If the Shoe Fits: Empathy as the X-Factor in UX

two feet walking along stairs that are brightly lit

If the Shoe Fits: Empathy as the X-Factor in UX

We stumbled upon an interesting observation the other day. Cultures from nearly every corner of the globe include common sayings inspired by feet and footwear.

Without a great deal of footwork, you can probably come up with quite a few English idioms. “Walking the walk,” following in someone’s footsteps, putting “your best foot forward,” and having “big shoes to fill” remind us to watch our step. We admire those with their “feet on the ground,” and we “take a stand” when we feel strongly about something.

Then there’s “walk a mile in my shoes”—probably the most compelling metaphor for empathy just about everywhere. This expression is rising in prominence again, and rightly so.

It’s Time to Start Walking

As the conversation around empathy and digital equality heats up, there’s one more idiomatic “footnote” to consider. It’s from the Italians: “Between saying and doing, many a pair of shoes is worn out.” The implication is simple. Many things in life are easier said than done. Creating an empathic digital user experience (UX) is definitely one of them. Accessible and inclusive development approaches get a lot of lip service, but the truth is most websites and apps still have miles to go.

And we better start walking. Fast. Because COVID-19 has changed, well, everything, including (or more accurately especially) for the more than one billion people in the world with disabilities and impairments.

On the 2020 Global Accessibility Awareness Day in May, Forbes Technology Council member Dylan Barrell published an article reframing the UX and website accessibility conversation around the current pandemic.

His opening premise: “We’re living through a crisis where the lack of human contact makes digital options vital for connecting with loved ones, handling basic needs, and doing business. For individuals with disabilities, however, those options are now more limited than ever.”

His point: Total reliance on digital devices, brought on by sheltering in place, should be putting UX designers’ feet to the fire to accelerate the closing of what Barrell calls a main hurdle to digital equality—the “empathy gap.”

Taking the Right Path

The concept of full website accessibility is admittedly complex and multilayered from a technology standpoint. It’s not only about optimizing code or making provisions for the disabled. That’s a common misconception. Designers and developers aren’t just creating websites and apps. They are creating services.

Accessibility is a measurement of every user’s opportunity to easily access, navigate, and interact with those services, including people with physical, emotional, and mental limitations or who face barriers, including temporary or situational ones. That takes a deeper level of understanding. It takes empathy—the profound “ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” (Oxford Dictionary definition)

But making empathy, not just technical knowledge, the differentiating X-factor in the best UX requires more than simply performing routine website accessibility testing or role-playing disabilities in an empathy lab—though these are important elements of creating practical and meaningful solutions.

Just how important is empathy in UX design?

Modern enterprise has come to recognize that empathy is particularly critical to organizational success in the competitive global business environment. Several recent business studies, in fact, have correlated empathy with everything from higher sales to improved productivity and enhanced performance from an increasingly diverse workforce—hard, tangible results from a pretty soft skill.

Empathy is equally or possibly even more powerful when applied to digital design. One of the most common mantras in the web development world is: “You are not the user.” It’s a pretty effective reminder not to make assumptions—or default decisions—concerning the people on the other side of the screen. If there is a disconnect between the designer and the user, the project will never be as good as it could be—simple cause and effect. But if the empathy is there, the potential to create game-changing solutions increases exponentially.

Miles to Go

While there has been significant movement forward over the past few years—primarily driven by complaints and lawsuits as a growing number of courts rule that the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also applies to websites and mobile apps—progress toward full website accessibility has been more like a shuffle than a sprint.

Barrell again: “The unfortunate truth is that most sites and apps are not built with accessibility in mind and interact poorly—or not at all—with […] assistive technologies. In fact, as many as 70 percent of websites in various industries have no or limited accessibility.”

That still leaves a lot of footwork to be done. But due in part to COVID-19, how organizations assess the value of accessible and inclusive UX is changing dramatically.

