Who are academics writing for?

Many book with fine text lay open on a table top. Who are academics writing for?A lot of money goes into research, but much of it is inaccessible even to the average reader. This is made worse by payment firewalls. If research is government funded it should be free to read. However, that is not how academic publications work. The question is, who are academics writing for and what do they hope to achieve? Here are my editorial thoughts on the topic published in the October 2021 Design for All India Newsletter

If we take Design for All seriously as a research topic, we should also have regard for what we do with that information. We should also have regard for how we communicate that information.

I therefore challenge the current ways in which some academics use the topic to forge a niche in an academically competitive world without due regard to the people they are reflecting in their research. For example, discussing the so-called differences between universal design and inclusive design is more about a discussion between academics than doing something tangible to benefit marginalised groups.

There is so much more work to be done in overcoming structural barriers to inclusion. So why are we not doing it?

It is true that some co-design and participant action research in the universal design space is being carried out. But these examples are usually one-off projects to solve a particular social problem. Research that turns into guidelines or recommendations is useful but often ends up on a shelf. Why is that?

If we are encouraging designers to include more customers and users in their products and places, why aren’t we encouraging academics to include more readers? Plain language summaries of research articles are still rare. Academics write in ways that make their work inaccessible to the majority. Why would they do that?

The visual presentation matters too

Apart from the academic content of articles, there is the visual presentation to consider. Tightly written text in Times New Roman in small font is not conducive to a long reading session. Likewise, large bolded, Italicised font is overpowering and also difficult to read for people with good eyesight. Digital publications can take advantage of web software that adjusts to the type of device the reader is using. More readable layouts with easy navigation are used in blog pages. So why publishers are still using book layout?

Design for All India Newsletter

With that said, the articles in this edition of the Newsletter deviate from the style of previous contributors and have more of a journalistic flavour. By doing so, they ask the readers to reflect on the purpose of the publication and the way in which it is presented both content-wise and in visual format. For a topic that is based on human rights and inclusion, it is essential that academics consider who they are writing about and who they are really writing for.

You can access this editorial and other articles by CUDA directors on the Design for All Newsletter website. Select October 2021 for the full publication. 

Jane Bringolf, Editor. 

UX design without users?

An empty stage flanked by dark red curtains. UX design without users.
UX Theatre – UX design without users.

How can you have User Experience design, or UX design, without focusing on users? When the big bosses say there isn’t time or money. That’s when designers default to trialling designs on their colleagues and family. UX design without user experience happens when corporates just want a good look without actually focusing on users.

The FastCompany website has a very readable article that punches home an important message for all design fields. It’s titled, UX design has a dirty secret:

“UX Theatre is easy to spot: It’s the application of any sort of design methodology without including a single user in the process, or including users but merely for show.”

The article by Tanya Snook claims there are more projects branding themselves as user-centred design than is the actual case. She explains why. First, UX design is a vague concept and not well defined. Design teams find themselves underfunded and unable to do all the work user experience requires. 

Second, design is touted as something everyone can do. This is only true to a point. Being able to do maths doesn’t make everyone an accountant. Thinking from the user’s perspective isn’t UX design either. 

It’s rare to find designers who are good at both design and facilitating design workshops. And designers don’t always have a say in how projects are structured or run.

A call to action

Snook concludes the article with a call to action for designers. She says they have to do more than design and advocate for users and the funding to do it. 

“We can help our organizations improve if we approach UX Theatre from the perspective of critique instead of criticism. We can call out UX Theatre. We can show how testing and research help us design solutions to customer problems, and even anticipate potential problems with new products and services.”

 

Doing plain language is a process

An empty page in a notebook with a pencil and sharpener. Doing plain language is a processAccessibility and universal design have arrived in written language. People who can read and write well, think that everyone else has that capability. But writing a document or webpage in plain language takes a lot of thought. Doing plain language is a process. This point is well made in a blog article.

Kelsie Acton writes about her plain language experiences in a blog post. As with any new idea, we grow with practice. That’s also one of the tenets of universal design: do the best you can with what you have at the time. Then do it better next time – it’s a process of continuous improvement. 

Acton’s article is a great example in itself. It isn’t plain language as such, but it is very easy to read. She explains how she thinks about plain language and the difficulties it poses sometimes. For example, words feel flat – it’s all about facts and less feeling. 

Having more than one version of a document is important. Writing in a way to make people think or to express values are difficult to do in plain language. Acton gives an example of this where she takes an emotive paragraph and turns it into plain language.

Acton says that plain language uses:

      • The most common vocabulary possible so that readers aren’t stopped by unfamiliar words
      • Active voice, so it is clear who is doing what
      • Short sentences
      • Headings, lists, bullet points, and white space to make information clearer
      • Definitions to introduce readers to complicated vocabulary

It makes you think

There is no doubt that writing complex ideas in a straightforward way takes time and effort. Acton says the process makes her think about her own understanding of a topic. Writing in an active voice makes her think about who is doing what. It also makes her think about her relationship to the topic.

