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A List Apart: The Full Feed
Articles for people who make web sites.
  • Webwaste

    The Web is obese

    In 1994, there were 3,000 websites. In 2019, there were estimated to be 1.7 billion, almost one website for every three people on the planet. Not only has the number of websites exploded, the weight of each page has also skyrocketed. Between 2003 and 2019, the average webpage weight grew from about 100 KB to about 4 MB. The results?

    “In our analysis of 5.2 million pages,” Brian Dean reported for Backlinko in October 2019, “the average time it takes to fully load a webpage is 10.3 seconds on desktop and 27.3 seconds on mobile.” In 2013, Radware calculated that the average load time for a webpage on mobile was 4.3 seconds.

    Study after study shows that people absolutely hate slow webpages. In 2018, Google research found that 53% of mobile site visitors left a page that took longer than three seconds to load. A 2015 study by Radware found that “a site that loads in 3 seconds experiences 22% fewer page views, a 50% higher bounce rate, and a 22% fewer conversions than a site that loads in 1 second, while a site that loads in 5 seconds experiences 35% fewer page views, a 105% higher bounce rate, and 38% fewer conversions.”

    The causes of webpage bloat? Images and videos are mainly to blame. By 2022, it’s estimated that online videos will make up more than 82% of all consumer Internet traffic—15 times more than in 2017. However, from the code to the content, everything about Web design has become super-bloated and super-polluting. Consider that if a typical webpage that weighs 4 MB is downloaded 600,000 times, one tree will need to be planted in order to deal with the resulting pollution.

    They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well, 1,000 words of text takes up roughly two A4 (210 mm wide and 297 mm long) pages and weighs about 6 KB. You’d place about four images that are 9 cm x 16 cm on two A4 pages. Let’s say these images are well optimized and weigh 40 KB each. (A poorly optimized image could weigh several megabytes.) Even with such high optimization, two A4 pages of images will weigh around 160 KB. That’s 27 times more than the two A4 pages of text. A 30-second video, on the other hand, could easily weigh 3 MB. Videos create massively more pollution than text. Text is the ultimate compression technique. It is by far the most environmentally friendly way to communicate. If you want to save the planet, use more text. Think about digital weight.

    From an energy point of view, it’s not simply about page weight. Some pages may have very heavy processing demands once they are downloaded. Other pages, particularly those that are ad-driven, will download with lots of third-party websites hanging off them, either feeding them content, or else demanding to be fed data, often personal data on the site’s visitor. It’s like a type of Trojan Horse. You think you’re accessing one website or app, but then all these other third parties start accessing you. According to Trent Walton, the top 50 most visited websites had an average of 22 third-party websites hanging off them. The New York Times had 64, while Washington Post had 63. All these third-party websites create pollution and invade privacy.

    There is a tremendous amount of out-of-date content on websites. I have worked with hundreds of websites where we had to delete up to 90% of the pages in order to start seeing improvements. Poorly written, out-of-date code is also a major problem. By cleaning up its JavaScript code, Wikipedia estimated that they saved 4.3 terabytes a day of data bandwidth for their visitors. By saving those terabytes, we saved having to plant almost 700 trees to deal with the yearly pollution that would have been caused.

    If you want to help save the planet, reduce digital weight. Clean up your website. Before you add an image, make sure that it does something useful and it’s the most optimized image possible. Every time you add code, make sure it does something useful and it’s the leanest code possible. Always be on the lookout for waste images, waste code, waste content. Get into the habit of removing something every time you add something.

    Publishing is an addiction. Giving a website to an organization is like giving a pub to an alcoholic. You remember the saying, “There’s a book inside everyone”? Well, the Web let the book out. It’s happy days for a while as we all publish, publish, publish. Then…

    “Hi, I’m Gerry. I have a 5,000-page website.”

    “Hi, Gerry.”

    “I used to have a 500-page website, but I had no self-control. It was one more page, one more page… What harm could one more page do?”

    Redesign is rehab for websites. Every two to three years some manager either gets bored with the design or some other manager meets a customer who tells them about how horrible it is to find anything on the website. The design team rounds up a new bunch of fake images and fake content for the top-level pages, while carefully avoiding going near the heaving mess at the lower levels. After the launch, everyone is happy for a while (except the customers, of course) because in many organizations what is important is to be seen to be doing things and producing and launching things, rather than to do something useful.

    If you must do something, do something useful. That often means not doing, removing, minimizing, cleaning up.

    Beware the tiny tasks. We’ve used the Top Tasks method to identify what matters and what doesn’t matter to people, whether they’re buying a car, choosing a university, looking after their health, buying some sort of technology product, or whatever. In any environment we’ve carried it out in—and we’ve done it more than 500 times—there are no more than 100 things that could potentially matter.

    In a health environment, these might include symptoms, treatment, prevention, costs, waiting times, etc. When buying a car they might include price, engine type, warranties, service costs, etc. We’ve carried out Top Tasks surveys in some 40 countries and 30 languages, with upwards of 400,000 people voting. In every single survey the same patterns emerge. Let’s say there are 100 potential tasks. People are asked to vote on the tasks that are most important to them. When the results come in, we will find that five of the tasks will get the first 25% of the vote. 50 tasks will get the final 25% of the vote. The top five tasks get as much of the vote as the bottom 50. It’s the same pattern in Norway, New Zealand, Israel, USA, Canada, UK, Brazil, wherever.

    The bottom 50 are what I call the tiny tasks. When a tiny task goes to sleep at night it dreams of being a top task. These tiny tasks—the true waste generators—are highly ambitious and enthusiastic. They will do everything they can to draw attention to themselves, and one of the best ways of doing that is to produce lots of content, design, code.

    Once we get the Top Tasks results, we sometimes analyze how much organizational effort is going into each task. Invariably, there is an inverse relationship between the importance of the task to the customer and the effort that the organization is making in relation to these tasks. The more important it is to the customer, the less is being done; the less important it is to the customer, the more is being done.

    Beware of focusing too much energy, time and resources on the tiny tasks. Reducing the tiny tasks is the number one way you can reduce the number of pages and features. Save the planet. Delete the tiny tasks.

    A plague of useless images

    I was giving a talk at an international government digital conference once, and I asked people to send me examples of where digital government was working well. One suggestion was for a website in a language I don’t speak. When I visited it, I saw one of those typical big images that you see on so many websites. I thought to myself: I’m going to try and understand this website based on its images.

    The big image was of a well-dressed, middle-aged woman walking down the street while talking on her phone. I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat. Hmm… Something to do with telecommunications, perhaps? Why would they choose a woman instead of a man, or a group of women and men? She’s married, I deduced by looking at the ring on her finger. What is that telling me? And what about her age? Why isn’t she younger or older? And why is she alone? Questions, questions, but I’m no Sherlock Holmes. I couldn’t figure out anything useful from this image.

    I scrolled down the page. Ah, three more images. The first one is a cartoon-like image of a family on vacation. Hmm… The next one is of two men and one woman in a room. One of them has reached their hand out and placed it on something, but I can’t see what that something is, because the other two have placed their hands on top of that hand. It’s a type of pledge or something, a secret society, perhaps? Two of them are smiling and the third is trying to smile. What could that mean? And then the final picture is of a middle-aged man staring into the camera, neither smiling nor unsmiling, with a somewhat kind, thoughtful look. What is happening?

    I must admit that after examining all the visual evidence I had absolutely no clue what this government website was about. So, I translated it. It was about the employment conditions and legal status of government employees. Now, why didn’t I deduce that from the images?

