Podcast | Why your persona spectrum should include people with disabilities

Jean
Shin

Director, Strategy & Content | Podcast Host of Mobile Interactions Now

20 min podcast
Regine Gilbert

In this episode, we’re joined by Regine Gilbert. As an Industry Assistant Professor at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, Regine teaches inclusive design and leads accessibility research projects. With growing populations with disabilities, inclusive design is playing a bigger role in how digital experiences are designed and evaluated by brands and their users. Here’s why.

Podcast transcript

Jean:

Regine, welcome to the show. I'm delighted to have you on the show and discuss how businesses can improve their user experience by applying more of inclusive design thinking, a topic of growing relevance these days. But first, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you've been doing lately?


Regine:

Yeah. First, thank you for having me on the show. My current position is at New York University in the Tandon School of Engineering as part of the integrated design and media program. So I'm an industry assistant professor. I teach user experience design, voice user interface design, and assistive technology courses. This is actually my second year as a full-time faculty member. Previous to that, I was an adjunct and running my own consulting business where I was doing UX design and accessibility workshops.


Jean:

Awesome. Well, just to get us started, because I think people here, especially the business audience, when they hear inclusive design, they know the meaning of it, but they don't exactly know what it really means for them. Can you just start us out with what you actually mean when you're saying inclusive design?


Regine:

Yeah. So, I mean, you can ask five different designers what inclusive design means, and they'll all give you different meanings of what it means. I like to refer to Kat Holmes who wrote an amazing book called Mismatched Design, she says that we don't really know what inclusion is, but we know what exclusion is, we know what it means to lead people out. And in essence, that's what inclusion is, right? You want to make sure that you as a business owner are providing your services or tools or products to as many people as possible, right? You want to stay in business. So in order to do that, having things made in an inclusive way is really helpful for your business.


Jean:

Does it matter what that context it is? How is it experienced in today's digital context?


Regine:

I like to ask a question of people, have you ever wanted to go somewhere and you couldn't get in? And how did that make you feel that? That feeling that you had when you really wanted to go somewhere and you couldn't get in, that's what happens all the time with websites, with services and especially for people who are in the disability community, right? That feeling of, "I want to get in and I can't."


Jean:

That's actually a very relatable way to think about this.


Regine:

I think it's digital spaces, I think it's physical spaces. I think that we are now in a world where you could have a website and anybody can enter that website from anywhere in the world, right? And so is the language that you're using simple enough for somebody who may not be a native speaker of that language? So when we're thinking about inclusion, it's not only from an accessibility perspective for folks with disabilities, but it's also from a perspective of, we live in this global world now, there are certain colors that you should not use in certain countries, there are certain words that you shouldn't use certain countries, right? And when you're thinking about your business and your products and your services and who you're offering it to, you do have to think about everyone, which can be overwhelming, but you can take it in little pieces.


Jean:

Having that kind of…obvious set of things that you have to think about when you're designing for certain people, but taking that into a more disciplined method, because we're talking about a whole design process where professionals are involved, try to make this more disciplined, systematic so that they can just not forget as a part of the design process. Is there a way to do this better, a more disciplined way?


Regine:

The classic design answer is, it depends, right? Because it does, I feel that context is everything. In my past life, I was a project manager and everything was about the triple constraint of resources, cost and time. And that is a triple constraint that every business owner relates to. Do I have enough resources? Do I have the time? And do you have what you need in order to complete the task?

And a lot of times the answer is no, this is where planning comes into play, right? So if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. And I feel that thinking about things in a long term, creating that roadmap for what you could do in the future is super helpful for a business. I used to be a project manager in my past life so I'm somebody who thinks about things from, what are the risks really on top of these different things? So I think that it depends on what people have the capability to do at the time.


Jean:

One of the keys is to make it easy, we're talking about making it easy for designers to actually do it. For example, a few days ago, I was actually in a typical persona jam session and stupidly enough, we are tackling, hey, rather than just having one archetype persona, we can have a spectrum of personas, let's try to go for a set of personas so that we start addressing that nuance difference, that little bit of a difference that makes a lot of difference for different types of users.

