Can UX Professionals Help Ease the Digital Divide and Design for More Diverse Users?

S. Andrew Crawford came to the UX field via the library world. For his talk at Madison+ UX 2014,Crawford insightfully discussed the digital divide, which is the barrier between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to technology. “The implications are many,” he says, “lack of access to technology becomes a debilitating circumstance. It stems from other significant social problems, including economic disparity, racism and ageism and mainly affects those who cannot afford technology, as well as those who live in rural areas.” Age is also a big factor in the digital divide, as those who design and program technology are generally in a younger cohort of the population.

Ann Scott, a Madison+ UX attendee who works as a developer for the State of Wisconsin, commented during a conference break that she encounters issues associated with the digital divide on a daily basis. It’s a tough issue, she notes, because it can be difficult to find and help those who need the services of her department the most. In fact, it isn’t even an option to apply for unemployment benefits in person anymore; one must do so online or via telephone. “I think that many designers are focused on the latest most cool technology,” says Scott, “and may be forgetting about a huge target population using older technology that may not support more modern code such as HTML5 or other add-ins required to make a page render correctly or to function at all.”

Scott recommends that those working to cross the digital divide consider using scalable fonts, colors that contrast sufficiently for users with eye troubles, and touch targets large enough for less nimble fingers to hit them.

Crawford says that the digital divide was traditionally seen as related to hardware, but this stance is evolving. Technology is becoming cheaper, more available, more powerful, and more a part of everyday life. Access to hardware is less of an issue; the focus is shifting from hardware to software. The primary burden of solving the issues of the digital design falls to the UX designer.

“The Web has its own language and some people don’t speak it,” he says. “We need to see that the lack of understanding is the new digital divide. This extends to icons like the house, the envelope, and the three-lined menu hamburger. The language has become the key barrier itself, and this is the challenge we face as digital designers. Do we cater to the needs of non-speakers? Do we expand our assumptions to embrace a broader perspective?”

Madison+ UX attendees memorably encountered a broader perspective on Friday thanks to a fascinating talk given by Kevin Jones. “I always find myself struggling for words when I introduce Kevin,” said conference co-organizer Jim Remsik. “Kevin is blind, has been blind since birth. Just a little bit of effort on our part as designers can make such a difference for those who are otherwise abled.”

Jones began his talk by turning the lights off and playing chess in the dark with vocal prompts only, giving audience members a sense of what it would be like to live in his world. “This game could go on for a while,” he said, “but the point is, chess is a very 2D thing, which is kind of the aim of the talk.”

“Watching/hearing Kevin Jones demonstrate what it’s like to interact with a device while blind made me realize how much us sighted-people rely on our eyes to give us information–and how much weaker our other senses can be as a result,” says Madison+ UX 2014 attendee Catrina Ahlbach. “I actually found it a bit difficult to keep up with his voice-over tool!”

Jones challenged UX professionals to consider the implications of designing in two and three dimensions, because anything they create has to be translated into 1D for users like himself. “There’s a quiet revolution here,” says Pamela Pavliscak. “Designing for diversity, once kind of a nice-to-have, is becoming the core at least among our clients. By including everyone, the experience becomes better at every level. And this trend just makes me happy, because it’s the right thing to do.”

“If you’re blind,” Jones says, “search is your friend. The first time that I visit a page, it’s usually a long process. Eventually I might figure out what I’m doing. Efficient and accessible are two different terms. People throw them together, but I think they should be separate.”

S. Andrew Crawford echoed Jones’ perspective when he asked fellow UXers to cultivate awareness of the vast array of users out there and address problems as they see them. “Seek solutions and share them with peers,” he says. “Have dialogues. Engage in conversations. Advocate and facilitate. Finally, understand our limitations. We can’t solve all of the social problems associated with the digital divide, but we can help by doing our job well and empower more people.”