Innovation for accessibility

UX innovation

The mission
Accessibility is a topic that is both praised and supported for a long time in the web and digital industry. General requirements like Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are often pointed out as standards for best practice. Our product teams assumed that following requirements provides sufficient support for disabled users. Working on a product that is used by governments and academics, we had the chance to receive a report from a director of accessibility services that highlighted the pains that impaired users encounter using our software, despite our fulfilment of accessibility guidelines.
2019 - 2020
Design Lead

Pushing boundaries

Working on a project with a tight schedule and an ever-growing roadmap, introducing innovation in this field is a challenge by itself. Often, we tend to look at the big picture, focusing on main target groups while minorities are overlooked. As an advocate for inclusion, I aimed to go beyond standards and enable my team to include this specific user group into our approach. It is a culture and a mindset to nurture in our everyday practice as designers. Inclusive design is not just about designing for people with disabilities—this can improve the experience for everyone.  

The focus

Several areas were highlighted in the accessibility report, but a large section was dedicated to the keyboard commands and navigation. There are well-known good practices, however we could identify several opportunities to improve. In fact, meeting the requirements doesn’t necessarily mean providing a reasonable user experience.

“The user would not be able to ascertain access keys information independently …  In order to operate some portions of the software, the user require assistive technology training from an assistive technology specialist…”
– Director of Accessibility Services

Keyboard commands and shortcuts are integral to making software accessible and usable for a broad audience of people. It allow users to navigate an application and quickly perform common actions to increase productivity. In addition, keyboard commands enable users who mostly or solely depend on keyboard interactions because of various temporary or permanent diverse abilities, to use the software with fewer barriers.

Typically, a software's documentation lists keyboard commands and shortcuts, which requires the user to switch contexts to learn about the available aides. This change in context can have multiple implications, depending on how the user receives the software documentation and how often the user must read it (e.g., to re-learn a shortcut they have not used for a while). Users, abled or disabled, need a convenient way to become familiar with keyboard shortcuts.

The solution

The novel solution is a system for intent-driven discovery of context-based keyboard commands in software applications.

While a good practice is to indicate available shortcuts within menu items, this solution often falls short for advanced software that provides a larger set of keyboard controls. For example, to navigate and edit a complex data table like an excel sheet. In our solution, we are providing users with a full list of commands within the application.

Moreover, modern software might provide an in-app list of commands. However, they list the complete keyboard commands available. This gets overloaded and becomes overwhelming with complex software.

In our solution, the provided in-app keyboard command help is context-sensitive.

We are providing the right commands that are available — according to the product area the user is interacting with.

For example, if the user interacts with a data grid, the specific keyboard commands will be displayed. If the user is interacting with a syntax editor, the according keyboard commands will be shown.  

Finally, today’s keyboard command help is only shown if users are specifically looking for it. They must, most often, search the help menu to call out this help.

In our solution, we developed an intent-driven support. The system can predict if users are trying to use a keyboard operation and can display the available commands to support the users, just at the right moment.

Context sensitive keyboard commands vs global keyboard commands

How it works

On a macOS system, pressing and holding down the command key, which is most often needed for keyboard commands, triggers a visual indicator. This only appears with a delay since users might already know the right keyboard command combination. If the user doesn’t press any other key or move the mouse, the visual indicator for the keyboard command help will appear. It shows the user that the system is reacting to his intent. If there is no interruption, the upcoming context-based guidance will appear and help the user to uncover the keyboard command he or she was looking for.

Extract of the keyboard command intent indicator design delivery

The impact

This solution has been implemented in the next-generation SPSS Statistics Software. It has been received as a great improvement by the IBM accessibility team and is currently being revised to be included in the Carbon Design System for IBM products. With this initiative we could make a cross-portfolio impact. We could provide a solution that evolves accessibility standards for our software, but also all IBM products.

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