Plus 22 Tips for Accessible Conversation Design You Can Use Today
You’ve written your problem statement, workshopped your bot’s persona, and decided on scope. Now it’s time to design your initial conversation flows but there’s one thing missing— you haven’t thought about accessibility or inclusivity in your design yet. Where do you even start? How do you know when you’ve reached as many users as possible, regardless of their disability status or need for accommodation?
By the end of this article, you’ll have developed a solid foundation for designing bots for all and walk away with 22 practical ways to make your bot more accessible and inclusive today.
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So, how do you even make a bot accessible and inclusive, and why should you care?
To set the scene for where we are today with inclusive and accessible conversational interfaces like chatbots and voice assistants, it’s useful to start with a short history lesson about how accessibility became a relevant consideration in longer-standing fields of design like industrial, architectural, and graphic design.
The origin of accessible design can be tied back to the development of modern medicine, initially manifesting in the physical world through objects such as sliding doors and curb cuts. As people were more likely to survive catastrophic injuries and treatments for illnesses became more effective, life expectancy increased– as did the need to accommodate a wider variety of body types and abilities. By the time modern web technology became ubiquitous, the same accessibility considerations began to transfer over to these virtual experiences. In 1995, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published the first draft of what would be known as the Web Accessibility Content Guidelines (WCAG), a list of recommendations to make web content more accessible.
While web and graphical user interface (GUI) accessibility standards have risen by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, conversation user interface (CUI) design as a niche industry is still in its infancy and WCAG standards have yet to catch up. As conversation designers, the responsibility falls on our shoulders to develop best CUI accessibility practices that govern our work and our users’ experiences.
Cornerstones of Accessibility and Inclusivity in Design
According to the National Disability Authority, “Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it.”
Applying Universal Design principles to any experience improves usability for all, regardless of whether the user is disabled or needs special accommodation. At the same time, any universally designed experience can be easily used by anyone that is pregnant, aging, unable to speak, lacking in fine motor skills, has ADHD, or is cognitively impaired. Universally designed products are about decency and empathy and the celebration of how our differences can light the way to beautiful-designed, accessible products.
Types of Disability
In my experience, voice apps can definitely help people with disabilities, but “people with disabilities” is not a monolithic group. It’s helpful to think about which disabilities bots can help with… but it might also be a mistake to think conversational interfaces are a panacea.
Bryan Sebesta, RAIN
The past century has seen a shift in the way society approaches disabilities. We’ve moved from a medical characterization of a disabled body being inherently unfit for the world to instead viewing disability as a function of the interaction between a person and the (natural, built, cultural, and social) environments that they experience in the world. This is called the Social Model of Disability, and is meant to reframe ideologies associated with disability, though it’s not intended to encompass all experiences and circumstances.
In this model, disabilities are separated into three types:
- Permanent: Permanent disabilities can be physical due to issues with mobility or chronic illness, mental as is the case with ADHD or OCD, intellectual such as with learning disabilities or Down’s syndrome, or sensory, having to do with vision/hearing loss or autism spectrum disorder, for example.
- Temporary: Temporary disabilities include broken limbs that affect mobility, or the inability to speak intelligibly due to laryngitis, etc.
- Situational: Examples of situational disabilities include being unable to open a door because your hands are full, or having the inability to pay attention to the road as you drive because you’re texting instead.
Accessibility, Inclusivity, and Usability
The key factor to inclusion is participation; having as many people as possible be a part of whatever experience you want to provide and having this realized without the people themselves having to make a major effort.
Laura Grimm, Lautmaler
While the physical world requires one set of accessibility accommodations, the virtual world requires a slightly different set. Modern technology has brought about computer or electrical assistive devices, making our virtual world increasingly more accessible. However, when it comes to conversational experiences, there aren’t yet as many official accessibility considerations in place.
According to the W3C, there are three principles to consider when designing virtual experiences for all:
- “Accessibility addresses discriminatory aspects related to equivalent user experience for people with disabilities.” Accessibly designed conversational experiences work well with screen readers and text-to-speech (TTS), can be used by less tech-savvy individuals such as the elderly, and use language comprehensible by even those with lower reading levels such as those who do not speak the language natively.
- “Inclusivity is about diversity, and ensuring involvement of everyone to the greatest extent possible.” For example, using non-gendered nouns or pronouns creates a more inclusive conversation.
- “Usability is about designing products to be effective, efficient, and satisfying.” Usability refers to creating conversations that help, but do not hinder, a quality user experience for all users, though it doesn’t specifically address those with disabilities.
Organizational Benefits of Universal Design
Integrating Universal Design practices into product development, services, and business models benefits not only the end-user, but the organizations and the employees themselves.