    The Web is smothering us in useless images that create lots of pollution. These clichéd, stock images communicate absolutely nothing of value, interest or use. They are one of the worst forms of digital pollution and waste, as they cause page bloat, making it slower for pages to download, while pumping out wholly unnecessary pollution. They take up space on the page, forcing more useful content out of sight, making people scroll for no good reason.

    Interpublic is a very large global advertising agency. As with all advertising agencies they stress how “creative” they are, which means they love huge, meaningless, happy-clappy polluting images. When I tested their homepage, it emitted almost 8 grams of CO2 as it downloaded, putting Interpublic in the worst 10% of website polluters, according to the Website Carbon Calculator. (For comparison, the Google homepage emits 0.23 grams.) One single image on its homepage weighed 3.2 MB. This image could easily have been 10 times smaller, while losing nothing in visual appeal. The Interpublic website is like a filthy, rusty 25-year-old diesel truck, belching fumes as it trundles down the Web.

    Instead of optimizing images so that they’ll download faster, the opposite is often happening. High-resolution images are a major cost to the environment. If, for example, you move from a 4K resolution image to an 8K one, the file size doesn’t double, it trebles. For example, I saved an image at 4K and it was 6.9 MB. At 8K it was 18 MB.

    Digital “progress” and “innovation” often means an increasing stress on the environment. Everything is more. Everything is higher. Everything is faster. And everything is exponentially more demanding of the environment. Digital is greedy for energy and the more it grows the greedier it gets. We need digital innovation that reduces environmental stress, that reduces the digital footprint. We need digital designers who think about the weight of every design decision they make.

    We must start by trying to use the option that damages the environment least, and that is text. Don’t assume that images are automatically more powerful than text. Sometimes, text does the job better.

    • In a test with an insurance company, it was found that a promotion for a retirement product was deemed less accurate when an image of a face was used than when text only was used.
    • An initiative by the UK government to get people to sign up to become potential organ donors tested eight approaches. The approaches that used images were least effective. Text-only worked best.

    “Hello?”

    “Hello. Is that the Department of Useless Images?”

    “Yes.”

    “We have this contact form and we need a useless image for it.”

    “How about a family cavorting in a field of spring flowers with butterflies dancing in the background?”

    “Perfect.”

    There are indeed many situations where images are genuinely useful, particularly when it comes to helping people better understand how a product works or looks. Airbnb, for example, found that its growth only began to accelerate after it invested in getting quality images of the rental properties on offer.

    If you need to use images, optimize them and consider using real ones of real people doing real things.

    They say a picture paints a thousand words but sometimes it’s a thousand words of crap.

  • Connecting the Dots

    Two plans: one for design, one for culture.

    What I’ve found is that the DNA between both dynamics must be inextricable from one another. Creating with compassion in an environment fueled by compassion means we never lose sight of what it’s all about: people. Beyond functioning in this manner because “it’s the right thing to do,” quality of work, loyalty internally (team) and externally (users), and product innovation are all benefits to reap.

    Earlier we talked through the concept of “simplicity” and its application to creation and environment. Now, let’s revisit a few other examples of healthy benchmarks from a creative culture as we’ve discussed in this book:

    • Slowing down / pausing with intent
    • Everyone has a seat at the table
    • The New Day One

    In taking a focused look at these facets, their correlation to HCD is readily apparent:

    Culture: Slowing down / pausing with intent
    Design: Discovery / observation

    The Swedish concept of fika transcends a mere “coffee break.” It’s about slowing down, the act of pausing during a typical day and making time to have a dialogue with someone (though a good cup of coffee is a vital part). I ensure this time is not only a known quantity within my team’s creative culture, but that it’s protected and actively utilized.

    Instead of getting a product manager’s Powerpoint wireframe in your inbox with a request to “make it look nice” or a client’s request to crank out a design for their approval by EOD, we must slow down to understand the people who will be interacting with our design (and the design’s potential impact on others, the environment and community in which it will be used, and so on). Rushing to get something done to tick an account manager’s client-appeasement box at the expense of the human experience is to sacrifice empathy, quality, and any prospect of innovation.

    Culture: Everyone has a seat at the table
    Design: Inclusion

    As the very definition of cultural transparency, Nick Sarillo’s pizza parlors tack their full financial statements to a wall, daily, for all employees to see. Everyone’s hourly wage is listed on a nearby whiteboard, with the means to make more money articulated in tandem (training in more areas of business = increased hourly wage). Many managers have worked their way up in this manner, and offer training to other employees who wish to advance by taking on more responsibility. This is about collaboration yielding success to both the employee and the business, the sharing of information, and access for all; key dynamics of an inclusive culture.

    Inclusion in the design process enables us, as creators, to recognize our own personal biases. By identifying the exclusion in our work, we humbly set aside our assumptions; connecting with people from diverse communities, building empathy, will expand our product’s reach (access). Via engaging humans throughout our design process, listening to them, and usability testing iteratively, objective solutions that yield innovation follow suit.

    Culture: The New Day One
    Design: Ethnography

    The New Day One concept evolves an employee’s first day from formulaic and sterile into directly personal and custom. Via the “Inspiration” portion of the day and venturing away from the office, we gain insight into a new team member as an individual that transcends what folio work can yield. What physical aspects of their selected location have impacted who they are? How did it inspire their way of creating, or approaching problems? Understanding the impact of spatial dynamics on an individual is vital toward an individualistic, yet ultimately holistic, view.

    Ethnographic research provides an environmental context to human interaction that a video-conference interview could never yield. Through direct observation, ethnography is the qualitative study of human beings in their native environment. Is the individual sitting in a high-traffic area in an office, causing frequent distraction from their work? Are they a field worker primarily utilizing a mobile device in direct sunlight, yielding paramountcolor contrast needs? By making research truly human, we gain an understanding of how those we observe see the world and how they ultimately engage with it.

    For the Greater Good

    Greater Good Studio (GGS) is a social impact-focused human- centered design firm co-founded by Sara Cantor Aye and George Aye. Their business is located within the Logan Share, a co- working space they also founded in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

    I reached out to the Studio to ask if I could stop by their space and observe a “morning in the life” view of their process: culture and design, organically, as both unfolded. Without hesitation, Sara (a former Northwestern University instructor) extended me an offer to join the team for observation. After signing a non- disclosure agreement, we agreed on a date for my visit.

    When I arrived on a Monday morning, George (formerly of IDEO) greeted me with a cup of coffee and walked me up the stairs into the naturally well-lit Logan Share space. I noticed the open seating in the co-working section was already nearly full, as he gave me a tour of the “configuration by human need and intent”-based layout and active-project areas. On long single sheets of cardboard suspended by custom-built fasteners, entire lifecycles of project- centric human-centered design artifacts were on display. Once a project is deployed, George explained, the cardboard is detached and saved for forthcoming iteration, with fresh sheets re-fastened to form the partitions of a new project space thereafter.

    The six core steps of the Studio’s HCD process manifest themselves in the following way:

    1. Framing
      Defining questions to answer and people to engage
    2. Research
      Learning from people about their needs and values
    3. Synthesis
      Finding patterns of behavior and areas of opportunity
    4. Concepting
      Creating a high volume of new ideas
    5. Prototyping
      Making tangible mock-ups and gathering feedback
    6. Piloting
      Testing solutions in real time with real people

    As a team, GGS functions via a working method called ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), a concept leveraged from Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson’s book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution. Taken from an article on the Studio’s blog, they describe the practice within GGS like this:

    “The basic principle behind ROWE is that staff doesn’t need to be supervised, when given the tools, clear expectations, and deadlines people will not only do their work, but do it better than if they were trying to fit into a mold. Within GGS, this practice is exercised by very diligent calendar management, clear deadlines, expectations on deliverables, and Cookie Rewards (little treats we give each other if we have to move something on the calendar).”