So, doing plain language is more than a case of clever wordsmithing. It’s a learning process as well. Kelsie Action’s short article is on the Critical Design Lab website and worth a read. Note the design of the webpage for easy access and reading. 

Universal design through a disability lens

a series of black icons on white background depicting people of all shapes and sizes, including a baby in a stroller, a person with a can and a wheelchair user. The term ‘universal design’ means different things to different people depending on their experiences. It emerged from the barrier-free movement in the United States. Once it was realised that barrier-free was good for everyone, it was seen as a universal good. Hence the term universal design. The concept evolved from access to buildings to include everything that is designed. But we should not forget the history and who benefits most. A look at universal design through a disability lens reminds us of our obligations. 

In Access Insight magazine, Dr Ben Gauntlett reminds us of Australia’s obligations to implement universal design. Dr Gauntlett is Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. He knows Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is to, 

Head and shoulders of Dr Ben Gauntlett.“undertake or promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities, which should require the minimum possible adaptation and the least cost to meet the specific needs of a person with disabilities, to promote their availability and use, and to promote universal design in the development of standards and guidelines”.

Disability policy

Dr Gauntlett argues that adopting universal design principles is a critical aspect of disability policy in Australia. But it’s often thought that the NDIS is the only disability policy that exists. Of course, this is incorrect, but shows the poor level of knowledge about Australia’s disability policy. 

Key aspects of policy from a human rights framework for people with disability are lack of appropriate accessible housing, exercising legal capacity, indefinite detention in the justice system, and sterilisation of women without consent. But housing is the most pressing policy issue.

Dr Gauntlett expresses his concern that some states have indicated a reluctance to follow through with the agreement to adopt Silver level in all new housing. This could mean a breach of Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention.

The article concludes that, “We must develop a culture of universal design in all aspects of our society…” and that “every one of us has the obligation to raise awareness of the responsibility of governments to promote and legislate for universal design approaches.”

The article is titled, Recognising the need for universal design approaches through engagement with the United Nations. It is on page 10 of Access Insight – Winter 2021. View on issuu or download as a PDF. 

The Sustainable Development Goals also incorporate universal design and the inclusion of people with disability. 

Builders ignored disability access

External view of Sunshine Coast University Hospital. Builders ignore disability access.
Sunshine Coast University Hospital

The recent court ruling in Queensland reminds designers and builders not to ignore disability access. But many do, and that is probably due to the the fact that they are unlikely to be called to account. Complaints under the Disability Discrimination Act are rare. That’s because the person who experiences the discrimination has to make the complaint. And that’s tough. Court cases are very stressful. 

The Sunshine Coast University Hospital (SSCU) was the subject of Peter Ryan’s complaint. He is legally blind and claimed disadvantage in the way access was provided for him. The SSCU supposedly complied with the National Construction Code and the Access to Premises Standard. However this was not the case and calls into question the issue of building certification. 

This case highlights conflicts of interest could be more common than we know. Both the building certification firm and the access consultants are owned by the same group.

The building won numerous awards for Architecture. So this raises questions about what is judged as a good building. Time to start including accessibility for all in the judging criteria for these awards. 

The bottom line is that the hospital must rectify the breaches of the the National Construction Code and Access to Premises Standard. And it is a long and expensive list. 

Unfortunately Peter Ryan passed away before the Judge handed down his decision. A Sourceable article written by Bryce Tolliday has more detail. The title of the article is Non-Compliant Hospital Costs Queensland Taxpayers Millions. 

 

QR Codes and smart cities

A woman holds a smartphone over a QR code. It makes for smart cities.
QR Codes and smart cities

QR code technology is not new. It was invented in Japan in 1994. This technology was seen as a novelty by many, but now we really need them. Well, at least the one that registers your attendance at a shop or venue. But there is a link between QR codes and smart cities.

Adam Beck from Future of Place asks why it took a global pandemic to demonstrate that this technology can do good in our cities. He says there is a wider potential for QR codes. He writes in his blog article, 

“Lets consider the following city shaping opportunities of the QR code, given our near ubiquitous daily use. Here are just some we are seeing:

      • Providing rapid access to historical insights into a place, enabling a celebration of the rich cultures of our First Nations Peoples’
      • Location-based citizen engagement, enabling swift feedback on place experience
      • Activating mixed reality experiences on smart devices, providing citizens with additional options for interacting with the places they enjoy
      • Facilitating user-generated open data, by providing a platform to contribute to data sets on the use of place
      • Enabling transparency on the types and use of technology in the public realm
      • Supporting asset and place maintenance works, by offering quick linkages to relevant schedules, data bases and condition insights.

