Opposites Attract in UX

I recently sat down with NPR’s design team to discuss their user experience. Those of you who know that I am deaf might be scratching your head. NPR is an organization that has positioned itself almost exclusively in the audio realm. So for them to look to a deaf designer to help them with their UX may seem a little…well, weird. But it is exactly where they should be looking. We learn in design thinking that we should be looking to extremes to help us uncover our most interesting and valuable solutions. And hearing loss is the exact opposite end of the audio focused spectrum.

Most people would assume that having an audio clip along with an article describing the conversation or transcript below would be enough to sufficiently accommodate those with hearing loss. And while this may meet ADA requirements, it ignores why NPR decided to stay a radio station when many changed to television once it was developed. NPR recognized that there are times when people just want to listen and not be bothered by distracting visuals, especially in this digital age, such as when we just want to hear those different voices, cars, and other sounds in the backgrounds. Or when we want to allow our imagination to run free and just want an audible experience.

A designer might think, "well the deaf population cannot experience an audio clip anyways..." But what designers often fail to recognize is that there is a spectrum of hearing loss – both in level of loss and in life experience. For example, there are users who lose their hearing later in life but can generally follow along most conversations if they are in person. There are users like me with a significant hearing loss but that still enjoy listening to the sounds that I do hear and being immersed in a solely audible experience. Then there are those who may be completely deaf but enjoy the pace that captions bring a user and the ‘quiet’ that a nonvisual experience brings. Hearing loss represents 20% of the general population. This is a huge market segment that NPR can capture by providing captions to their audio clips.

This is just one small example of how an organization can benefit from bringing in someone with a disability that seems to be at the exact opposite of the spectrum that they are trying to solve for. This idea of benefiting from people who are often the most disabled in a particular field has been proven again and again. For example email, text messaging, the telephone, the record player – all were created by or for deaf people but ended up being huge advancements in the field of communication. The pattern here is that the person who is the most disabled in something, often creates or strongly influences some of the most significant advances in that field.

So the next time that you are trying to improve your product or service offering, think: who would I consider the most disabled in this? And seek them out relentlessly.

The Traumatic Gift: Accepting Disability as Both a Trauma and a Gift

“Your hearing loss was a trauma. In fact, it is a recurring trauma – one that you experience each day.”

Huh? I thought.

I was sitting on my friend’s couch and shifted my gaze to the plain taupe walls and then to the trees outside the window.

No. People who are raped experience trauma. People who are returning from war zones experience trauma. After all, I had just given a TED talk that was viewed by over one million people, where I said that I believed my hearing loss was one of the greatest gifts that I had received. It had given me a career direction, both as a former lawyer and now as an inclusive, human centered designer. It had given me a cause to passionately advocate for. I could not look at it as a trauma. What would that mean?

But as the hours passed, the thought began to sink in. Trauma. The feeling of frustration that I encounter every day that I so skillfully tuck away in the back of my mind and in the bottom of my gut began surfacing again. And then, somehow, my voice got knocked out from me. I knew at the time that I should be posting to Twitter and Facebook; growing my brand from the TED talk. But each time that I sat down to write, I felt as if I could never dig deep enough into an issue; that I was just scratching the surface. Something was holding me back. Eventually I realized that it was because I was not allowing myself to dig deep enough into ME. I realized that I had never processed my hearing loss as a kid. And that I could not avoid it any longer if I wanted to succeed in my work.

When I lost my hearing at ten, I was too young to really know what this would mean for my life, for school, my work, and friendships. But I still had an instinct to desperately try to hang on to my so called ‘normalcy’ from before. I became skillful at hiding my hearing loss. I learned how to anticipate what people said. In school, I sat through class clueless while pretending I could follow along.

I also became an overachiever. Like many people with disabilities, I felt I had to not just be ‘normal’ but above and beyond normal. This is because we are constantly trying to prove that our disability does not limit us; that it does not change us or make us different. But the truth is, it does affect us and it does make our lives different.

Everyone has their own story. But for me, because I was a later-deafened kid in the 80s when there was no email or text messaging, it meant a lot of loneliness, missed connections, misperceptions, and anxiety in social situations. During the year after I lost my hearing, I lost my best friend. Before, we had been inseparable. In school, I scored a 28% on my first sociology test since losing my hearing. My normally dominant, extroverted personality changed into a shy shell of my former self. Right when everyone was going through the process of trying to fit in, I got hit with something that put a red flag above my head saying that I was different. I craved to connect with people but I also became increasingly anxious when those connections happened because often they failed due to misunderstandings, leaving me embarrassed. At the time, I felt as if it was me who was failing. But it was not me. It was the hearing-loss, masked me.

As I slowly got my voice back, what I have come to accept and realize is that there are both positive and negative aspects to my hearing loss. The negative is that we live in a world mostly designed around hearing people. Communication in almost every environment is a constant struggle for me. And to be quite honest, it stinks. But it is the design of the environment that disables me, not me. If I had lived on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1800s, I may have had the notion that I do not even have a disability. You see, everyone there knew sign language, deaf or not. Communication would have been effortless for me.

The positive is that companies such as Microsoft and other high-tech corporations are beginning to realize that difference equals value. Difference is a hidden capital that they are sitting on. This is because the unique way that people with disabilities experience the world helps them identify hidden needs. Take email. Did you know this was originally created to help the deaf communicate? Who would have thought people would rather type their conversations than just say them out loud on the telephone?

My deafness has also created skills that help me excel as a design thinker. I have exceptional observation skills because for the past 25 years, I have had to read body language daily allowing me to notice things that others never would. My constant need to adapt to any circumstance has made me excel at finding unique solutions to design problems.

My ultimate hope is that more companies will soon catch on to this untapped capital that people with disabilities bring, that they will see how people with disabilities can help them stay ahead of the innovation curve. Of course, it would also be nice to one day experience effortless communication with the hearing world. And, who knows, perhaps with speech recognition technology, the term ‘hearing world’ will even become a term of the past.