Why has User Experience Design become Legal Experience Design?

Why has it been necessary for lawmakers to tell designers how to do their job? This is a question that is long overdue for discussion.
Posted by Gareth Ford Williams, on .

Dieter Rams once said,Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design”, and yet as a Head of UX for 11 years I have watched an industry sin repeatedly so much there are now legal frameworks in place to try to prevent sins happening.

The problem as I see it is that UX Designers don’t stop and think enough about what that job title actually means.

Starting with the literal “it is about designing experiences for users”. We can all buy into that.

We understand that the experience design part has to be emotionally and culturally aware, it has to also be buildable and robust, but when it comes to the “U” in “UX” things start to go very wrong.

What does that U stand for and why is it at the beginning? Users are what it is all about. Designing things that delight, inspire, enable, captivate, support… don’t make people have to work for their reward too much… but for whom?

“Users” is a word that relates to everyone. It’s not caveated in any way. It could be weighted culturally towards certain demographics because of the type of audience a product or service appeals to, but customers are customers.

The problem comes when the approach is one that actively segregates an audience. This is when I bring in the word “disability”.

A person can culturally identify as a “disabled person” or “neurodivergent” or “Deaf” etc, but a disability is not something someone has. Over 20% of every customer base has at least one permanent impairment, and the other 80% can have temporary impairments. If a designer hasn’t considered the wonderful diversity there is in the reality in which people live, then this creates barriers for a user, which disables them.

Impairment + Environment = Disability

When you consider that all digital environments are designed then it starts to become obvious that poorly designed environments that caveat the U in UX, with “except them”, are the causes for all disability experienced when using a digital service, be it software, website, application or game.

This is something called the social model of disability, and is something every UX Designer should understand. Whether they like it or not, they are the ones that determine whether something succeeds or fails, and by failure I am referring to causing disability.

This is why the Web is built the way it is. It is a standards-based platform and if you follow the standards, everyone, or as close to everyone as possible, can use it. The W3C determine those standards, and their living documentation strives to be holistic in its view of users’ experiences. Its a rather dry read but it is all very sensible stuff.

This is when the plan falls apart.

A concept is 100% inclusive at the start of a project because it is considered in abstract terms. We talk about the offering as well as the user objectives and outcomes. But when we start turning those ideas into concepts the dissection of the U in UX starts to happen. That 100% starts to erode because every decision either includes everyone, or it chips away at that percentage. It’s such a hard thing to avoid but this is where disability happens. It might not be intentional but that does not mean it isn’t happening, and we end up with…

User (except them) Experience Design.

Why this happens is complex and it has its roots in how we are brought up, what we are taught, how much empathy we retain as adults, but this is article is not concerned with the deeper reasons, conscious or unconscious, just with pointing out that if you follow product accessibility upstream it all stops with UX Design. If we are aware of this we, as designers, have it in our gift to turn this around.

The design industry is self-aware of this. I see more and more mention of Universal Design or Inclusive Design as disciplines. These are not disciplines but descriptions of what UX design is before designers add segregation to the U.

Disability is Proactive and Inclusion is Reactive.

If design is the cause of disability, then inclusion is the process by which design is encouraged to face up to what it has done.

This for me is why we are in the situation we are now in. The problem became so bad that lobby groups had to raise their voices and rightfully say, “stop actively discriminating against us”, and the lawmakers responded by saying, we understand what your dissection of the U in UX means from a moral standpoint, and all that sensible stuff in the W3C guidelines is now law.

This all happened because Design as an industry has historically shown it can not be trusted to think about morality and inclusion. In some of the laws they have even gone further to say that the outcomes for all users should not be based on compliance alone, but should be comparative. This isn’t universal as sometimes even the lawmakers can get it wrong. This is why have laws such as ADA, Section 508, EU Directive, Equalities Act and more.

Many designers complain about “compliance” impeding their creativity, but there is a certain irony in their lack of self-awareness that the actions of designers like themselves are the reasons these laws are there in the first place.

The thing that I always struggle with is that as designers we are taught to consider human characteristics, culture, and barriers. But when it comes into putting this into practice we fall short in appreciating the rich diversity of what it is to be a person. This is why Accessibility has become a separate discipline. This is a reaction focusing on the symptom and not the cause.

When we consider that we all experience barriers, then you can start looking at what Accessibility is and ask: why we don’t consider this stuff as core UX?

…and the list goes on.

The design industry’s difficulty with understanding its own discipline has turned this into a socio-political and legal issue, and for a long-term fix it needs to deal with the problem it has created in more fundamental ways.

So how do we find a path out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into? As designers, we are thinkers, questioners, shapers, and problem solvers. We have given ourselves a problem that isn’t linear and many minds will be needed to turn this around.

What can we practically do? Here are a few suggestions to get you out of the starting blocks.

  1. Read the Inclusive Design Principles — but just think of them as core UX Design Principles.
  2. If 20%+ of the audience can permanently experiences barriers, then include that 20% in all your core design research
  3. As the other 80% experience barriers because of the situation or environment they are in, look for intersections between impairment, situation and environment.
  4. Think about this as characteristics and barriers and not demographics. Human characteristics and barriers can cut across many different user groups, which is why there’s the saying that if you make a product accessible, you make it more usable for everyone.
  5. Don’t just use quantitive research to inform what you do, but also use qualitative research to find out how well you have done, and segment that research by characteristic and barrier.
  6. Build accessibility into your design system from the start. Make sure every component is accessible and document them so that Developers understand the desired behaviour of their code, because everyone deserves a designed experience.

So let’s rebuild the U in UX and stop fighting the laws we have brought into existence because of designed segregation.