This technology connects people with information and connects people to place. All through the camera of a smart device. However, not everyone can see or locate a QR code. See what Braille House has come up with in this video

Beck’s blog article is titled QR Codes, ‘quick’ cities and the future of place. He encourages others to submit their views and ideas to continue the discussion.

 

Social value of good design

A white brick building with blue framed windows. Social value of good design. It’s so much easier to measure outputs than outcomes. Social value is an outcome, but how do you measure it? Well the answer for most is, it’s too hard so don’t bother. The Fifth Estate features an article about why the building industry should measure the social value of good design. 

The Women’s Property Initiatives in Melbourne provide housing for women and children. They have a system where tenants pay no more than 30 per cent of their income in rent. They knew this was working because they could see improved wellbeing. But how do you measure this social value in money terms?

So, what is social value? It is “the quantification of the importance that people place on the changes they experience in their lives”. Using stated preferences methods in research is a similar idea. 

Emma Williams argues for the building industry to broaden the way they measure the success of a project. If we are to address social inequities, we have to give equal weight to social value. Measuring financial and environmental impacts is only part of the job. 

The title of the article is, The difficult task of measuring social value in the built environment

The Women’s Property initiative found that for every dollar invested, $11.07 of social value was created. Architects can work out the economics of green standards, but not social impact. Success of a project is about the people – that means social value. 

How might we design…

Howe might we.design. An abstract pattern of muted blue and orange squares of different sizes.The “How might we” design prompt is outdated. It might generate innovative ideas, but it leaves some design gaps. And who is the “we” in how might we? It’s the people in the room not the users or customers. Consequently, it risks making biases and assumptions invisible. The prompt tends to look inward instead of outward. This is the view of Tricia Wang in her blog post. 

Wang explains the prompt was originally meant to shift designers to think outside the box. But this open-minded problem-solving approach is no longer suited concepts of diversity and inclusion. This is particularly the case when the design team lacks diversity. 

Wang discusses how designs lack gender balance and how design reflects the needs of those in positions of power. When it comes to user-centred design, “sticking ‘how might we’ in front of a wicked problem is not useful”. The article has several examples that support her argument. 

A replacement for ‘how might we’ is ‘Who should we talk to?’  and ‘Why are we doing this?’ Wang explains:

WSW: Who should we talk to? This prompt explicitly recognizes that there are people outside the room who should be considered and consulted.

WAW: Why are we doing this? This prompt forces some level of introspection for team members. It is still somewhat internally focused, but makes designers examine their true motives.

The title of the FastCompany article is, The most popular design thinking strategy is BS

Cover of the book Inclusive design toolkitA different approach is to check out the statistics on how may people are potentially excluded from a design.

 

COVID and accessibility

A street bench has yellow tape across it so that people cannot sit. We live in a world of sanitsation and social distancing, but who is asking how COVID impacts accessibility? Staying at home is familiar to many people with disability. It’s not new to many older people either. Perhaps that’s why COVID and accessibility is not a topic of immediate concern for policy makers. However, there is a story to tell here. 

Claire Francis and Katie Jennings say they can’t help but notice that access has taken a back seat. Here is an excerpt from their article in a short Sensory Trust blog article:

“From the tight one-way systems in the local shop to the removed seating in venues and public spaces it’s high time that we rethink how access and safety can co-exist. Coronavirus seemingly came out of nowhere leaving venues with little time to adjust and amend to become safe, but it seems like these measures have come at the expense of essential access provisions.”

They discuss the effects of safety measures and how these can aggravate existing difficulties. Mask-wearing and one-way entries are just two. Cities need to adapt to our need for safe distancing in outdoor spaces. Creating space between seats by using planter boxes is one way to sit and social distance. It’s also time to re-think the width and quality of footpaths.

The Sensory Trust in UK has other good resources.

5 ways to improve accessibility of cities

Aerial view of an expanse of a housing estate.Richard Voss reminds us that all of us are ageing all the time. Consequently, we need to think ahead in the design of our cities. He makes a good point that by the time the ink dries on new access codes they are already out of date. His five ways to improve accessibility of cities are based on universal design principles.  These don’t date, they evolve.

First, he recommends providing incentives to include universal design features in housing.  As we know, this mitgates major renovations, especially at a time when you can least cope. Lifemark in New Zealand has the answers here.

Second, Voss says we have to wake up to the fact that we all need universal design. He points out that accessibility is not all about wheelchairs.

Third, we should combine common sense with building codes. Here Voss talks about merging universal design with heritage codes. 

Fourth, create a new innovation industry around accessibility. Voss says we should get universal design embedded in the retrofit of buildings. It will make them more sustainable and resilient as well as accessible.

Fifth, set achievable targets for each development sector. Discussions around inclusion affect every sector: workplaces, retail, hospitality, transportation, etc. Links between disciplines are essential.

Voss concludes that universal design has no extra cost if implemented early in the design process. Unfortunately, not many people believe this because from past experience, change usually means extra cost.

The article by Richard Voss was posted on Linked In.