How to design healthcare applications keeping in mind digital accessibility


If you think that digital accessibility is not a big concern, try accessing a website on your laptop through a screen reader. If it’s your first time, chances are you won’t be able to do it without googling about how to do it the right way. Even after successfully enabling it, you won’t be able to get the right information. I found the experience broken and frustrating. 

Now, imagine the frustration of 15% of the world’s population who have to deal with accessibility issues on the internet every time they want to read or browse an application.

Vint Cerf, also known as one of “the fathers of the Internet”, said in one of his interviews- 

“It’s a crime that the most versatile device on the planet, the computer, has not adapted well to people who need help, who need assistive technology. It’s almost criminal that programmers have not had their feet held to the fire to build interfaces that are accommodating for people with vision problems or hearing problems or motor problems.” 

He also talked about how accessibility shouldn’t be thought of as a “pixie dust” and sprinkled on as an afterthought after the product is ready for market launch.

Product designers, programmers and business owners often overlook accessibility because they think their product isn’t used by people with disabilities. It’s a myth. The truth is there is no way to know how many disabled users access (or try to access) a website. It’s because the assistive technologies used by them aren’t traceable through standard analytics tools.

Irrespective of that data, digital accessibility shouldn’t be a luxury. Just as physical spaces are designed to help people navigate with ease, we need to design digital applications for people who want to access them. When we deny accessibility to users on the basis of their impairments and disabilities, we create a wall between them and the world. 

The accessibility in healthcare products is a bigger problem. Healthcare applications are designed to get better health outcomes and efficiency in delivering healthcare services. But if the application is inaccessible, how would users who suffer from color blindness, cognitive and learning disability, or those with hearing difficulties, benefit?

How do we send a medication refill reminder to a visually imparied user? How do we make sure that a person with hearing disabilities is able to receive care through video consultation? How can we make sure that the screenreader clicks through all hyperlinks?

So what can be done to solve digital accessibility in healthcare products? 

By practicing empathy. 

We need designers who can empathize with the problems faced by disabled users and design an inclusive and accessible interface that doesn’t differentiate.

Building user personas of people with disabilities

Understand your audience

While creating user personas, include at least one persona that’s inclusive for people who have accessibility issues. If you’re wondering how these personas are different from what we usually make, keep reading.

For designing personas that cater to people with disabilities-

  • Focus on the person

The problem with us is that we are blinded by our assumptions and lack of awareness. Most of the designers assume that people with disabilities don’t use the web. Well, that’s just not true. Therefore, it’s important to focus on the story of people with disabilities- why do they use the product/service, what inspires them, what happens in their daily life. When we focus on the person, then only we’ll be able to bring their true motivations in our persona diagram.

  • Focus on their pain points

This is true for every kind of persona. But in making personas of people with disabilities you have to keep in mind that you don’t put emphasis on their disability. Focus on their needs. Focus on their pain points. Try to visualize what must be stopping them from achieving their goals. When you focus on needs, you put aside an assumption that their disability is a roadblock. You begin to see another perspective of usage and help make design more inclusive.

  • Understand and connect with real people

Personas are a great way to create a fictionalized user of your application. But what’s even better is that you go and interact with real people. The aim of personas is to understand the end users of the application. So if you get a chance to meet and interview real users— including those with disabilities — it will help you design better experiences.

I found a very good article that lists down some of the accessibility personas.

Create adaptable content

Create adaptable content

Most of the accessibility concerns arise because the content on the product/service is not suitable for consumption by people with disabilities. 

Consider this example. 

A government website releases important information related to COVID-19 containment zones in the city and the new rules that the citizens have to follow. However, this information is only accessible to people who can see and read. There is no alt-text on the website and therefore, people with visual impairments can’t access it, even with a screen reader.

This is a most common example of how we sideline people with disabilities. Every piece of information on your product/service should be adaptable in a form that’s easy to read and comprehend. Whether it’s textual or video content, it should meet the accessibility needs of those who are differently abled.

Offer hardware support

Offer hardware support

Every user is different. Some power users move through every interaction without even touching their mouse, whereas other users move the cursor slowly, clicking only after reading every information. There are some users who use screen readers (text to speech), or voice assistants (verbal commands) to navigate through the UI. 

Therefore, offer all possible support for people with disabilities. Gather enough knowledge about your user demographic, which devices they use and accordingly plan the UI. For instance, if your user demographic consists of visually impaired people, keyboard navigation paired with a screen-reader is extremely important for them.

Test your design 

Test your design 

After you design, test your UI with various assistive technologies that exist for people who are differently abled. 

Can a person with color blindness access the information you’ve provided? Is the information available through Braille or a Text To Speech Engine for people with visual impairments? How accessible is it for people with some form of hearing impairment or for people who have speech or communication related impairment? How convenient is it for people who have any kind of physical impairment or limitation?

To test your design, you have to visit users in their natural environment and observe them when they use the product/service. 

The problem with a UI that doesn’t put accessibility into consideration is that it stops a large portion of users from using a website/product/service. These barriers cause frustration, or they slow them down in accomplishing their goals quickly. They annoy the differently abled users, and in the absence of a better choice, they are forced to work-around with whatever is available to them. 

As designers, it’s our responsibility that we remove these barriers just as we do for other users. It’s our responsibility that we give them equal share of respect and time as we give to other users.

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