    Once a month the entire team pauses for a five-hour, non-client project block of time called “internal day.” This time is reserved for studio-centric things: team members sharing learnings from conferences they’ve attended, how to improve internal practices, past project debriefs, etc. It’s the act of pausing with intent, in full effect.

    Sara arrived a few minutes into my tour of the space, and the GGS team’s “BD charrette” was the first employee gathering (remote and in-person) of the morning. “BD” stands for “business development,” and in a cozy seating area, everyone had a seat at the table in all senses of the phrase. Sara and George ran through the status of a current request for proposal, then each team member had the opportunity to voice their opinion about whether the RFP should be pursued based on how it aligned with GGS’s (and their employees’) personal, values. Everyone was heard; every voice was respected.

    The dialogue eventually shifted to another potential new client, this time with GGS at the presentation stage. Again, everyone at the table gave their feedback on Sara and George’s presentation plan of attack and, again, every team member’s voice carried equal value and weight. The studio-wide inclusion in the business owners’ decision making was genuine, effortless, and natural.

    Forty-five minutes later, the group made a physical transition to a few nearby couches; less than a three-foot walk, as I eyed it. I inquired about the very minor spatial change for this next leg of the meeting and was told, “There’s a difference in purpose, so we transition to a different space.” Each member of the team then took their turn describing their weekend in three words:

    “Sunshine, beach, baking.”

    I got my turn as well. Changing the energy on those couches, from new business to being focused on the individual, made for a palpable climate change. In a few words everyone had a sense of what their teammates got up to over the weekend, eliciting smiles and planting the seeds for future dialogues throughout the pauses- with-intent over the rest of the day.

    Next: “validations.” In this final portion of the meeting (pre- project status), anyone who wanted to articulate their appreciation for a team member over the previous week did so. One person recognized their co-worker for their selfless collaboration, taking time from their own project work to help theirs get client-ready on time. Similar-but-unique “thanks” emerged from varied people; no one was required to speak up, but everyone did.

    After project updates I sat with Sara for a one-on-one to chat over coffee. I asked her about the synergies between their HCD process and how she interacts with her team in the office:

    “I think where it’s actually become more intentional and obvious has been with our staff who are not trained designers. Operations folks, or our community manager, etc. I’ve had to say, ‘I want you to be a designer about this’ (whatever ‘this’ is). ‘We are your users, you’re trying to get us to do our timesheets, or clean up the kitchen, etc. Observe. Talk to people. Figure out our motivations. Summarize everything you’ve learned, and then have ideas.’

    As a designer, I am constantly designing at every level. I’m designing deliverables in many cases for clients, or coaching our teams to design deliverables. I’m also designing process by which we work by writing proposals, scoping, etc. And at the highest level, I’m designing our company. I’m designing our culture based on our customs and traditions and policies (the hard and the soft) every day. My users are not hypothetical, they’re actual people.”

    When All is Not Good

    Sara went on to cite how her previous work experience shaped the leader she is today:

    “I think a lot of my design choices are based in (unhealthy dynamics) with prior employers. Where decisions were not made transparently, everything financial was completely opaque. Lots of lack of trust with other employees. It’s been so critical that I’ve had bad experiences so I can now clearly say: let’s not do that.”

    The tactics, mindsets, organizational shifts, and operational flexibility discussed in this book are predicated upon a simple truth: a company presently supports and operates as a creative culture, or it’s genuinely willing to evolve to become one. Along the way, I’ve been primarily speaking to those who are in a position to help implement change; even at a small scale. But what about when you’re not in a position to be heard, or the position to help facilitate change?

    Reality isn’t always unicorns and rainbows. Bad experiences can impact us all. For example, the fabric of a company’s creative culture can become irreparably frayed thanks to management changes, acquisition, or it can lack sustainability. Whether these circumstances reveal themselves over years or overnight, your passion and evolution should never be their casualty.

    Sometimes, creating within an environment that’s the best fit for your growth and passions means finding a new opportunity.

  • Mr. Roboto: Connecting with Technology

    People don’t always need another human being to experience a sense of connection. The deep emotional bonds many people have with their pets proves this. (So might the popularity of the Pet Rock in the 1970s but that’s just speculation.) Even Link in The Legend of Zelda had an inanimate companion: his trusty sword (see Figure 9.1).

    A screen from The Legend of Zelda where Link receives his sword from an old man saying 'It's Dangerous To Go Alone! Take This.'
    Fig 9.1 Even the company of a wooden sword is better than venturing into Hyrule alone.

    It’s also possible for people to feel that sense of connection in the context of behavior change without having direct relationships with others. By building your product in a way that mimics some of the characteristics of a person-to-person relationship, you can make it possible for your users to feel connected to it. It is possible to coax your users to fall at least a little bit in love with your products; if you don’t believe me, try to get an iPhone user to switch operating systems.

    It’s not just about really liking a product (although you definitely want users to really like your product). With the right design elements, your users might embark on a meaningful bond with your technology, where they feel engaged in an ongoing, two-way relationship with an entity that understands something important about them, yet is recognizably non-human. This is a true emotional attachment that supplies at least some of the benefits of a human-to-human relationship. This type of connection can help your users engage more deeply and for a longer period of time with your product. And that should ultimately help them get closer to their behavior change goals.

    Amp Up the Anthropomorphization

    People can forge relationships with non-humans easily because of a process called anthropomorphization. To anthropomorphize something means to impose human characteristics on it. It’s what happens when you see a face in the array of shapes on the right side in Figure 9.2, or when you carry on an extended conversation with your cat.[1]

    An assortment of the same four shapes side by side. The grouping on the right looks like a face based on the shape positions.
    Fig 9.2 The brain is built to seek and recognize human characteristics whenever a pattern suggests they might be there. That means people interpret the array of shapes on the right as face-like, but not the one on the left.

    People will find the human qualities in shapes that slightly resemble a face, but you can help speed that process along by deliberately imbuing your product with physical or personality features that resemble people. Voice assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, for example, are easily perceived as human-like by users thanks to their ability to carry on a conversation much like a (somewhat single-minded) person.

    Granted, almost nobody would mistake Alexa for a real person, but her human characteristics are pretty convincing. Some research suggests that children who grow up around these voice assistants may be less polite when asking for help, because they hear adults make demands of their devices without saying please or thank you. If you’re asking Siri for the weather report and there are little ones in earshot, consider adding the other magic words to your request.

    So, if you want people to anthropomorphize your product, give it some human characteristics. Think names, avatars, a voice, or even something like a catchphrase. These details will put your users’ natural anthropomorphization tendencies into hyperdrive.

    Everything Is Personal

    One thing humans do well is personalization. You don’t treat your parent the same way you treat your spouse the same way you treat your boss. Each interaction is different based on the identity of the person you’re interacting with and the history you have with them. Technology can offer that same kind of individualized experience as another way to mimic people, with lots of other benefits.

    Personalization is the Swiss Army Knife of the behavior change design toolkit. It can help you craft appropriate goals and milestones, deliver the right feedback at the right time, and offer users meaningful choices in context. It can also help forge an emotional connection between users and technology when it’s applied in a way that helps users feel seen and understood.

    Some apps have lovely interfaces that let users select colors or background images or button placements for a “personalized” experience. While these types of features are nice, they don’t scratch the itch of belonging that true personalization does. When personalization works, it’s because it reflects something essential about the user back to them. That doesn’t mean it has to be incredibly deep, but it does need to be somewhat more meaningful than whether the user has a pink or green background on their home screen.

