Home Empathy, Form, and Accessibility: 3 New Tenets of User-Centered Design

Empathy, Form, and Accessibility: 3 New Tenets of User-Centered Design

Just for a moment, imagine what it’s like to be sight-impaired. You pull a box of pancake mix from your kitchen pantry. But you hesitate. Didn’t you buy that box years ago? What if it’s expired? The use-by date isn’t embossed or written in braille, so you can’t read it.

Fortunately, someone else can.

After grabbing your smartphone, you tell Google Assistant to open Be My Eyes. You snap pictures of the box’s sides, top, and bottom. In 45 seconds, you’re connected with a volunteer who gives you the good news: Pancakes are on the menu. Not only that, but the volunteer behind the screen will also be able to tell you when it’s time to give the pancake a flip.

Be My Eyes is a shining example of how designers can use technology to enhance the lives of all users — no matter how they might interact with the product. Savvy design does more than bring about 100-fold investment returns. It also celebrates humanity by helping users with different needs and abilities live more richly, capably, and happily than ever before.

Designing for better lives

User-centered technologies share a few things in common: a commitment to empathy, form that follows function, and thoughtful accessibility features. Here’s how to build each into your next design:

1. Map out your users’ emotions.

Before writing a single line of code or creating your first wireframe, think: Who are you designing for? What motivates them? What are they thinking as they use your product? Almost three-quarters of users expect companies to not only build useful products, but also understand the needs and expectations associated with those products. Great user experience designers know that the closer they can get to understanding those invisible forces of influence, the better they can design something that connects with users on an emotional level.

How, though, can you discover what moves your target users? We use empathy mapping and user interviews to understand and anticipate users’ needs. And more often than not, we learn that we don’t know our users nearly as well as we thought we did at the start of the activity.

2. Use form as a function shepherd.

Aesthetics matter in every product, but they should serve a purpose beyond looking good. Use form to guide the user to the correct function. In perceptual psychology, this process is known as affordance. A coffee mug, for example, doesn’t need a user manual. Its shape alone makes clear that it’s designed to be picked up by the handle, which provides the function of avoiding being burned by the ceramic that’s been heated by scalding coffee.

Think about how each element of your product provides clues to the product’s overall function. A good place to start is digital buttons. Do they look like they should be tapped to navigate elsewhere in your app or site? Even if they are attractive, is their destination vague? Before going live, conduct observational user testing to ensure end users get the message from your design choices. Prompt users to complete a task, and watch how they naturally interact with your design.

3. Make your design more accessible.

 Not long ago, we designed a touch-screen kiosk for the city of San Francisco. To understand how to accommodate users who utilize wheelchairs or other assistive devices, we turned to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Ultimately, we chose to create a unique interface prompted by an “ADA Mode” button for those who needed touchable items to be lower in the interface.

Next time you’re designing, pull your user research out. Consider what features users might need your design to possess, such as language preferences, text-to-speech services, or device compatibility. Even a lack of Wi-Fi is still fair game for users in rural areas or users who can’t afford smartphones. The TripIt app solved a perennial pain point in travel tech by developing an itinerary feature that, when synced once, remains available to users offline.

Not everyone interacts with technology in the same way. Not everyone has five senses or a UX designer’s knack for navigating interfaces. But technology products still need to reach those individuals. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Designers can create truly life-changing products by focusing on users’ needs.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Tony Scherba
President and Founding Partner of Yeti LLC

Tony Scherba is the president and a founding partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco.

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