Website accessibility is quickly becoming a differentiating opportunity with profound business implications for any organization that communicates and competes across digital channels. These implications extend beyond just avoiding costly litigation. They include positive impact on reputation, market reach, and revenue. Enterprises that struggle to deliver a digital experience that leaves no user behind, on the other hand, are at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

Making the Shoe Fit

Web accessibility simply means giving everyone an equal opportunity to navigate and use websites, apps, and browser-based technology without encountering barriers that impede or prohibit a successful user experience, whether it’s completing an online banking transaction or ordering a pizza. But the process can be daunting.

Here are a few tips and resources from Street Level Studio’s Web Development Manager and UX Strategist James Hansen that can help your organization take the right steps.

BEGIN as early as possible in the design and development process.

It is usually easier to implement accessibility requirements when planning for and creating a new website or website redesign. Designing for accessibility right at the beginning makes so much more sense than having to go back and adapt later. Applying accessibility updates to an existing website is possible but will most likely require adjustments to the existing design and functionalities. Unfortunately, there is no website “plugin” that automatically makes your site accessible.

DO more up-close-and-personal research.

There are numerous ways to investigate and identify how best to connect with the people who will consume your content, buy your products, use your services—from personas to tracing customer journeys. You’ll want to incorporate accessibility considerations in these exercises or create standalone user stories focused on website accessibility. Many UX experts also use empathy maps to help them enhance user satisfaction. And we’ve already mentioned empathy labs where UX designers can simulate experiences.

But there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction with real people with disabilities. Observe their interactions with technology IRL. Get familiar with the assistive technology tools they use, how they use them, and each tool’s usefulness for different skill levels. Have honest conversations about the barriers people with disabilities and impairments encounter. Most important, really listen to their ideas about ways to overcome obstacles and create practical solutions. If face-to-face isn’t possible, seek out videos and articles about accessibility issues produced by people with limitations and special needs.

APPLY empathic and intuitive design principles.

UX best practices emphasize asking some basic questions during the design phase and while prototyping a website or app. For example: Are the interfaces simple? Are there alternative user pathways? Can it be navigated with a keyboard alone? Does it work with assistive technologies?

On the design side, there are extensive creative elements to consider, from providing sufficient contrast to choosing typography wisely and making sure text and text blocks are clear, from using video and animation with intention to correctly coding meaningful and merely decorative images.

In the US, Usability.gov, a resource from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Digital Communications Division, offers user experience best practices for website designers. Across the pond, the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) publishes its own guidance. We really loved its 10 Design Principles, which eloquently and concisely sum up what empathic digital design is all about:

  1. Start with user needs
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate; Then iterate again
  6. This is for everyone
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

ASPIRE to more than basic compliance.

Compliance can be complicated. At the moment, under ADA Section 508, only federal government agencies’ websites are required to be accessible by people with disabilities, but some state and local governments have applied accessibility standards to their sites as well.

In addition, there have been lawsuits against some larger corporations for not having accessible websites. Currently, the Department of Justice judges web accessibility by whether or not it meets the technical requirements of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)—the most widely adopted and comprehensive international standards of web accessibility. Although not backed by any law they have been voluntarily accepted in the US and are referenced by laws in 21 countries and the EU.

The technical requirements of the current WCAG 2.1 are grouped under three levels—A, AA, and AAA—from the most basic to the highest standard of accessibility. This allows a certain amount of flexibility for different situations.

If you meet Level A and stop there, you’re unlikely to be compliant with the ADA. Meeting Level AA pretty much assures conformance. However, there isn’t actually much difference between Level A and Level AAA requirements. While the WCAG does not recommend that Level AAA conformance be a requirement as a general policy for entire sites, a majority of Level AAA requirements are achievable. So, meeting as many Level AAA requirements as possible should be a goal, though the WCAG recognizes it may not be possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.

While actively working on a project, James often refers to WebAIM’s WCAG 2 Checklist to stay on track. It presents simplified, condensed recommendations for implementing accessibility principles and techniques that make it easier to execute and verify WCAG conformance for web pages.

Reaching the Destination

The spike in demand for website accessibility and inclusive UX is likely to persist beyond the current crisis, accelerating the importance of committing to empathic design across digital channels. It’s Barrell’s hope—and ours—that more designers will “embrace the opportunities inherent in leading rather than following and raising awareness with real, sustainable action.” That means making empathy the X-factor in the best UX.

So, step up!