    Personalized Preferences

    During onboarding or early in your users’ product experience, allow them to personalize preferences that will shape their experiences in meaningful ways (not just color schemes and dashboard configurations). For example, Fitbit asks people their preferred names, and then greets them periodically using their selection. Similarly, LoseIt asks users during setup if they enjoy using data and technology as part of their weight loss process (Figure 9.3). Users who say yes are given an opportunity to integrate trackers and other devices with the app; users who say no are funneled to a manual entry experience. The user experience changes to honor something individual about the user.

    Screenshots of the LoseIt app showing it asking whether a user enjoys looking at data and using technology then acknowledging their choice.
    Fig 9.3 LoseIt gives users an opportunity to share their technology preferences during onboarding and then uses that choice to shape their future experience.

    If you can, recall back to ancient times when Facebook introduced an algorithmic sort of posts in the newsfeed. Facebook users tend to be upset anytime there’s a dramatic change to the interface, but their frustration with this one has persisted, for one core reason: Facebook to this day reverts to its own sorting algorithm as a default, even if a user has selected to organize content by date instead. This repeated insistence on their preference over users’ makes it less likely that users will feel “seen” by Facebook.[2]

    Personalized Recommendations

    If you’ve ever shopped online, you’ve probably received personalized recommendations. Amazon is the quintessential example of a recommendation engine. Other commonly encountered personalized recommendations include Facebook’s “People You May Know” and Netflix’s “Top Picks for [Your Name Here].” These tools use algorithms that suggest new items based on data about what people have done in the past.

    Recommendation engines can follow two basic models of personalization. The first one is based on products or items. Each item is tagged with certain attributes. For example, if you were building a workout recommendation engine, you might tag the item of “bicep curls” with “arm exercise,” “upper arm,” and “uses weights.” An algorithm might then select “triceps pulldowns” as a similar item to recommend, since it matches on those attributes. This type of recommendation algorithm says, “If you liked this item, you will like this similar item.”

    The second personalization model is based on people. People who have attributes in common are identified by a similarity index. These similarity indices can include tens or hundreds of variables to precisely match people to others who are like them in key ways. Then the algorithm makes recommendations based on items that lookalike users have chosen. This recommendation algorithm says, “People like you liked these items.”

    In reality, many of the more sophisticated recommendation engines (like Amazon’s) blend the two types of algorithms in a hybrid approach. And they’re effective. McKinsey estimates that 35% of what Amazon sells and 75% of what Netflix users watch are recommended by these engines.

    Don’t Overwhelm

    Sometimes what appear to be personalized recommendations can come from a much simpler sort of algorithm that doesn’t take an individual user’s preferences into account at all. These algorithms might just surface the suggestions that are most popular among all users, which isn’t always a terrible strategy. Some things are popular for a reason. Or recommendations could be made in a set order that doesn’t depend on user characteristics at all. This appears to be the case with the Fabulous behavior change app that offers users a series of challenges like “drink water,” “eat a healthy breakfast,” and “get morning exercise,” regardless of whether these behaviors are already part of their routine or not.

    When recommendation algorithms work well, they can help people on the receiving end feel like their preferences and needs are understood. When I browse the playlists Spotify creates for me, I see several aspects of myself reflected. There’s a playlist with my favorite 90s alt-rock, one with current artists I like, and a third with some of my favorite 80s music (Figure 9.4). Amazon has a similar ability to successfully extrapolate what a person might like from their browsing and purchasing history. I was always amazed that even though I didn’t buy any of my kitchen utensils from Amazon, they somehow figured out that I have the red KitchenAid line.

    Spotify's Daily Mixes showcasing three distinct sets of musical styles based on the user's listening habits.
    Fig 9.4 Spotify picks up on the details of users’ musical selections to construct playlists that reflect multiple aspects of their tastes.

    A risk to this approach is that recommendations might become redundant as the database of items grows. Retail products are an easy example; for many items, once people have bought one, they likely don’t need another, but algorithms aren’t always smart enough to stop recommending similar purchases (see Figure 9.5). The same sort of repetition can happen with behavior change programs. There are only so many different ways to set reminders, for example, so at some point it’s a good idea to stop bombarding a user with suggestions on the topic.

    A tweet from Andy Richter saying 'I ordered a toilet seat from Amazon and now based on the ads I see they must think I have an insatiable toilet seat addiction'
    Fig 9.5 When a user only needs a finite number of something, or has already satisfied a need, it’s easy for recommendations to become redundant.

    Don’t Be Afraid to Learn

    Data-driven personalization comes with another set of risks. The more you know about users, the more they expect you to provide relevant and accurate suggestions. Even the smartest technology will get things wrong sometimes. Give your users opportunities to point out if your product is off-base, and adjust accordingly. Not only will this improve your accuracy over time, but it will also reinforce your users’ feelings of being cared for.

    Alfred was a recommendation app developed by Clever Sense to help people find new restaurants based on their own preferences, as well as input from their social networks. One of Alfred’s mechanisms for gathering data was to ask users to confirm which restaurants they liked from a list of possibilities (see Figure 9.6). Explicitly including training in the experience helped Alfred make better and better recommendations while also giving users the opportunity to chalk errors up to a need for more training.[3]

    The Alfred app takes a guess at places the user might enjoy for dinner and asks if any of them are right.
    Fig 9.6 Alfred included a learning mode where users would indicate places they already enjoyed eating. That data helped improve Alfred’s subsequent recommendations.

    Having a mechanism for users to exclude some of their data from an algorithm can also be helpful. Amazon allows users to indicate which items in their purchase history should be ignored when making recommendations—a feature that comes in handy if you buy gifts for loved ones whose tastes are very different from yours.

    On the flip side, deliberately throwing users a curve ball is a great way to learn more about their tastes and preferences. Over time, algorithms are likely to become more consistent as they get better at pattern matching. Adding the occasional mold-breaking suggestion can prevent boredom and better account for users’ quirks. Just because someone loves meditative yoga doesn’t mean they don’t also like going mountain biking once in a while, but most recommendation engines won’t learn that because they’ll be too busy recommending yoga videos and mindfulness exercises. Every now and then add something into the mix that users won’t expect. They’ll either reject it or give it a whirl; either way, your recommendation engine gets smarter.

    Personalized Coaching

    At some point, recommendations in the context of behavior change may become something more robust: an actual personalized plan of action. When recommendations grow out of the “you might also like” phase into “here’s a series of steps that should work for you,” they become a little more complicated. Once a group of personalized recommendations have some sort of cohesiveness to systematically guide a person toward a goal, it becomes coaching.

    More deeply personalized coaching leads to more effective behavior change. One study by Dr. Vic Strecher, whom you met in Chapter 3, showed that the more a smoking cessation coaching plan was personalized, the more likely people were to successfully quit smoking. A follow-up study by Dr. Strecher’s team used fMRI technology to discover that when people read personalized information, it activates areas of their brain associated with the self (see Figure 9.7). That is, people perceive personalized information as self-relevant on a neurological level.

    A front and side scan from an MRI showing activation (in yellow) in the prefrontal cortex.
    Fig 9.7 This is an fMRI image showing activation in a person’s medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), an area of the brain associated with the self. The brain activity was recorded after showing people personalized health information.

    This is important because people are more likely to remember and act on relevant information. If you want people to do something, personalize the experience that shows them how.

    From a practical perspective, personalized coaching also helps overcome a common barrier: People do not want to spend a lot of time reading content. If your program can provide only the most relevant items while leaving the generic stuff on the cutting room floor, you’ll offer more concise content that people may actually read.

