Accessibility Vs Usability

May 4, 2023
Company & TechnologyGianna Manchester

The golden rule of product development is to always consider the user. If you are developing a product that the user will notlike or cannot use, the product is considered essentially useless.

At Alchemie, all users are considered throughout every step of the way. And when we say “all” users, we mean ALL users. From content developers to instructors to students - anyone who will ever have their hands on our tools - they are all involved in the design and testing of each product. 

Perhaps the most important users we consider, are those who will interact with our products in a unique way, such as those who rely on keyboard controls to manipulate the interactive due to mobility issues or lack of eye sight. It is imperative to ensure that ALL users can access our product. But more important than accessing the product, is using the product.

Accessibility seems to be a big buzzword in product development, but what should be emphasized more is usability. 

Accessibility standards are often meant to “check the box” so it can be said that a product meets the standards. However, seldom do the standards require a truly usable product. In reality, the standards are the minimum requirements. 

We experienced this first hand when designing keyboard controls for our Lewis structure tool. We devised the various keyboard commands to build a Lewis structure and use the tool without a mouse. We demonstrated that it was a plausible solution and technically, we checked the box for it to be deemed accessible. But when we had our consultant, Nicole, who is blind, come in to test the keyboard controls, we were made aware of just how unusable the product was, even with the deemed-accessible keyboard controls. 

For example, one of the issues Nicole experienced was because we implemented the creation of a bond between two atoms to occur upon pressing “b.” “B” for “bond” is intuitive, right? What we did not know was that when using a screen reader, pressing “b” navigates to the nearest button. 

As developers, we always have the users’ best interests in mind, or at least we like to think we do. But the reality is that we do not always know everything and are constantly learning through the development process. The most learning occurs when interacting directly with our users. 

Just like learning chemistry requires solving problems for yourselves rather than just reading worked problems, creating usable access to our interactives requires co-designing with those who have lived experiences with screen readers and witnessing first-hand their experience with the accommodations.

From instructors, we learn how to make tools that will benefit their instruction and students’ learning the most. From students, we learn how to make the most intuitive tools for those that are new to the subject matter. And from consultants with varying abilities, we learn how to make products that are truly usable for ALL users. 

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