So, when I hear how we can approach the inclusive design topic, "Oh, does this mean the spectrum has to be broader, even?" Who got excluded? I’m like "Oh yeah, it hurts right here," because that's exactly what is happening with people who are not included in that persona set. What would you say to that, this is sort of like a cry for help.


Regine:

No, what I would say, and again I'm based in the United States and thinking about the fact that in the United States, one in four people have a disability of some sort. And if you could think about your general population and understand that if you have four personas, one of those personas should have disabilities included, right? Because that's what is reflective of where you are from. And it all depends too, again, on big businesses versus smaller. They know nothing about inclusion. They know nothing about making their website accessible. And then you have big businesses who know some things, but don't really know how to execute it, right? They're aware that they need to do stuff, but not fully aware of how to execute.

And I think it takes an understanding of what problems do we have now that exists? And then, how can we fix what we need to fix? But also then, how are we incorporating this new way of thinking into our existing workflow? I've seen it done well, and I've seen it done not so well. I've seen it done well from the perspective of people, especially from a design team perspective, they sit down and plan, "We're going to train people on accessibility. We're going to, in essence, divide and conquer the different parts of what needs to be done, not just for the design team, but the marketing team needs to work on this piece."


Jean:

You mentioned one in four in the States have some kind of a disability.


Regine Gilbert:

Yes. In general, there are four areas to consider. So visual, so people could have no vision or blindness. People could be deaf or hard of hearing. They could have cognitive issues or motor issues. So those are the four areas to consider is visual, hearing, cognitive and motor.


Jean:

In practice, what do you see as being addressed quicker?


Regine:

I mean, you have to address a little bit of all of them because there's different things to consider. I think a lot of folks feel overwhelmed when thinking like, "Okay, somebody who's blind wants to come visit my website. What does this mean?" Well, what does the layout of your web page look like? Does it make sense? Or do you have a bunch of moving things? A bunch of moving things for somebody with cognition issues is troublesome. Have a chapter in my book called If It's Annoying, It's Probably Not Accessible. So when you land on a page and things just keep moving so quickly, it's not really good for anybody.


Jean:

I happen to work with a lot of tech industry people with whom the conversation goes in the direction more of how we can shape the user experience…because not every user will play with some of the new ways to do things that we believe will eventually be easier. There is that bit of a play between the user and the creator, the creators need to see if it's really working or not, it's kind of two-way streets. But I think it's a problem that we can solve by actually understanding different groups of users, maybe experiencing it differently.  I think there is a debate to be had about whether that's going to tamper with innovation, what you could do or could not do, which might not be satisfactory.

I mean, this triggers another question that was in my mind actually, do you see the thrust of the conversation changing in a way that, this is something like a problem that's worth solving seriously in terms of a business outcome as well?


Regine:

Yeah. People are missing out to be honest, businesses are missing out on some money because they're not making things as inclusive and accessible as it could be. There are over a billion people on the planet with disabilities. And a lot of times when it comes to inclusion and accessibility, it's oftentimes an afterthought. And so thinking about it from the very beginning, you're already broadening the amount of people who will have access to your business, right? And so that in essence will make your business more accessible to everyone.

So what I've seen in the last especially five years, I've seen a lot more interest in accessibility, I've seen a lot more people who are working toward making things accessible. Again, previous to my current position, I was doing consulting and it was busy. People are really interested in making things more accessible. Part of the push was a bit of a negative in the United States, people started suing for money, right? So if a website wasn't accessible, especially to folks in the blind and low vision communities, they would sue because it's against the law. And so not every country has laws that are applicable for that kind of thing.


Jean:

What differences have you seen on mobile devices versus desktop?


Regine:

I don't really think I've seen a difference between, because so many things are designed in a responsive way so a lot of the problems aren't problems. So if somebody can not navigate a page, which is typically the problem, or let's say, for example, this is years ago, a company got sued because they were putting the discount number into an image, it was baked in. If you can go on a website and you can highlight the text, then that typically is readable by a screen reader. And there were discounts put into images where it wasn't available to people with a screen reader, nor was the description of that image saying that there was a discount. And therefore anybody who was using assistive technology was excluded from that discount, right? And here in the US, that's against the law to exclude.