  • Color Craft & Counterpoint: A Designer’s Life with Color Vision Deficiency

    So, what is it like to be color blind and also work in the web design and development industry? I'll answer that question throughout this article, but it's something that's always factored into my thoughts, given my passion for design and now my career. I wonder if having “normal” vision would have made me a better artist growing up. Would it make me better at my job now? Would I have pursued a more design-oriented career, as opposed to one that’s more dev-focused? These are just some of the things that pop into my head.

    As to my job and my color vision, no, colorblindness doesn’t affect my work as much as you’d think. During design meetings, I can quickly point out areas where we need to reconsider our color palette. While reviewing layouts, I’m able to explain why we need to evaluate how—and if—we’re only conveying information with color. I like that I can bring a singular perspective to the table and a voice for others like me; I am able to offer insights that others don’t necessarily have.

    When you can see a larger set of colors, it’s easy to gloss over those issues because they’re functionally invisible in the moment. If a design team doesn’t have a member who sees color differently, it’s important they find a way to test with actual users who do. There is no substitute for the real thing. 

    Between workarounds anyone can use when color-sensitive situations crop up, and knowing how to separate myth from actual, smart usability practices for vision differences (and which design tools to use)—I want to set the record straight on a few things about designing with color and designing for color accessibility.

    What it means to be color blind

    The term color vision deficiency, or CVD, more accurately reflects the type of impairment I have.

    When someone hears that I’m color blind, most immediately think that I can’t see colors whatsoever—that my entire field of vision is in grayscale, that I’m truly color blind. The term is very misleading and confusing because most people living with CVD are able to see many colors. (There are people who have a type of CVD called “monochromacy,” which is complete color blindness. About 1 in 30,000 people are affected, and they see the world in shades of gray.)  

    Red-green color blindness is the most culturally-familiar type, but CVD is a lot more interesting and varies far more in definition.

    So what colors can’t you see?

    I have been asked this question more times than I can count. My answer is always the same: it’s practically impossible for me to say. For me personally, colors become harder to distinguish the less bold they are. I can attest with absolute certainty that the sky is blue, a stop sign is red, the grass is green, and Big Bird is yellow. I can see those colors because—whether by design or by mother nature—they’re bold. But start placing certain colors adjacent to each other, and it becomes more difficult for me. There are no colors that I can’t see, rather, certain colors become muddied and start blending together. It’s not the same for everyone; that’s just my version of CVD.

    As light sensors go, humans don’t have the best eyes for color. Truth be told, they’re subpar compared to most species. WE are dismally color blind—as a species. 

    On top of that, normal, “accurate” color vision varies from person to person; only minor anatomical differences determine whether your eyes are normal, “color blind,” or have extra (!) color vision powers. Let’s unpack all of that.

    Without getting too technical, what I can tell you is that our retinas are responsible for our color vision. Retinas have two main types of cells: rods and cones. Rods are primarily responsible for reading brightness/intensity levels, while cones are more specialized for detail and for picking up a particular range of light wavelengths. A person considered to have normal color vision has three types of cones, one each for bandwidths of short, medium, and long wavelengths of light. The bandwidth each cone can perceive is shaped like a bell curve and is unique to that cone inside your eye, and there are overlaps between cones. Cones also don’t actually correspond to specific colors, but because long wavelengths fall more toward the red part of the spectrum, medium wavelengths hover closer to green, and short wavelengths tend toward blue, you’ll hear them called red, green, and blue cones, due to sheer convenience (Fig. 1).

    Spectral diagram of three bell curves (one each for short-, medium-, and long-wavelength cones), indicating their typical ranges and peak response points.

    Fig. 1. Normalized cone response spectra in humans for short (S), medium (M), and long (L) wavelengths. Notice the overlapping nature of the bell curves, and that the peak sensitivity for each cone doesn’t neatly match up with red, green, and blue.

    Color vision deficiencies occur because one or more of these cones is missing or has limited sensitivity (such as a narrow range), or when color perception in the brain is influenced by various other phenomena. This means that those colors in the spectrum effectively “drop out,” but since the light is still there, the brain translates it into a color based on peripheral data picked up by the other cones, combined with its brightness level.

    Since color vision is based on how our eyes and brain perceive light, and since our eyes have different genetic sensitivities to light, we can say that “accurate” color vision is somewhat subjective. Even people with “accurate” color vision don’t see things exactly the same way. 

    Some people even have a fourth cone cell in their retinas; "tetrachromats" have enhanced color differentiation due to extra sensitivity between red and green. The extra cone actually came standard for most mammals in the past, but ongoing studies have suggested that 12% of the world's women might still have this fourth type of cone.

    There are some colors and wavelengths we can’t see because our eyes don’t have the right sensors, but for others, it’s due to anatomical make-up. The lens and cornea physically block very short wavelengths; it's why we can’t see ultraviolet light directly, even though we have the sensor capability. For people with aphakia (lack of a lens in one or both eyes, whether congenital or due to surgical removal), that’s not a problem; they see the color variations in near ultraviolet light naturally.

    Inside look at living with CVDs

    I think each person who has a CVD has their own set of challenges. There are also a lot of commonly-experienced situations, social and professional obstacles, and forms of discrimination and bullying we’re expected to just quietly put up with. 

    Vision disabilities and color vision differences are often treated as quirky, entertaining phenomena on some mysterious map between normal vision and “blind.” People with CVDs encounter condescending remarks and dismissive treatment as part of daily life. It’s an invisible and misunderstood struggle that doesn’t have to be that way. I want to make a difference, and it fuels my desire to educate people on this topic.

    Insults and passive-aggressive comments

    I’ve heard my fair share of passive-aggressive comments about my career choice. Also about my passion for art and design. Because how could I possibly be a designer if I can’t see colors? 

    A question like that is condescending on two levels. One, it’s as if no one should be allowed to be an artist unless they can see colors accurately. And two, it shows a complete insularity or misconstrued awareness about color vision deficiencies.

    Nowadays, I work primarily as a front-end developer, but early on in my career, I designed web layouts in Photoshop. I didn’t code anything. I didn’t even write HTML. I never had an issue with colors because I was typically starting with a client’s corporate branding guidelines, so I was able to take those colors and use color palette generators to help me build out the look of my designs. I was never called out for making poor color choices, so I felt like I was doing a good job. It wasn’t until I was having a conversation with my boss, a man I looked up to as a professional, when I dropped my guard and mentioned that I was color blind. He then proceeded to question my entire decision to pursue the career I love. For a new professional, it was a pretty rough and demoralizing encounter to sit through and try to process, to say the least. 

    Justifying my skill set

    It feels as though I have had to justify my career decisions and my skill set on a regular basis over the years—as if CVD prevents me from being good at my job. By and large, it’s truthfully not something that comes up most of the time in my day-to-day work. 

    At this point, most coworkers only find out that I have a CVD if I talk about it. Sometimes I even get a kick out of seeing how many months can stretch out before a situation comes along where I can mention it. It’s become an increasingly minor issue over the years, what with updated software and web technologies I can put to use when needed.

    Life via form factor (or winging it)

    Think for a moment about ways that color is used to convey information in the world around you. One thing that comes to my mind would be traffic lights. Color is used to let drivers know how they should proceed. No additional information is provided in case a driver is color blind. Traffic lights also use two of the colors most commonly associated with color blindness: red and green. Thankfully, most traffic lights have a common form factor. The top light is red, the middle light is yellow, and the bottom light is green. Even if I couldn’t tell the color, as long as I can tell which light is lit, then I’m able to get the necessary information.

    Unfortunately, not all designs are created equal; there may be no secondary or supplemental indicator to go by. When something is only conveyed with color, that’s a gap where information can get lost on a large group of people.

