Molly Watt is determined to change how the world works, especially the online one, through inclusive design. Molly is included in the Disability Power 100 list 2018 of Britain’s most influential disabled people, but she faced many challenges growing up.
Born deaf, she also began to lose her sight as a teenager and was told she would be blind in her thirties because of Usher syndrome, a progressive condition with no cure.
At school she was mocked and bullied because of her condition. At university, Molly quit in frustration because nothing was done to make her course accessible, either online or in lectures. Even her local supermarket turned her down for part time work as they assumed she could hear nothing and see nothing.
“Never tell me I can’t”
Today at 25 she is an accomplished public speaker, runs her own charity and has written several books. She also runs her own usability and accessibility consulting group and gives advice to companies such as Apple on how to make their products easier to use, not just for people with sensory impairments, but for everyone.
She also works with Swedish IT consulting company Sigma and recently came to Parliament with Chris Bush, who leads their experience design team, to talk about inclusive design and why it matters to everyone.
Apart from her grit and determination, Molly says technology has been her saviour, helping her turn her life around and become more independent.
"I was born deaf so that’s how I experience the world, but all my early formative experiences were those of a sighted person. I’m a visual person, so I use assistive technology to try to regain as much of my sight as possible."
Seeing the world through the end of a straw
Molly compares her 5 per cent sight in one eye to looking through a straw and handed round devices for us to wear that mimic the limitations of her sight. It's quite a revelation and makes me wonder how she manages at all.
The level of concentration required to absorb information rapidly becomes tiring. Molly says that migraines, sore eyes and exhaustion are routine for her, but it's just become part of life.
“The latest digital hearing aids are nothing like the analogue ones I had at school,” says Molly. “I remember the first time I put them on I heard leaves rustling in the park and birds singing.”
Molly is able to connect her devices such as her Apple Watch to the hearing aids and use them together to navigate streets and cities, she now has spatial awareness and directional sound, can communicate in small groups, and is able to have conversations on the phone.
Yet despite the advances in tech, Molly says that much of the world is excluded from people with disabilities. “It’s all well and good having these tools, but they just expose how so much that’s designed in the online world is not inclusive.”
Inclusive design is not only for the minority
“Most designers and developers believe that building products and services with accessibility in mind is for the minority. My goal is to dismiss that thought and educate on how accessibility can benefit all and in turn make online more inclusive. Accessibility means enablement for us all.”
To Molly, accessibility is more than ticking boxes on a checklist, it's about real people, grey areas, and smarter solutions. Every design decision has the potential to include or exclude users. It’s worth clarifying that inclusive design is a process, a way of including and learning from people with a range of needs and ways of interacting with the world, and using these insights to build in joined-up thinking and make products truly usable and open to all.
Remove barriers at the beginning not the end
It’s the difference between designing a watch that can be used with ease, whether you're fully sighted or blind or taking a standard watch and adding braille. When accessibility issues are dealt with like an add-on, it's actually too late. Inclusive design is proactive and rethinks ideas so that barriers don’t exist in the first place.
Accessibility on the other hand is about meeting a set of standards to help make websites, apps and so on work for people with disabilities and the aids (assistive technology) they use. They are both important.
Molly says it's a must to distinguish between people who are born with a disability to those who acquire a disability later. “People assume as I’m deafblind that I use auditory text or screen readers. I don’t. I would rather increase the text size or zoom in to read. About 95 per cent of legally blind people like me still have some degree of vision and we want to use it."
"But tech developers often assume that once screen readers are integrated into the platform, their products are accessible. Disability is not black and white, people manifest their disabilities with different behaviours. For instance, no two deafblind people are the same.”
Molly hands over to Chris, who shares his findings on usability and accessibility.
It’s not only about ticking off a checklist
“Organisations tend to think of meeting accessibility as ticking off a checklist, attaining compliance, and meeting legal requirements,” says Chris. “But if you look at exemplars of inclusive design they're based on user needs, they’ve researched what people are trying to do.”
Complying with accessibility standards is important but it only goes so far. Our needs change with time. Disabilities can be temporary like a broken arm, affect us gradually or depend on the situation. Inclusive design anticipates how our interactions with the world shift.
It’s about considering age, physical and cognitive capabilities, as well the environments where we use technology. For example when we can only use one hand while carrying grocery bags or we need help in the dark and rely on glasses but cannot find them.
Good accessibility means good design
“It’s rare to find organisations that seek out users who have real challenges accessing content, yet the insights they gain from them can benefit all users,” says Chris.
“When you build a website, app or software for people who are usually left out of the design process, you make life easier for everyone. Good accessibility means good design. Practicing inclusive design should make products more accessible, they work hand in hand.”
For instance, websites with poor colour contrast of fonts are not only hard to read for people with visual impairments, they’re hard for anyone to read when there is glare on a screen or eyes are tired.
Crowded pages with too much content are hard for dyslexics to deal with, but they also create a poor experience for anyone who needs information in a hurry, who is distracted or doesn’t speak English as their first language.
The ‘average user’ doesn’t really exist
By thinking about all kinds of people and situations at the beginning of a project, it’s possible to design in a diverse number of ways people can use technology to set their own preferences and adapt them as life changes. Good inclusive design looks at business processes, user experience, data architecture and the technology to make sure they work well together, creating a positive experience that's open to all.
“The one thing we all want despite our varying needs", says Molly, “is to be included.”
New regulations will impact Parliament
New regulations will mean that all new public sector websites published after 22 September this year will need to meet certain accessibility standards and existing websites such as parliament.uk will have to comply by September 2020.
We'd like to thank Molly and Chris for talking to us about their experiences and for their insights in building inclusive technology.
GDS has published some useful inclusive design tips and guidance.