Design choice is more than just about taste. It’s an accessibility issue.

This post was written as my contribution to Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).

You can find out more from the GAAD website or searching the #GAAD hashtag.

The Day Job

I spend a lot of time dealing with the technicalities of making stuff work with Assistive Technology (AT). If I’m honest even more time in meetings dealing with the organisational politics surrounding it and giving talks on the technicalities whys and wherefores of making stuff work with screen readers, magnifiers and other ATs like Dragon and Texthelp. This is probably pretty familiar stuff to many of my readers and colleagues. It’s recognisably accessibility work and it’s work that I am proud to do.

The Second Job

However, recently I have been spending some spare time as a contributor to the Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce for W3C and this has caused me to reflect on my own needs and preferences for using technology. I’ve long been passionate about UX and usability and talked about the overlap between the disciplines but I’m currently reading a lot on cognitive load.

I have dyslexia and whilst I do make use of AT it isn’t my main way of interacting with technology. Often I am just using a smartphone tablet or laptop and interacting with apps and websites.

Poor working memory and difficulties with sequencing play a significant role in making life challenging. Both individually and collectively they reduce my ability to deal with and make sense of information – cognitive load – or in my case overload.

Up until about 18 months ago I was a pretty happy guy.

I liked my apps I loved my iPhone, iPad and my Nexus and Windows 7 felt comfortable and familiar.

Metro changed everything.

The new Microsoft UI that debuted with Windows phone 7 was certainly different. I wanted to like it but the more I used it the more I hated it. From the day glow tiles and unfinished words running off the screen to the flatness of it. It was just plain hard to use, downright confusing. I avoid using windows 8 touch screen UI for the same reasons.

iOS7 makes me want to cry.

It may well be the most accessible mobile OS in terms of inbuilt AT but it is a real step backwards for users with cognitive difficulties such as dyslexia.

Johnny Ive won his battle against the skeuomorphs and the resulting iOS 7 is flat skinny and by turns blinding glaring white with poor contrast and skinny fonts. The UI is confusing – and frequently pulls the rug from underneath you. You may have been bored with “lickable buttons” book binders and leather textures but at least I could make out when something was a button or required action.

Studies have shown that iOS7 places a higher cognitive load on users than it’s predecessor. I make more mistakes, recover from them more slowly and feel tired from the stress of the extra effort of using it.

7.1 has added the ability to reduce the glare and make the buttons more obvious, it’s an improvement but I still find it easier to use the unfashionable iOS6.

The App ecosystem exacerbates and amplifies the problem.

App developers and web designers are also following the trend so that their products have a consistent look and feel. Everywhere I look is going flat and skinny and my heart sinks every time I see an update.

I am not saying all flat design is bad.

Great flat design can be simple clean and satisfying to use but a lot of flat design feels abusive to me as a user and who wants to use an app or service that makes you feel stupid?

Look back to the POUR principles of WCAG 2.0

The POUR Principles are: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust . The W3C explain the principles here
If I can’t make out whether something is a button or cannot read stuff I can’t operate it as intended.

My plea.

Please do the stuff to make your product accessible to ATs and then think about the cognitive load you are placing on your users when you choose colour schemes and icon sets – what you think of of as the design is for me and millions of others like me an accessibility issue. If you really want to go with a certain look and feel – make it the default and offer user the option to customise it to meet their needs.