Financially, organizations will have the benefit of reduced costs associated with making multiple versions of products to account for disability accommodations, and while there may be higher upfront costs for creating multi-cultural/multi-language products, design teams will spend less time maintaining or adding additional languages. By improving usability for all users, products will more likely reach new audiences or new markets.
So often when people start making [voice and chat] products, they make them in their own image… You don’t see your own blindspots… Diversity in teams is so paramount.
Elly Call, Aquent/Schwab Assistant
From an employee perspective, adopting Universal Design practices improves morale and productivity, while offering a better experience for customers as well, contributing to long-term profitability and success. An organization might provide training materials that benefit employees with disabilities and also accommodate for different learning styles. Choosing ergonomic chairs, desks, and keyboards, for example, elevates comfort for all employees as well as someone with arthritis.
How can your conversation designs become more accessible and inclusive?
According to experts at Rain, Salesforce, Lautmaler, and Aquent/Schwab assistant, here are 20 practical ways to make your designs more accessible.
Accessibility and Inclusivity for Chatbots
Putting things in plain, spoken English is really important… It’s safe to say that many for-profit industries have not used plain language in the past to make it exclusionary. It’s an opportunity for us to empower users and give them agency.
Austin Bedford, Salesforce
- Place skip links at the top of the page. Instead of having a single button to access the chatbot on the bottom right of the page, which will likely be one of the last links read by a screen reader, include a “Skip to Chatbot” link higher up.
- Use correct and descriptive labeling for images and banners that appear within your chatbot.
- Limit use of emojis. They can distract or confuse less tech-savvy audiences, and can be interpreted widely between cultures. For example, a screen reader reading the phrase “skin tone +3” is not user friendly, nor is it inclusive.
- Flatten the navigation of your bot by using quick links. This way, someone using keyboard navigation or someone with difficulty typing can benefit from ease of use.
- Links should be tabbable and highlighted when selected by keyboard navigation.
- Use ARIA specifications to improve the performance of assistive technology through HTML. For example, if you use a generic HTML element as navigation, use <role=’button> or <aria-label=”Main Navigation Trigger”> in your tag.
- Use fonts that are intelligible for those with dyslexia. Sans serif fonts such as Arial and Tahoma work well, with 35% tracking (inter-letter space) and a 12-14 point font size.
Accessibility and Inclusivity for Voice Experiences
- Use a voice actor/actress that sounds relatable to your users. If you’re not sure what this may be, recruit a diverse sample of people that are likely to use your voice experience to test with and ask them. If the results are split, you might consider offering more than one voice option.
- Train your speech models on data from users that have heavy accents, non-normative speech patterns, and those that have limited speaking capabilities due to ALS, strokes, etc.
- Allow sufficient time for pauses in between sentences or phrases, and add in pauses that are long enough to to allow users to gather their thoughts before answering a question (this is likely longer than you think).
- Avoid overly complex responses, and opt for simple instructions for tasks.
- Put important information first and actionable items last to aid in memory. For example, “We have 12, 14, and 16 inch pizzas. Which would you like?”
Accessibility and Inclusivity for All Conversational Experiences
- Avoid ambiguous calls to action. Be literal and consistent with your action verbs.
- Offer shortcuts to pertinent use cases such as an option upfront to speak with a live person.
- Reduce the number of steps between question and answer. The more quickly users receive an answer, the better their experience will be.
- Train your bots with multiple dialects and cultural phrasing to be more inclusive and to prevent perpetuating stereotypes or a negative association with certain ways of speaking
- Test with many audiences, disabled populations, and diverse groups to help find your blind spots.
- Adjust the reading-level and comprehensibility depending on your audience of users. Sometimes the “grammatically correct” way of speaking is not actually the clearest way of speaking.
- Always include a “What is that?” or “What does that mean?” intent path in your design.
- Choose gender-nonconforming or gender-neutral language. For example, adding a syllable to nouns in German, such as “Freund:in,” pronounced with a pause or glottal stop, can help women feel more included.
- Use plain language and conduct research around what type of dialect works best for your users.
- Avoid jargon that your users won’t understand, but add jargon that your users do understand.
The Way Forward
People ignore design that ignores people. – Frank Chimero, cofounder of Abstract
Adopting Universal Design principles into your workflow may seem daunting, but it is a part of our professional responsibility as conversation designers. Before pen even hits paper, getting familiar with basic ways to keep your bot accessible and inclusive will save you the time that you’d need to go back and do an accessibility overhaul before you launch. Investing a little bit of time upfront to make sure everyone understands how and why universal design principles apply to your conversational system will put your team in a much better position to launch a product that is truly usable and delightful for all.
If you haven’t yet, watch our AMA: How to Make Your Conversation Designs More Accessible and Inclusive with expert conversation designers from Aquent/Schwab Assistant, Salesforce, Lautmaler, and Rain.