My mother-in-law has cancer.
It’s been painful, these last few months, watching a woman who was skiing in the Alps at Easter hobbling around on a crutch this summer. Though not a fraction as painful as it has been for her.
The disease has entered her bones, causing them to become so fragile that she has fractured her pelvis. Which is where the crutch comes in.
Fortunately, her prognosis is good. Radiotherapy, not chemo, was prescribed. Bones can recover, and injections speed the healing process. Her health improves daily.
What has this got to do with digital?
After we first heard the diagnosis, my wife was looking into power of attorney – should the worst happen. I offered to help with some research.
This brought me into contact with the website of a government department that deals with these matters in Scotland.
It quickly became a frustrating and disorienting experience. I found myself going round in circles, opening countless numbers of PDF documents, struggling to understand arcane legal language.
The website appeared to have been written by lawyers for lawyers. It took no account of the fact that ordinary citizens need to access this service, need to understand what their options are and what they will cost. It was riddled with jargon and meaningless acronyms.
I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person. It took me a long time to reach the conclusion that I thought I understood what our options were and what we could do next. But I was far from certain.
And that’s the worst thing a digital service can do: leave its users thinking they have the correct information when, in fact, they are going in completely the wrong direction.
So what did I do? I contacted them. I asked for confirmation that I had the right end of the stick.
So the site not only failed to meet its users’ needs, it failed to achieve its purpose – to provide self-service information and so decrease the number of people contacting them, saving time and money.
This website had failed its users on the most basic level because it was not written in language that lay people could understand. It had no clear idea of users are, or of the circumstances they are in. Many people trying to use this service will be in a distressed state, diminishing their ability to comprehend already complex information.
It was inaccessible on the most basic level because it is incomprehensible.
What this encounter with cancer has brought home to me is that disability can affect any of us, any time, and completely out of the blue.
My mother-in-law has dealt with cancer twice. It has left her with no lasting disability. But it might easily have done.
It might as easily have been the case that she suffered a stroke. Or experienced a more debilitating form of cancer that caused lasting physical or cognitive impairment.
That’s when disability becomes an issue for designers, including writers.
Because these things can happen to anyone, at any age. Disease strikes. And yes, people do, in fact, get hit by buses.
So we need to design our services with that in mind.
- Some people can’t see. So our services need to be delivered in a way that allows machines (software) to speak to them.
- Some people can’t hear. So we need to make sure none of our services rely on people having that ability.
- Some people don’t read English too well. They may have been born deaf, or in another non-English speaking culture. They may have learning difficulties, or be based in another country where English is not the first language. They may, like me, just be struggling to understand complex information at a stressful time.
Language is the absolute foundation of an accessible and usable digital service. We need to keep our language as simple and as comprehensible as we possibly can – so that even Google can understand it.
And we need to simplify complexity as much as possible, hiding it from the user and focusing on their needs.
That’s hard. It takes a lot of time and a huge amount of thought and effort. But it’s our job.
I'm a service designer in Scottish Enterprise's unsurprisingly-named service design team. I've been a content designer, editor, UX designer and giant haystacks developer on the web for (gulp) over 25 years.