We Can Do Better Than Usability
Let’s look beyond basic accessibility and make design truly empowering
Our consultancy, PH1, specializes in generative research to help innovate the UX and CX of our clients. We help them answer tough questions — like “Do people really need this?” and “How do we get people to use this?” — in a way that enables them to positively impact people’s lives.
It can be a challenging space because the bar has been set quite low for UX. Too often, prospective clients want interfaces that are merely usable, rather than impactful; they want services that offer accessibility, rather than universality.
That last point is an important one: In our work on public health projects in particular, we have found that Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are wildly insufficient to make designs inclusive of the diverse needs of people. For example, WCAG may enable UX teams to address the nature of visual impairments, but it does not account for circumstances that can mimic visual impairment, like visual fatigue, low icon literacy, or atypical navigation preferences.
This article is intended to help UX strategists, designers, and researchers understand why we need to set the bar higher than usability and accessibility.
Usability is the very least you can do to help people
In 1943, Abraham Maslow introduced a paper that would change the world. “A Theory of Human Motivation” was aimed at understanding the psychological trajectory of happy individuals. Maslow’s ultimate goal was to prove that human nature is good and that anyone can find happiness.
He illustrated his findings as a hierarchy to demonstrate that all humans crave higher-level interactions once their lower needs are met; that we want a deeper connection with ourselves and others. In the end, he did make people happier — in the form of a slew of “Maslow hierarchy of needs” memes.
The joke, of course, is that our definition of “basic needs” keeps sinking lower, with Wi-Fi and battery power now forming the foundation of the pyramid. As our basic needs become more intertwined with technology, we also slip further away from the self-actualization that technology should be helping us to achieve.
What is the role of UX in moving us from basic needs to self-actualization?
Technology has changed a lot since the World Wide Web came online in the 1990s. At that time, it was a major achievement simply to provide a place to host images and find basic information like mailing addresses.
As the technology and tool kits have evolved, UX and human-centered design have been able to imagine and address increasingly higher-level needs:
- 1990s: Design was focused on building the early internet’s infrastructure and tools (physiological needs).
- 2000s: Design was focused on democratizing information and critical services (safety and security).
- 2010s: Design was focused on providing services to connect and support us (social needs).
- 2020s: Design has an obligation to focus on empowering society and forgotten segments of the population (esteem, self-actualization).
While continuing on this trajectory appears logical, UX has stagnated. We’re designing for usability and conversion, rather than for universality and impact. Unlike the 2000s and 2010s, it’s no longer the technology that’s holding back the potential of products and services to help people. Rather, it is now the fear of failure and outdated mental models that are limiting our digital experiences.
Let’s use a design challenge to illustrate the difference between our current usability-focused approach and the self-actualizing approach that we should be using:
You are responsible for designing a product for local residents to get up-to-date information and weather warnings. The majority use this product on their mobile phones, and usage increases on days when there is bad weather. Your goal is to design the experience for when a large storm is headed toward the region.
The traditional UX approach:
- Strategy: Improve access to critical information about weather.
- Design: Deliver an experience that is highly usable and intuitive on all devices.
- Web standard: Meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (focused on size and contrast).
- Research: Ensure that all personas can find and access information with ease.
- Likely outcome: Similar to Weather.com or NOAA.gov with a content- and map-heavy approach.
The self-actualizing UX approach:
- Strategy: Improve users’ ability to act on information in a way that improves their lives (increase emergency preparedness or reduce traffic accidents).
- Design: Deliver an experience that increases the likelihood that people will use the information to improve the quality of their lives (an interface that can be used when walking or driving in poor weather conditions).
- Web standard: Meet WCAG standards (focused on size and contrast) and provide universal access to content, tools, and services (offline access to pertinent information for those without data, or if data is unavailable).
- Research: Ensure that the impact of the experience is positive and universally accessible. (Has comprehension of extreme weather and how to react increased?)
- Potential outcome: 1) Embrace the capabilities of mobile phones and take advantage of personalization based on current location, location of home/work, and traffic; 2) Educate about weather and increase confidence around how to respond; 3) Empower through highly relevant, personalized nudges, recommendations, and action plans.
You’ll notice that both approaches involve empathy; what is different is the way in which the designs aim to predict what a person may need in various situations. Sure, 90% of the time someone is simply looking for information. But the other 10% of the time, the urgency may be much higher and the needs much different. The traditional model empowers through content, while the self-actualization model empowers with tools.
UX has the potential to be much more than simply usable; it should also be compassionate and impactful. This goal allows us — strategists, designers, researchers — to show empathy across personas and levels of accessibility, beyond perceived barriers to entry, and with a much more humane ambition of using design to help people.
We also need to consider that the definitions of “impairment” and “accessibility” may be oversimplified. Design needs to take into account situational and systemic disabilities: We should consider the needs of a mother with three kids struggling as they wait in a line, or a student who can’t afford data on their phone to use your tools when they need them, or someone who is elderly and unfamiliar with your company’s jargon.
As you begin working on your next UX project, consider how you can help move it beyond the basic goal of usability. Consider whether the intention is to provide information or to help people. And lastly, consider how you can use empathy (and better research!) in your practice to create more compassion for moments in other people’s lives.