Understanding the Permanent, Temporary and Situational Barriers to Accessibility in UX Design

When you think of someone using the internet, who do you see? What are their surroundings? We often have a particular image in mind that may reflect scenarios that are the most common to us.

There may be situational circumstances that don’t initially come to mind, but user experience (UX) designers are expected to consider the small details in design, open their perspectives beyond the common circumstances and create products that are accessible to everyone. While it’s impossible to think of every possible scenario, UX designers must work diligently to consider as many as they can.

From online surveys to subscriptions, UX design is all around us. While we may not recognize all of our satisfactory user experiences, we tend to remember the experiences that weren’t positive—like a poorly designed website with no navigation buttons and extremely small fonts. Prioritizing the user is key for UX designers, which is an essential reason why accessibility should be deeply understood and at the core of all designs.

Broadening our understanding of user accessibility

According to UX Magazine, “accessibility is the measurement of a user’s abilities to use products and services” and incorporating accessibility into a design allows users with various abilities and disabilities to navigate and interact with a product. While many people may equate accessibility with users who endure permanent visual, motor, auditory, speech or cognitive disabilities, accessibility also extends to people who experience temporary and situational limitations.

To implement inclusive designs, UX designers must consider the various circumstances of accessibility, including permanent disabilities—such as an individual having only one arm—temporary limitations—like a user with a sprained wrist—and situational barriers, including a user holding their child in one arm (sometimes experts swap situational and temporary disabilities based on their definition). Each of these circumstances, while broadly different, creates the same limitation of using one hand when engaging with a product. Although this example highlights accessibility based on the abilities of touch, there are also people who experience disabilities related to sight, hearing, cognition and speech. While temporary and situational barriers are not permanent disabilities, they affect the user behavior as if they were one.

As accessibility impacts everyone at some point in time, companies should continue to consider integrating the proper user needs for the individuals interacting with their products. Implementing accessibility not only enhances the user experience for individuals with permanent, temporary and situational disabilities, but it also enhances business participation. With “one in five Americans experiencing a learning disability, the Department of Labor also says there are 33 million people in the working age in the U.S. with disabilities and only 18.5 million of them are employed.” Companies making the extra effort to incorporate accessible design in their business and products can maximize the ease of users regardless of the context of their disability.

Tips for integrating accessibility in your design

While there are many strategies to incorporate accessibility into your designs, the following four tips can serve as starting points to consider when creating a more accessible product or service for your users who have permanent, temporary or situational disabilities.

  1. Expand the Definition of Accessibility With Your Team. While accessibility may have different definitions, it’s key for your company to align on what accessibility means for your product or service. It’s important to have deep conversations, exchange ideas and think of new ways to consider the common barriers of accessibility in your design for users who have permanent, temporary and situational disabilities.
  2. Understand That Your Experiences May Not Be the Experiences of Your Users. When developing a design, it’s essential to have empathy toward your users and familiarize yourself with the various limitations to accessibility. Oftentimes, products have negative user experience due to designers making decisions based on their personal experiences and excluding other user realities. Taking the extra initiative to think outside of the box and create personas—fictional characters to represent a user type—that embody the array of users that encounter different experiences can result in a successful product.
  3. Integrate Diverse Perspectives in Your Brainstorming Sessions. As colleagues continue to brainstorm and exchange thoughts on certain designs, it is essential to include individuals with various outlooks on user experience. Having more perspectives allows for additional feedback on how to create a product that is accessible in multiple scenarios. When these conversations don’t occur, the UX design may exclude some users and experience failure for their intended targets.
  4. Create a Product That Is Accessible for Everyone. For designers, it’s essential to apply the permanent, temporary and situational limitations in every aspect of design and understand how you can meet the diverse needs of users. Some digital tools UX designers can use to address the barriers of accessibility include built-in features such as screen readers, subtitles, high contrast mode, voice control, page zoom, switch controls, speak selected texts, keyboard access and focus indicators.

How accessibility is essential for companies and the future

At the end of the day, accessibility is good business. Working to meet your users’ needs can create a positive brand experience with your business and can also showcase how your company is considerate to those enduring accessibility challenges. While UX designers and companies won’t be able to solve every experience for every individual user, being aware of a new need helps us understand how to create a better design moving forward. Expanding our perceptions of accessibility and understanding our users’ abilities in various situations will help create a more inclusive and accessible reality for a wide range of users. Building accessibility within your product can also create more flexibility in how your content adapts to new technology in the future. While this definition of accessibility may be new terrain for some, it’s important for companies to navigate this new frontier of permanent, temporary and situational disabilities to better the experiences of all users.

AccessibilityDesignUser Experience