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Ideas to use empathy to design for inclusion

If you think of accessible and inclusive design, things like placeholder text color considerations and correct content markups spring to mind — and they should. But visual and hearing accommodations are just the beginning of creating an inclusive web. Often, those with intellectual, developmental, or learning disabilities have a less-than ideal web experience because their needs fit on a spectrum, and can’t be solved with a universal solution.

For years, the Dan Marino Foundation has had a long and distinguished mission of empowering individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities through life-changing programs and services. The foundation uses the Virtual Interactive Training Agent (ViTA), a virtual reality system designed to help young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental disabilities prepare for job interviews. While ViTA served its users well, it had one large accessibility problem: You could only access it while at the foundation’s South Florida headquarters. That meant it limited the young adults it could serve.

Thankfully, the foundation partnered with digital product agency Very Big Things to design a web-based program accessible from anywhere. As the Very Big Things team began their user research, they faced a roadblock. Despite scouring the Internet for information on best accessibility practices for building digital products for those with ASD or other disabilities, they didn’t find much beyond loose theories. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t forge a path forward on their own. And they’re sharing it with you, too. Here, three inclusion lessons the team learned from the project.


1. Meet with your users

The team began building ViTA using limited academic research and their expertise. Early on, they met with Dan Marino Foundation students to discover what features and designs the new platform needed.

“We quickly learned that all of our plans and the theories we found online were essentially wrong,” says Chris Stegner, CEO and co-founder of VBT.

First, the students needed a platform that felt special, friendly, and easy-to-use. They taught the Very Big Things team that micro animations, specific visuals, and contrasting color schemes distracted, confused, and frustrated them. They wanted a product with a clear and direct message they could focus on without bright colors or quick moving animations distracting them.

Early sketches of the student and teacher illustrations used in the ViTA system

The results from the focus group and user testing were outstanding, Stegner says, giving the Very Big Things team the insights it needed to loop in developers and designers to rebuild the prototype.



2. Rethink your own biases

The project solidified Stegner’s belief in empathy for the end user and caution around making assumptions about what you may believe works for a certain audience.

You can’t assume conventions for UX/UI, he says, and you must challenge and validate even “proven” things. This work on the interview platform also proved the importance of leveraging data and user testing results to build amazing products.

“Taking the challenge to create an innovative tool requires a lot of self reflection,” says Renato Lopez, chief creative officer and co-founder of Very Big Things. “We knew we needed to go back to basics to validate even the smallest of elements and layouts. We all made a general agreement to hold that as our general approach.”



3. Stay the course

Stegner’s take away from the experience? Be ambitious, design with purpose, and don’t be afraid to fail early and often, because that’s what brings innovation at the highest level.

“We knew that if we wanted to do right by this audience, we needed to design with purpose,” he says. “Throughout the process, we continuously asked ourselves ‘who are we building this for?’”

Because every design decision filtered through this question, it made the team responsible for creating something meaningful for its users. Where they might have moved forward on another project sooner, they rapidly prototyped several concepts to understand which approach best empowered individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities.


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