So yeah, I've seen some major changes and I'm very hopeful that we'll continue to see, because as especially in the US people are aging and we are going to reach a point in about 15 years, 14 years at this point where there will be more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 65. So what that means is that text is going to need to be bigger on things because people's vision changes, captions are going to need to be added to almost everything, because people are not going to hear as well. If these are just things that happen as people age, if we incorporated these accessibility pieces now then we wouldn't have all this work later.


Jean:

So I totally feel the heat when you have those negative examples. But have you seen anybody who's really doing it pretty decently well?


Regine:

I mean, the examples that I think of are the people who work in accessibility, so like equalentry.com, they're an accessibility consultant. DEQUE, D-E-Q-U-E, they do great work. They have classes, they have a DEQUE university to teach people about accessibility. And when it comes to businesses, I don't like to name names because things could change by the time things go, but I know webame.org is a great organization that if people are looking to see accessible sites and what they look like when they're really accessible, those are just three that are off the top of my head.


Jean:

That's awesome. Thanks for sharing those examples, I'll definitely check them out because it's just such an obvious thing, conceptually, and you understand this, but by the time you actually try to apply it to what you're doing, it's just hard, because I think that says how big of a problem this really is, what should it look like?


Regine:

Yeah. Now that I'm thinking about it, I would tell people, especially business owners, if you're just trying to get an understanding of what this means, everybody has a mobile device, on everyone's mobile device in their settings there is accessibility, whether you have an Android phone or an iPhone. So I would tell people, go get your phone and go to accessibility and just look to see what the different settings are that people can change things to. And some people even do it without realizing they've done it, and these are things to consider with your business as well, are you providing some of these features?


Jean:

So, that actually brings up one question I was hesitant to ask you, because last couple of decades, we are starting to see a lot more digital experience and new technology, mostly on mobile because that's where change is happening really quickly. And I'm wondering, as a professional who is looking at these new mobile-based interactions, do you think it's getting easier, the technology that is being developed is somehow making it easier to address accessibility issues? Or is it becoming more complicated, difficult to address?


Regine:

Yeah, I think that there's a lot of more awareness around accessibility. I'm somebody who's currently researching inclusion and accessibility in the extended reality space, virtual reality and augmented reality and what does it mean to even be accessible in those spaces? I think when it comes to mobile and web, we have a great idea of what needs to be done, it's just people need to start to execute a lot more. But I think when it comes to emerging technologies, such as augmented reality and virtual reality, that we have some ways to go in terms of these are newer technologies and then how are we incorporating inclusion and accessibility? The best way to do that is to make sure that we're... There's a phrase, "Nothing about us without us," that is oftentimes used in accessibility. And so how are we making sure to include those with disabilities in development and design, hiring more people?

I'm part of an organization called XR Access, which was started by Cornell Tech and the whole mission of the organization is to promote accessibility in these types of immersive and new technologies. So there is work being done. There are people who are working on policy around these issues, so that things are embedded into making sure that accessibility and inclusion is embedded into the policies that are being made around this technology. So there's lots of different areas where things are happening.


Jean:

Well, any analogy you want to draw? Because I remember working in the authentication technology space where the security was being baked into some of the experience by default, that kind of movement kind of helped bring about the awareness. It's like, okay, the users won't because they can't really see it and you cannot wait for them, you have to somehow bake it into whatever they are using or experiencing. And the whole notion of somehow by default embedding all those things became kind of a mainstream when it comes to security topic. Do we see something similar that is happening with the accessibility topic?


Regine:

Yeah, I think it is becoming a lot more mainstream in that there's so many different plugins now that people use to check things on, especially designers. There's just a lot more conversation around it. I'm pretty active on Twitter and so there's a lot more talk around accessibility, which has been great, but there's still so much work to be done because no matter what society anybody is part of, folks with disabilities are oftentimes left behind. And so it's time that people start, if you are a business owner, hire people with disabilities so that you can make sure your products are being developed in the best way possible, because you have people in house that have an understanding of people's lived experiences, right> and so there's progress, but there's so much more to be done still.