    Everyday social interactions

    Exchanging stories with others who grew up color blind sounds unfailingly familiar. Most of us have had similar experiences when it comes to people first finding out. As in part Q&A, part dog and pony show.

    We’re constantly asked, “What color is this?” (points to a nearby object) and “What color does this look like?” Then we watch as the person who asked us the question has their MIND BLOWN because we can’t see the correct color. Meanwhile, getting the color correct can sometimes be worse. First, there’s a look of confusion on the asker’s face. They can’t comprehend how we can both be color blind and see color at the same time, which leads to even more questions and “tests.” It turns what could have been a brief exchange into a lengthy and technical conversation, maybe at a bad time or inconvenient location.

    What I ended up learning is that these encounters will never go away, since most people I come into contact with have no knowledge about color blindness. I can either get annoyed by getting asked so many questions, or I can use it as an opportunity to educate.

    Getting passed over for jobs

    The first time I was passed over for a job specifically due to my CVD was when I was a teenager. It was a part-time job after school, and I was told—point-blank—it was because I’m color blind. A position had opened up in the frame shop at a big-box crafts store I’d been working at for over a year. After having been told I was getting the position, my boss somehow found out I’m color blind, then informed me that I wasn’t qualified to work in the frames department for that very reason. That was it, no discussion. I had to watch the position go to one of my coworkers. 

    That may have been a minor blip on my teenage radar at the time, but little did I realize it was the first of many. Between the discrimination and frustration I dealt with at various jobs over the years, I eventually convinced myself to not tell new employers or coworkers about my color vision deficiency. I wasn’t going to lie about it if I got asked, but I wasn’t going to offer up that information unsolicited.

    After working in the web industry for many years, I eventually transitioned to a new approach. At this point, I have successfully proven to myself that my color vision deficiency doesn’t negatively impact my job, and that bringing it up via the lens of accessibility makes it more of a natural thing I can discuss with coworkers so we can put it to constructive use on projects.

    Inside look at how I do my job

    Relying on tools for help

    Being a professional front-end developer and designer with a CVD is easier than ever because there are so many tools and resources out there. Professionally, I have relied on color picker tools, websites that offer predefined color combinations, image editing software, and the mere fact that all colors can be represented by a hexadecimal value. 

    In front-end tasks, I’m able to modify my code editor to suit my needs, for instance. I can use light or dark mode and a wide variety of color themes. I often use high-contrast themes that have been thoughtfully designed for developers with color vision deficiencies.

    Tools and resources I use regularly:

    • Trello — Trello has a nice item labelling feature that takes CVDs into consideration. Not only can users label cards based on color, they can also use stripes, zigzags, polka dots, squiggly lines, and other shapes.
    • VSCode — Visual Studio Code is my preferred code editor. I’m able to customize the interface with pre-built themes, and I can further modify those themes if I need to. I’m currently using one called Vue Theme, which I feel works really well for me. I choose themes based on what feels like the appropriate color contrast for my specific color vision deficiency. I lean toward dark backgrounds with brighter, higher-contrasting text colors that stand out against the background color. Another one of my favorites is Sarah Drasners Night Owl theme.
    • Dev Tools — Whether it’s Chrome, Firefox, or Safari, I am constantly in the browser’s dev tools. There’s an ever-increasing number of features in dev tools that I can use to get the color information I need. Something I find handy is being able to Shift + click on a color value to cycle through various color formats (3 digit and 6 digit hexadecimal, RGB, HSL, and color name).
    • Color Pickers — I installed a color picker Chrome browser extension called Eye Dropper to help me quickly grab colors from web pages. It allows me to sample colors from any web page, and provides me with the color in every format. This provides me with a secondary reassurance that the color I wrote in my CSS is truly being rendered. I wish I could trust the code as I see it in dev tools, but occasionally my eyes play tricks on me—I would swear that the color I’m seeing rendered on the screen isn’t the color value in dev tools. When I think that’s the issue, I can just grab the eye dropper and triple-check.
    • Contrast Checker — I use the WebAIM Contrast Checker to make sure that the colors I’m using are in compliance with the guidelines.

    Accessibility and inclusion

    Statistically, 1 out of every 12 men and 1 out of every 200 women have a color vision deficiency. Across the world, approximately 300 million people are color blind. Those are significant numbers to factor in, especially if all those users are hampered by usability issues. Color alone can prevent them from completing interactions, receiving pertinent information, and from having the same experience as users with better color vision. That last fact alone is reason enough to pay attention to the concerns outlined here.

    Color disabilities and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

    The ADA doesn’t specifically call out color blindness; it simply refers to visual disabilities. However, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) does specifically mention color. Compliance with the WCAG helps as a first step toward ensuring your site is usable by everyone, regardless of disabilities, but keep in mind that there could be additional factors at play with your site which may be “compliant” but still create difficulties for users.

    Color contrast

    For those of us who have a CVD, one of the more prevalent issues is a site’s color contrast; trouble with specific colors doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have trouble with the site. 

    If a site doesn’t have the proper color contrast ratio (text color on top of background color), then the site’s information may be more difficult to see or understand. WebAIM, a non-profit organization, published reports in 2019 and 2020 outlining accessibility issues in the top one million home pages. As of February 2020, 86.3% of home pages tested had insufficient contrast.

    So, what does that mean? It means that the information on those sites is not being conveyed equally, to everyone. That’s 863,000 of the most influential and high-traffic sites on the web delivering an unequal user experience to billions of users worldwide on a daily basis.

    Data visualization

    Color contrast is not the only issue when it comes to color blindness and accessibility. Data visualization is one area in particular that often relies heavily on color to convey information. It is also a prime example of what the WCAG mentions in their success criteria: 

    Color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.

    – Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 - Success Criterion 1.4.1 Use of Color

    I follow a few accounts on Twitter that bring attention to improper use of color in data visualizations. I would recommend getting started with these—they provide a lot of useful information and raise awareness surrounding issues that those of us with a CVD face:

    Thankfully, making charts, graphs, and other visual aids color accessible isn’t that difficult. There is no need to remove colors altogether. Just try to use colorblind-friendly color palettes and don’t use problematic color combinations. Make sure all the data in your charts is labeled appropriately so that your readers can get the information in multiple ways. Our World in Data—a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems such as poverty, disease, climate change, war, and inequality—has great examples of data visualizations of all types that I would consider to be colorblind-friendly.

    Whenever possible, I try to provide feedback from the perspective of someone who has a CVD, but I don’t make recommendations for specific color changes; I leave the color choices to those who aren’t color blind. Instead, I describe which elements I find difficult to interpret, and why. I tell them which information is getting lost on someone like me. The hope is that my feedback informs other designers of the need to make charts, tables, graphs, and maps more inclusive.

    Adding people with a CVD to your team

    As far as those of us who do have a CVD and work in the web industry: we are just as skilled and knowledgeable about our professions as anyone else, and there are plenty of ways that we can contribute to the visual aspects of projects—especially regarding color. We have the ability to review designs and report back whether any information is getting lost due to poor color contrast. We can inform designers if the chosen color palette is problematic. We can be the test subjects for our fellow UX designers during their usability research.

    There is also another point I’d like to get across here. There is a common misconception that a designer with a CVD doesn’t have the ability to do their job effectively. Hiring managers and other coworkers often make this assumption. Much to the contrary, people with CVDs have ways they work smart to work around their limitations. I mentioned earlier about the different tools I personally use to help me in my job. There are plenty of web industry professionals like me who use features in the tools at their disposal, getting the job done right, and so seamlessly that no one would guess they are color blind.

