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 heavily 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.
My recommendation to NPR was to include captions for their audio clips. 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 other news stations on the radio switched to television. 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 the different voices, cars, and other sounds in the audio track. Or when we want to allow our imagination to run free and just want an audible experience.
Often designers fail to recognize is that there is a spectrum among people with disabilities that we need to be more cognizant of – both in level of loss and in life experience and designing for this spectrum is valuable. 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 non-visual 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.