A Question of Intent: How Developing Ethical User Experience Design Practices can Push Humanity Forward

There seems to be a big debate around accessibility in the the UX (User Experience) community. Many professionals feel torn in the bid to design user experiences that are both aesthetically pleasing and accessible to everyone.

This has come to be called the Aesthetic-Accessibility Paradox.

In my role as senior UX designer, I have dealt with various instances where this paradox is an issue at the front and centre of a project.

One instance that is a called to mind is a project I worked on a while ago,  where I was confronted with a client who made a statement that completely took me by surprise, and immediately brought to mind this issue.

This project is for one of the top companies in South Africa- we were developing a dashboard for their users to navigate through over 100 different screens. This company’s systems have not been updated in more than 15 years and because of the technology gap in our country, particularly with users over the age of 45, a large portion of their target market, we decided to leverage some in-product prompts to help familiarise the user with the new interface.

During one of our weekly conference calls, the project manager on the client’s end thought that it was unnecessary to have these prompts saying, “Well, if they can’t figure it out they must be down-syndrome or r*tarded. And if that is the case, we don’t want them on the site anyway.”

I was so taken aback that I had to excuse myself from the call. As a woman of colour, I am confronted with ethical questions on a day-to-day basis. Most of the time, I am the only person of colour in the room. Yes, welcome to Cape Town. A lot of the time, I am the only woman in the room. I have found a way to navigate this career by reaching for empathy and curiosity in times where I could reach for the “race card” or the “feminist card”.

After gathering my thoughts, I was reminded why I love UX design. I love this job, this community, because it allows me to dive deep into human nature and figure out creative problem-solving techniques that will not only benefit the businesses I work with, but the people who interact with their products. And people….humans, including those who are older, or differently-abled. 

I pulled myself together and walked back into the conference room. With my “why” firmly in place I was able to discuss the situation in a neutral and calm way, choosing to approach the situation with curiosity by asking questions that prompted my client to think outside of his perspective, and take the users into consideration. 

One of the points that seemed to drive the client towards giving the go-ahead for this product tour was asking questions about how the client intended on handling any customer service calls when thousands of users from the aforementioned target group needed help in navigating the new interface. The client had not thought of the barrage of calls their company may receive, the man-power they would need to assist with the transition, the more intensive training that would need to be conducted with their existing customer service representatives, or how it could impact their business as a whole. Once we crunched some numbers, the client was able to see the value of having a product that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also offered ease-of-use.

You see, the Aesthetic-Accessibility Paradox, is not really a paradox. The one requirement I believe is necessary for successful user experiences, is empathy. Before visual design even enters the picture, we need to be thinking about the problems that all users, no matter their age, hearing or seeing capacity, would need us to solve. We can only do this by being vulnerable- by opening ourselves to considering other people’s lives, by “Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

We live in a world where people who are differently-abled struggle to access information with the same ease that most of us do. This is a systemic issue that continues to promote barriers between us, it also prevents people like this from being able to earn a living, learn and grow at the same rate and in the same capacity as most of us are privileged to. In South Africa,  those who are differently-abled are defined as having long-term or recurring physical, including sensory, or mental impairment which substantially limits their prospect of entry into or advancement in employment. According to STATSSA, 7.5% of the population has some form of ‘disability’ with only just under half of that number, actually employed. 

Technology is such an amazing instrument, it allows us to design the world around us to serve as tools to make our lives better. This means that with comparatively little effort, we can design systems that can put the power back into the hands of users who fall into this group.

Incorporating more varied accessibility options to the operating systems we build, the products, websites, and apps, does not have to be painful. A surgeon does not have to have cancer to remove a tumour, an architect doesn’t have to be in a wheelchair in order to design the built world in a way that is wheelchair accessible. In the same way, User Experience design calls for us as professionals to solve problems that all users may encounter including those who face problems we may not naturally experience.

To be empathetic does not mean you need to have experienced what someone else has, it calls for you to step outside of your perspective and consider how someone else experiences something, and the fun part comes next, figuring out amazing new ways for those problems to be solved!

The amazing Seth Godin, once said that with the advances of AI looming on the horizon, we have to start thinking about how we can remain relevant at the dawn of this new age. Tasks that require a step by step process may not be something humans can do as eloquently as AI, in fact, it is more and more probable that artificial intelligence will be able to do those particular tasks a thousand times better than a human can. 

But where we can continue to grow and expand humanity, will be in sectors where we can practice empathy, creativity and problem solving by humans, FOR humans.

For more from Sharné check out her blog.

Sharné Rustin

UX Queen in the North, Fiancé to Giantsbane, Mother of a Phoenix and Human to a mischievous feline. When Sharné is not working on a project, you can find her with a book in hand somewhere surrounded by trees.