying them.
1. (WAI), W. W. A. I. (2023, November). Introduction to web accessibility. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/accessibility-intro/#what
2. Fogg, B. (2023, December 5). Behavior model. behavior model. https://behaviormodel.org/
3. Fogg BJ. A behavior model for persuasive design. In: Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Persuasive Technology. 2009. p. 1–7.
4. Reid, B. E. (2022). The curb-cut effect and the perils of accessibility without disability. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4262991
About the Author
Maricela Arizaga is a Senior UX Designer at The Decision Lab, bringing her expertise to the crossroads of strategy and creativity in the realm of digital product creation. A steadfast advocate for accessibility and inclusive design, she is dedicated to sculpting a digital landscape that combines innovation with inclusivity, driven by her conviction that outstanding design should be accessible to all.
Prior to her role at The Decision Lab, Maricela led UX product development in a global context across Travel, Retail, Automotive, and Healthcare industries. Her exceptional work has earned her usability awards, underscoring her commitment to creating user experiences that stand out.