Accessibility and Usability of I.T. Systems
These days technology is everywhere – at work, at home and when people are on the move. We expect it to meet our needs and complain when it doesn’t. We expect to it to perform tasks that would have been impossible just a few years ago and not even imagined when older colleagues began their working lives. We expect to interact with technology easily and for technology to anticipate what we need from it.
Against all these measures, most of the time the majority of people are not disappointed. But for some people, technology can be far less satisfying. For example, whilst it can be true that a picture paints a thousand words, a picture is no use at all if you can’t see it. A thousand words can paint a compelling picture but only if you can hear them. And whilst a thousand words in complex sentences might appeal to some people they can be incomprehensible to someone who needs information in plain language.
‘Accessibility’ and ‘usability’ are related concepts that help IT professionals to focus on what it takes to deliver systems that work for everyone who might need to access them. But these concepts are not the exclusive domain of IT professionals. Managers and professionals in many other fields need to have sufficient understanding of accessibility and usability to be able to participate in constructive discussion with the IT professionals whose roles involve development of those systems.
The benefits are far-reaching and compelling – for individuals, for organisations and for society at large.
In the context of IT ‘accessibility’ refers to ensuring an equivalent experience for everyone who will use a particular system. Accessibility means that everyone can perceive, understand, navigate and interact with that system. The aim of accessibility is that there should be no system-related barriers to people contributing equally.
Accessibility is often taken to be reference to the needs of people with disabilities but it’s important to ensure that conversations cover what exactly is meant by the term in any particular context. For example, ‘accessibility’ can also refer to the needs of people with other specific needs such as non-English speaking people and those whose first language is other than English.
Usability relates to the interaction between people and computers and it means the degree to which a system is effective, efficient and satisfying to use. For usability to be achieved, four critical elements must be defined and be the focus of development efforts:
- who will use the system;
- those users’ goals in using the system;
- what ‘efficiency’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘satisfaction’ mean for those particular users; and
- the context in which the system will be used.
‘User-centred design’ is an important tool for achieving usability. It focuses on the above four factors.
The value of accessibility and usability
A highly useable, accessible system provides benefits for users and for business.
For system users, the benefits include that the technology enables them to achieve tasks easily and efficiently. When you eliminate the frustration of systems that have not been meeting users’ needs, the flow-on effects include increased job satisfaction, improved morale and increased productivity – for everyone, including people with disabilities.
Workplaces that provide useable, accessible systems for everyone make far more of the talent in their workforces including enabling full participation by people who would otherwise be disadvantaged by systems with embedded barriers to their productivity.
Businesses reap the benefits because they:
- avoid support costs associated with systems that are difficult to use;
- eliminate system changes brought about when users’ needs are not adequately considered from the outset;
- maintain the attention of external parties, such as customers, whose loyalty could be lost to a competitor due to a difficult-to-use system; and
- build a reputation for being accessible to everyone including people with special needs.
The IT professional’s role
Achieving accessibility and usability calls for effective relationships between IT professionals and the non-IT people whose input, feedback and collaboration are necessary to the development of a system that will meet or exceed accessibility and usability goals. IT professionals therefore need to possess not only the requisite technical skills but also to have well-developed ‘soft’ skills.
The article The importance of soft skills for IT professionals provides general advice about three areas of soft skills development relevant to IT professionals’ roles in developing accessible, usable systems. It covers:
- building effective working relationships – including with people whose background, professional expertise and working style are different from your own;
- the soft side of communication – including the importance of using jargon-free language when necessary and selecting the best mode of communication; and
- self-management – including how you respond to interpersonal dynamics, the importance of trust in interpersonal relationships and dealing with the politics associated with your work.
Accessibility and usability – the non-IT professional’s role
Accessibility and usability of systems calls for the involvement of many people as well as the IT professionals whose role it is to develop, maintain or enhance a system. As an IT ‘layperson’ you don’t need a technical knowledge of how accessibility and usability are achieved in order to play your part but your proactive attention to four factors will put you in a strong position to work productively with IT colleagues and external IT experts.
- Be clear about who the users will be and know their particular needs in terms of interfacing with the system. For example, if data entry other than via a keyboard will be necessary or whether there will be users unable to operate a mouse or a touch screen.
- Be ready to specify what you want those users to achieve from their use of the system. Your contribution is not to specify the system itself – that’s the developer’s job – but to contribute to a ‘user needs analysis’.
- Think about and be ready to discuss what it will take for the system to be deemed effective, efficient, accessible and usable. It might be necessary to take multiple perspectives into account against each of these criteria, for example what it will take for end-users to deem the system efficient might be different from criteria used by in-house staff.
- Have a way of clearly explaining the context in which the system will be used, for example, the physical location or the context in relation to other systems.
As a member of the general public, most people have experienced systems that frustrate – be it the remote with too many buttons, the disappearing document or a website offering broken links. As a professional, be it IT or another discipline, it’s worth thinking about the personal cost of that frustration and the part you can play in making systems accessible and usable for everyone.
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in further reading about topics covered in this article, the following articles and guides are available on the Professionals Australia website.
About the author
Dr Janet Fitzell, a director of FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au), is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational and professional development.
5 August 2015