    That brings me to a broader point—the importance of hiring people with disabilities. I won’t go into the many, many, many reasons why companies should do that. Rather, I’ll mention some of the benefits from a design perspective. 

    First and foremost, if you don’t have a disability, then how can you say conclusively that you know your product will work for those who do? 

    The answer is, you can’t. Not without proper testing. Sure, there are companies out there that can help designers and developers conduct usability tests. But how amazing would it be if you had team members who could provide you with that invaluable feedback throughout the duration of each project? Think about all the knowledge you’ve accumulated about your profession. Think about all of the wisdom you can teach others. Now think about all the knowledge and wisdom that could be passed on to you by teammates living with a disability. Together, you can make your products truly inclusive. Trying to do it separately will always produce and reinforce limitations.

    Critical CVD tips for your projects

    Color can enhance the message, but shouldn’t be the messenger. UX and UI designers have within their power the ability to take color blindness into consideration—or to ignore it. You can make sure information is conveyed to everyone, not just people who see color “normally.” That is a great responsibility, with real life-or-death repercussions at stake for many users.

    For those of us in the web industry, there are specific action items I’d like you to take away from all this.

    Design color palettes for “everyone”

    Carefully plan your color palette—not for those who are color blind, but for everyone. Always keep in mind that ALL the information you provide in your product needs to be easy to recognize and easy to understand by anyone who touches it. We can get too familiar with what we’re doing and forget that information is delivered in multifaceted ways, so we need to be mindful of what’s specifically being conveyed by color. 

    I highly recommend Geri Coady’s book, Color Accessibility Workflows; it’s a fantastic resource. In it, she discusses color blindness, choosing appropriate color, compliance and testing, implementation, providing alternatives, and she includes some tips and tricks.

    Don’t assume, and be careful what you ask 

    Do not assume which colors are difficult to see—actually do the research and testing. At minimum, please check the color contrast in your layout.

    The reason I say that is because although the ADA doesn’t call out color blindness specifically, it does call out visual disabilities. In the U.S., it is illegal in the workplace (not to mention insulting and unwise) to ask people if they have a disability. In my book, that also applies to color blindness, and while it may not be illegal to ask in non-work contexts, it is definitely personally intrusive. 

    However, if people volunteer to help you with your testing and they offer up that information about themselves, that’s a different matter. It may also be a good idea to reach out to some companies that specialize in user testing with people with disabilities. 

    Companies such as Level Access help organizations incorporate accessibility into their daily workflows. They offer tailored training, auditing services, document remediation, and other services to help organizations achieve—and maintain—compliance with Section 508 and the WCAG.

    Test with colorblind simulators AND colorblind users

    Don’t rely on colorblind simulators alone. I could write an essay about this topic. Those simulators are not accurate enough to give you a proper understanding of color vision deficiencies.

    Seek out first-hand perspectives 

    Actually speak to someone who has a color vision deficiency to get their perspective, and listen with an open mind. I can’t recommend this enough. There is no better way to get an understanding of what it’s like to live with a CVD than to hear about it first hand.

    Stand up for coworkers and users

    Don’t make light of color vision deficiencies. It’s difficult enough living with it, let alone being an artist with it or trying to make sense of information you literally can’t see.

    Tools and further reading

    Accounts on Twitter 

    Usability and UX

    Organizational resources

    Color perception and the brain

    Continuing to make progress

    Loving design is something that has always come naturally to me; I didn’t have to force myself down this path. Growing up, I didn’t know that I wanted the exact job that I have, but by the time I graduated high school in 2000, I knew that I wanted to combine my passions for art and computers. 

    I’m thankful to have been around long enough to have watched the web community evolve into what it is today. I’m thankful for all the tools that exist to help me do what I love in spite of my color vision deficiency. I’m thankful that color blindness is recognized by the WCAG, and that considerations are made for people living with color vision differences.

    There is a lot of information out there, and I recommend that people go out and read as much as they can on the topic. If you’re on Twitter, then follow people who have a CVD, or the organizations that deal with it in various ways. There is so much knowledge that can be gained by doing some simple research and adding it into your workflow.

  • Building the Woke Web: Web Accessibility, Inclusion & Social Justice

    What would your life be like without the internet? Not if it didn’t exist at all, but if you were locked out of it? Would your days be different? Unrecognizable, even? Keeping your answers to that in mind, do you think access to the internet is a human right? Do we need to be able to access it to fully participate in modern society? To answer “yes” to these questions would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

    Living without internet

    Globally, over 40% of people still do not have access to the internet. That lack of access and the issues it creates have helped motivate digital equity initiatives like Tech Goes Home and the Good Things Foundation.

    Having no access to the internet creates problems in many parts of modern life. In the UK, bank branches are closing, forcing many to do their banking online. Many utilities now require internet access to request or amend services, or get better deals. Civil services, such as registering to vote, are increasingly online. As this continues, people who have no access to broadband or who have limited access to mobile data fall behind—this often includes homeless people, elderly people, and those on low incomes who are already operating at a disadvantage.

    In the UK, only 37% of people living in social housing are online. Approximately 1 in 5 adults with a disability in the UK have not used the internet recently, and they make up half of the people who have not accessed the internet in the last three months. Globally, the UN target for affordable mobile data is 2% of monthly income for 1GB data, and yet many countries are still nowhere near reaching this goal. Not having access to the internet is expensive, locking you out of essential services and a surfeit of helpful information. Giving people full access to the splendors and knowledge of the online world should be imperative for everyone who works on it.

    Digital exclusion is when someone is unable or unwilling to access information and services online. In the UK, 10% of the adult population was digitally excluded in 2018. The number of people in the UK lacking basic digital skills is decreasing, but in 2018, 8% of adults in the UK (4.3 million people) were estimated to have zero basic digital skills, which means they are unable to do things like buy items online, verify information, or send an email. Women are more likely to have no basic digital skills. 

    Being unable to send an email, submit an application online, or use a government site is a huge barrier to civic and societal engagement. Shopping in person, rather than online, can mean you are consistently overcharged for your purchase by as much as 13%. Not knowing how to use computers can mean you earn less in the first place. Not being able to use the internet can mean that you spend more time doing tasks such as registering to vote, paying council tax in the UK, or researching your next holiday

    Being able to access the internet has social and psychological ramifications too. Loneliness is well documented as a risk factor for a number of health issues, as well as early death. Being online can help you feel less alone. Half of all people with disabilities surveyed report feeling lonely in the UK, and a quarter of them are lonely every day. People with disabilities are more likely to be a captive audience to apps and websites using their data inappropriately or engaging in other unethical practices. This may be because they rely on a particular site to interact with other people with disabilities, because they lack the tools to visit other sites, or lack other suitable websites or apps to use.

    Richer households are more likely to have full basic digital skills. The UK Office for National Statistics found that people without basic digital skills are three times as likely to be in low-income bands. In 2018, 12% of 11-to-18-year-olds had no broadband access on a tablet or computer, which 68% of them said made it difficult to do homework. Further, households in which one or more of their members have a disability make up half of those living in poverty in the UK.

    Provide non-online options for vital services

    If you work in government, food supply, healthcare, or utilities, there is no excuse for not providing offline options. In doing so you are excluding some of the most marginalized people. The internet is amazing, but it is not the only way to share information.

    A non-exhaustive list of other barriers

    Having access to the internet in the first place is one issue, and feeling welcome, or even safe is quite another. Even when your broadband connection is as good as can be hoped for, there are many other ways you can be discouraged or stopped from using the internet.

