At this point, ‘paradigm-shifting technology’ has been used to describe AI so frequently that the words are losing meaning. But it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how true it is. New and emerging technologies are upending previous assumptions and approaches to how we live our daily lives—for better and for worse.
One of these ongoing shifts, and something that may continue to change drastically, is accessibility. At its core, ‘accessibility’ is the practice of making information, activities, events, or environments sensible, meaningful, and usable for as many people as possible. By automating previously time-consuming processes, analyzing large quantities of data, and continuously adapting as they recognize patterns and make decisions, AI is upending previous assumptions about what it means to make something accessible.
What is accessibility?
Thinking about accessibility begins with considering what might make something inaccessible. Someone with no or low vision might have a harder time with a website if the images have not been captioned with alt text or image descriptions. Someone working in a loud café might have a hard time understanding a video without closed captioning.
Fundamentally, disability describes a mismatch between a person and their environment. Someone working in loud location would be experiencing a situational disability, while someone with low vision might be experiencing a permanent or temporary disability, but they are both experiencing a mismatch in the environment that interferes with their ability to perform a task.Regardless of the type of disability, it’s important to consider what might make something inaccessible, so that you can begin to think of ways that it could be changed to become accessible.
Consider the following four principles of accessibility from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines:
- Perceivable - Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive (it can’t be invisible to all their senses).
- Operable - User interface components and navigation must be operable (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform).
- Understandable - Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding).
- Robust - Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technology (as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible).
Why is accessibility important for customer experience?
A curb cut is a lowered section of sidewalk. Originally designed to make it easier for people in wheelchairs to cross the street, curb cuts are frequently used by cyclists, skaters, rollerbladers, and pedestrians pushing strollers or carts or walking with small children. The ‘curb-cut’ effect describes the phenomenon of disability-friendly features being used and appreciated by a much larger group, outside of the group they were originally designed for. Often, these curb cuts are widely adopted as a general convenience that benefits everyone, rather than being viewed as an additional accessibility device reserved for some.
The electronic curb-cut effect
TV manufacturers have taken note that the caption decoders that enable closed captioning for hard-of-hearing viewers wound up benefiting millions more consumers, simply because many more consumers choose to use closed captioning while watching tv, regardless of hearing ability. Closed captioning makes it possible to watch and understand a show in a noisy bar or in a silent library. Viewers learning a new language can see new words written out as they are spoken on screen, or have captions in their native language to aid understanding.
Generally, televisions with decoders that enable closed captioning work better for everyone, regardless of hearing ability. And accessible customer experience is a better experience for everyone.