On Designing for Accessibility and Usability During a Pandemic by@juliahintz

On Designing for Accessibility and Usability During a Pandemic

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Julia Hintz

Julia Hintz is the lead designer for the technology company Xayn (xayn.com). She has a degree in Media Design.

The social restrictions of the pandemic have made the job of website and app developers—and user experience (UX) designers—more difficult.

As 2021 progresses, designers will have a tough path to navigate in getting usable feedback from consumers to make sure websites and apps are not only staying on top of user needs and industry trends, but also to ensure that websites are truly accessible.

Accessibility is the word of the year for 2021

Accessibility has become a key trend driven by the needs of consumers who are spending more time on their mobile devices. In fact, more than half of all time spent on the internet is spent on mobile devices.

For websites, mobile-first thinking has led to UX designers to put all the key information on one page so that users simply have to scroll.

Users don’t want to have to click through multiple subpages to get the information they need.

This is especially important for mobile users who prefer to only use one hand when navigating on their devices.

The accessibility trend extends beyond simplifying navigation. For users with visual disabilities and older users with age-related sight issues, UX designers have increased attention to a wide variety of visual aspects for the websites and apps they create.

To ensure usability by the broadest range of users, the interfaces for websites and apps must incorporate color schemes that are easily viewed by people who are color blind.

Designers must also make sure that users with varied abilities when it comes to sight can differentiate between foreground and background colors, shades, and other elements. 

Other visual factors for attention include the size of fonts and icons on apps and websites—are these big enough for people to read on their smartphones? Is it easy for mobile users to tap on a single button with their thumb?

To offer the best experience possible, website and app designs must also ensure that users can distinguish which elements are buttons, which are fields, and where the calls to action are on a page or screen.

(And we're really only scratching the tip of the accessibility iceberg here... What would it take to create a website that is truly, sincerely, 100% accessible to ALL possible users, everywhere in the world..? A big question, worth considering.)

Improving customer loyalty through customizable options

Another trend that’s important for 2021 is customization capabilities. Allowing some customization allows for a more personal connection to develop between the customer and the business.

There will never be a single way that customers use a digital platform.

When a person has the ability to customize their experience with a website or app and they spend time creating their own unique experience, it forges a stronger bond between them and the product. 

The biggest thing to watch for with regards to customization is deciding how much the user should be able to tinker with the product.

While it may result in a more loyal customer, too much customization could cause users to be overwhelmed with an abundance of choices and options, or in the worst case, they might even break something.

Getting usable feedback is the biggest challenge for 2021

The biggest challenge that UX designers are facing today is getting real, valuable feedback from users.

In pre-pandemic times, website and app designers would often conduct in-person interviews with users. While interviews have been useful for finding out about pain points and what a user needs based on what they want to achieve by using a certain product, a company doesn’t usually get a complete picture of how the user interacts with the website or app.

In recent years, shadowing became more important -- observing how users naturally interacted with a product. The designers would go to the customer and would observe how they performed tasks using the website or app as part of their normal daily life. For example, this could involve a designer following a user as they ride the subway to work, testing the operation of an application under imperfect cell service conditions or as the consumer tries to use it with one hand while standing on the escalator and holding onto the railing.

The accompaniment of users as they performed operations was crucial for designers to see their facial expressions. Where were the points that they stopped and looked confused? What sorts of things made them happy or made a process easier for them? Of course, when the pandemic hit, UX designers couldn’t have these in-person interactions anymore.

Designers have gone back to doing video interviews in the field and using programs that track user eye movements. These may not be perfect, but they are still valuable when it comes to gathering real-world feedback from customers about their user experience.

Unfortunately, interviews aren’t always the best way to understand what users want from an app or website.

A designer might ask “Would you use this specific feature?” The customer might respond yes in the moment, but that doesn’t mean they would actually need it or use it if the option was given to them.

So, another big challenge is in balancing which features or functionalities people “say” they want, with what they’ll actually use on a regular basis.

Involving users during a pandemic

Getting feedback from users about their experiences with a website or app cannot just stop because of the pandemic.

Of course, not being able to shadow users means that UX designers are working with severely sub-optimal feedback.

But: any feedback is better than none.

How might companies make up for the loss of real-world UX feedback during a global pandemic? 

Get users involved early on.

The most important thing to remember is that the earlier a company gets users involved in the design process, the easier it will be to ensure a satisfying user experience later on.

Even the most promising digital platform or product won’t catch on in the marketplace if customers don’t enjoy using it. The more usable and accessible a company can make its website or app, the broader the audience it will reach.

— Make the most of video interviews.

Since video interviews with users will be the way feedback is acquired for the foreseeable future, UX designers will need to get as much useful info as possible from these.

This will require that interviews be done via video, so that the designer can see the visual expressions of the user. Designers can get better feedback by making the user feel more at ease, which requires framing the discussion more as a casual chat and less as a formal interview.

If a user is more technologically savvy, designers can have them share their screen as they run through a test scenario. If users don’t know how to share their screen, designers should have users talk their way through each step of a process.

As people spend increasing amounts of time online—particularly on their mobile devices—it’s up to UX designers to ensure the usability of websites and apps for a broad range of consumers.

By using the above tips for getting the most value out of user interviews and by meeting the desire for accessibility and customization, designers can ensure that companies’ digital products attract and delight customers while keeping them coming back for more. 

About the author: I'm Julia Hintz: lead designer for the search alternative Xayn. I have a degree in Media Design, and a certificate in Digital Product Design. Prior to joining Xayn, I worked as a freelancer for a few years, and before that, I served as art director for an explanatory video creation company called junge meister . I specialize in UX research and UI design!

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by Julia Hintz @juliahintz.Julia Hintz is the lead designer for the technology company Xayn (xayn.com). She has a degree in Media Design.
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