    Trolling and threats

    Online harassment is one of many barriers stopping people from accessing the internet. Diane Abbott, the first black woman Member of Parliament (MPs) in the UK, received almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the 2017 General Election that decided how voters would be represented in Parliament and which party would govern. Black and Asian women MPs got 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs. The abuse directed at Dianne Abott amounted to 10 times as much as was received by any other female MP, according to an Amnesty International study.

    Mermaids is a charity that supports transgender children and their parents in the UK. Their CEO Susie Green—herself the parent of a transgender child—has been targeted with abuse and threats. The rise in abusive and threatening comments led to Mermaids’ Twitter account having to block up to 20 accounts a day.

    Trolling isn’t an easy problem to fix. Allowing users to block certain words and hide certain replies on Twitter is a start, but listening to people from marginalized backgrounds and their complaints and ideas would be another critical place to begin. 

    We need to think long and hard about what good moderation looks like and what guidelines work in online spaces to ensure those accessing them don’t have to wade through a tide of bigotry.

    Sidelining and hiding certain groups

    Information and support online are vital for at-risk LGBT people, whether to help them escape dangerous situations, access support, or find community. Yet in schools, words relating to LGBT issues are often blocked. On YouTube, videos relating to LGBT issues are demonetized, age-restricted, or even removed. This isn’t because the content is sexually explicit or not safe for work. It’s just discrimination. TikTok recently admitted it actively discriminates against certain kinds of users—namely the fat, queer, disabled, low-income, and “ugly”—in certain feeds, under the guise of paternalistic protection from bullying.

    Exclusionary design

    People with disabilities are the original life hackers because our motivation is so high. If we don’t hack we often go without.

    Liz Jackson, “Designing for Inclusivity

    Many people with disabilities rely on screen readers and screen reader compatible sites to use the internet. Screen readers can be prohibitively expensive; while there are free options, one of the most popular screen readers at the time of writing costs nearly $1200 for a professional license. Even with incredible innovation coming from within the disabled community, there’s more that everyone else can do. In their February 2020 evaluation, WebAIM found that 98.1% of the top million websites had detectable WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2 errors.

    The most common WCAG 2 failures—such as missing alt text for images, having empty links, and missing form labels—would be relatively simple to fix. Because they’re shared among most websites, concentrating on fixing them would have a huge overall benefit for the internet. But as long as web accessibility standards are applied without rigor, aspects of a vast number of sites remain inaccessible even once users have a screen reader or other assistive technology.

    Hostile conditions

    Inclusion is just as pertinent as accessibility, and tackling only one side of the equation will leave some people just as locked out. Accessibility without inclusion is not real accessibility. The curb cut effect, wherein improving access for people with disabilities improves access for all, isn’t the only reason to increase web accessibility. We have a moral responsibility as tech workers to use any privilege we may have to facilitate, respond to, and support the efforts of marginalized people who are working to carve out accessible spaces for themselves.

    Hostile conditions, created or reinforced by engineering and design choices, make being on the internet harder for people who are queer, of color, or disabled. They make it more difficult to access life-saving spaces, social spaces, and civic spaces—both on and offline. Thorough accessibility and real inclusion are the solutions to these problems. To survive, marginalized people must work both against and through the abuse and accessibility issues they face on online platforms, whereas everyone else gets to use the internet as they wish. This replicates the injustices of offline in the online world.

    An incomplete list of solutions

    Center the voices and experiences of the marginalized

    There isn’t one easy solution but to start finding the solutions that are possible we need to center the voices and experiences of the marginalized. Marginalized people with insights to share aren’t hard to find when you start listening. They are your next users, your future developers, your fledgling marketing team. Excluding them reduces your options, your appeal, and your breadth of ideas.

    Hire teams that are diverse on every axis

    Hiring inclusively creates teams full of people who aren’t like you or each other. And those kinds of teams build better products, bring better ideas to the table, and better reflect the user base of the majority of products. It is important to remember that diversity isn’t just about race or hiring women; there are neurodiverse people, people with physical disabilities, people of other genders, people from various backgrounds, and many other marginalizations than could be listed here.

    Proactively promote inclusion and harness your team’s diversity

    Help disabled and otherwise marginalized people both develop and enforce policies and practices that protect them and allow them to thrive. If there are no disabled people, or otherwise marginalized or underrepresented people on your team, take a hard look at your hiring practices, your work culture, even the layout of your office. If you can’t find these problems, hire experts. Pay specialist consultants and recruiters to root out the problems. This is an investment that makes moral, logical, and business sense. The inclusive team you build will be able to spot potential issues in a way that a squad of people who pattern match to narrow ideas of what a tech worker should look and behave like never would. Create a culture where the marginalized members of your team feel supported, feel heard, and are buoyed through their work with a sense of safety in their workplace.

    Avoid legal issues preemptively

    Beyonce and Domino’s Pizza were both sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which contains provisions to force the companies involved to change their websites. Beyonce’s case is still in progress, but Domino’s both lost their suit and had their appeal tossed out. Both cases were about visually impaired people being unable to access their sites and complete purchases. Accessibility is often seen as a costly detour from the “real work” of building projects, but that has never and will never be true. You want users, and users of all stripes want to use your products.

    The banks HSBC, Metro Bank, and Halifax made it hard for visually impaired users to access all of their services online. When HSBC was told they had made it difficult for a user with visual impairments to access bank statements, they replied, “don’t worry, we’ll send you a video.” The Equality Act 2010 in the UK means that these users can sue. In addition to serving the far more important goal of providing people with disabilities equal access, embracing inclusive design from the outset would have saved these companies time while enhancing their trust among the public rather than putting it at risk. Fixing the content is usually much cheaper for the organization than fighting the matter in court.

    Advocate for accessibility and inclusivity in any way you can, be it big or small

    Caption your videos, Instagram content, Facebook photos, Twitter photos, conference and meetup talks, etc. Make information needed to access your product or service available in multiple formats. Speak up against problems in your workplace; if an internal hiring tool is hard for you to use, it is hard for others. If one of your websites has errors from WCAG 2’s list, advocate for taking time to fix it. If the gender options available on forms are “man,” “woman,” and “other,” speak up yourself, tell your manager, question whether you need to collect gender information at all. Don’t stay silent.

    Test your website with tools, devices, and real end users

    Run tools like axe, ChromeLens, and Lighthouse during your build processes. Do manual testing with the actual devices that are used by your end-users, and test with real users with access requirements. If you’re a team of one or a few, ensure that you run these tools from MVP to finished product—the errors that are the easiest to catch and fix will mostly be caught by automated tools, and they are a great start for learning more about accessibility. Websites such as The A11y Project compile resources, and there are other websites, Slack groups, Twitter accounts, and newsletters that are also incredibly helpful for answering any questions. The automated tools will give you the keywords to search for.

    Working towards an accessible, inclusive internet

    Web accessibility is not an optional extra. What inclusion looks like in practice will depend on your products, your users, and what you intend to achieve, but for it to be real and meaningful in any context, it cannot be an afterthought. Engineering that makes inclusion an afterthought is engineering that operates without morality and in doing so actively enacts harm. The fact that this kind of engineering is commonplace on the internet doesn’t make it OK. It just highlights that the way we have built the web is fundamentally broken. We can do better.

    “Wokeness,” at least as conceived by those divorced from the black experience and AAVE, isn’t a great concept. The way it is used in popular culture makes it sound as if being a good person is a switch you flip on and off; you’re woke or ’sleep. But wokeness is not the end state, it’s the beginning of a journey. All the tenets of intersectional feminism, web accessibility, and diversity and inclusion are inextricably tied up in making the web a better place, for all and by all. Access to the internet is essential. Staying woke, and acting on that wokeness, is what will lead us to a better internet for everyone.

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