Design Factors: A New Compass for Accessible Design

Are you interested in user-centered design? Read the latest on Accessibility from a Promptworks UX designer.

by Sam Vitale Kofman

Design Factors: A New Compass for Accessible Design

As product designers, it’s important to understand and follow design heuristics, basic principles that generally accompany good design. These include optimizing readability, making use of visual hierarchy, and maintaining consistency across design systems. But, at Promptworks, we go one step further--by defining “Design Factors” early in our Discovery phase to guide us as we begin designing app flows, wireframes, and screens. Recently, I have realized how critical these factors are for designing accessible designs in particular.

What are Design Factors?

At Promptworks, our product design process begins with Discovery, during which we aim to define the problem that the product will solve, to understand key user segments, and to brainstorm solutions. In addition to things like user research, Discovery also includes defining what we term Design Factors, important considerations for people who will be using the product. These, in turn, guide our design decisions. They might include things like Urgency, Cost, or Efficiency. Accuracy might be relevant for a banking app, for which correct data collection is crucial. This factor tells us that we should be designing for precise text inputs so that users won’t make mistakes. An incorrect value could mean a costly overdraft and negative account balance!

As you might guess, you can’t select Design Factors in a vacuum; they depend on extensive user research, so that you--the designer--fully understand the struggles and environments of your target users. Let’s get hypothetical for a second:

Imagine you’re designing a food preparation app for a local deli known for “the best pastrami sandwiches in town.” The app must help employees make the perfect sandwich every time. During user research, you visit the deli to conduct a field study. While observing the employees, you notice they work in an assembly line-like fashion: first they get the rye bread, then they spread on the mustard, and finally layer on the meat. They are repeating the same task over and over. You quickly note “Frequency” as one of your Design Factors.

Armed with Frequency, along with other factors you may identify during Discovery, you’re well-prepared to make critical design decisions later on. For instance, because of the frequency with which employees make pastrami sandwiches, you might choose to place “Pastrami on Rye” at the top of the recipe index--instead of, say, “Turkey Club” or even choosing to arrange the recipes in alphabetical order.

Design Factors and Accessibility

Although at Promptworks, we strive for universal design by building Accessibility into our design/development process, I’d argue here that sometimes, accessibility should take a more prominent role--as a Design Factor. Let’s look at some examples when this is the case.

Mental State Design Factors for Accessibility

While designing an app, you’re probably fairly relaxed--maybe sitting comfortably behind your iMac in an ergonomic chair. But don’t let your mental state lead you to think that your users share it. When making design decisions, it’s crucial to consider the mental factors that may impact your end-user. Maybe they are sales associates, working in a high-traffic department store or construction workers, teetering hundreds of feet in the air on scaffolding. In these scenarios, you’ll want to ensure that your design makes their lives stress-free--because, chances are, their jobs aren’t. By adopting Mental State as a Design Factor, you’ll be more mindful of creating an app that reduces cognitive load--for instance, by exposing menu items and accompanying icons with descriptive text.

In this example, the login screen on the left has a lower cognitive load: the input fields are exposed and the user doesn’t have to think too hard about how to get into their account. The screen on the right, however, uses confusing typographic hierarchy (multiple fonts) and too many buttons with conflicting calls-to-action. The user will have to think a lot before making their selection.

Environmental Design Factors for Accessibility

The environment of your users can also be a source of Design Factors. Imagine you’re tasked with designing an app for a high-end movie theater to help employees escort guests to their seats. From your research, you know that the users will often be operating the app in low-light conditions. Even though your users may not have physiological vision problems, their environment causes a vision impairment. Thus, “Vision” may become an important Design Factor for you to consider. It may prompt you, for instance, to offer a Dark Mode toggle in your UI or to invest extra time researching color-contrast in low-light environments. (Nielsen Norman Group offers an interesting perspective on the actual benefits of Dark Mode.)

Cognitive Design Factors for Accessibility

It’s also important to be mindful of your users’ cognitive abilities, which include reading level, age, degenerative conditions, and mental health disorders like depression. If, for example, you are designing an app to help connect students with writing tutors, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the reading level of your copy. By incorporating this as a Design Factor, you’ll remain mindful of avoiding jargon and maintaining an accessible vocabulary through your app.

Physical Ability Design Factors for Accessibility

In some cases, your users may suffer from physical impairments--like paralysis--that make them reliant on devices like screen readers to navigate your app. However, we need to broaden our definition of “physical ability” to include other situations as well. A new parent may have use of only one arm, as the other holds a baby. An urgent care patient may have an arm in a cast. A railroad engineer may be wearing clunky gloves that make it difficult to handle a smart phone. By considering the physical condition or circumstances of your user, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions about how to arrange elements on your interface, how big to make buttons, or even what device to release your app on.

In Closing

Not only do Design Factors help us stay mindful of our users’ context and goals, they can also be powerful tools for prioritizing accessibility. As you can see from many of the examples above, accessibility has expanded beyond the antiquated definition of “disability.” It includes all manner of impairment--whether temporary or permanent. By foregrounding those impairments as Design Factors, we ensure that our products solve the right problems in the right places for the right people. They also prevent us from treating accessibility as a to-do list. Rather, they encourage us to sit in the spaces and circumstances of our users so we can understand their struggles. It is only once we arrive here that we can truly claim to be “user-centered” designers.

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