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“Equivalent” Does Not Equal “Same”

University of Louisville

When designing our interfaces, the eXplorance team works hard to leave no one behind, which often means making sure that the content is available to everyone, no matter what senses they have available.

The challenge is that we are always eager to avoid causing tradeoffs for some audience members when accommodating (or delighting) others. So what do you do when you have, let’s say, a complex graph that can’t be seen or read by everyone?

Some designers and developers, in a sincere attempt to comply with accessibility guidelines for persons with disabilities, replace a graph with a table of information wanting to make sure that everyone gets the same accessible experience. However, this means we’ve lost the power and intrigue that graphs can play in telling our story.

If we can’t provide something to everyone, must we withhold it from everyone?

Consider Google Street View: if I had to design a brochure that tells people from other planets how awesome our civilization is here on Earth, I’d definitely be including Google Street View as an example of the ingenuity of our species. Should we withhold this tool if there is no automatic audio description of each view for those who cannot see?

Well the good news is that no, we don’t have to leave out either example. The guideline for accessibility is to provide an equivalent experience for all, not the same experience for all. And so we have the liberty of choosing multiple ways of fulfilling the strategic communications objectives, and find the perfect fit for each portion of our audience.

So, coming back to Bluepulse, we can leave the graph on our Web page (even though not everyone can see it), and also include the same information in an accessibly-coded table below. With this approach, everyone can enjoy the information whether they do graphs or not (including search spiders from Google, Bing, and Yahoo whose cognitive abilities don’t include graphs… yet). We’ll include alternative text on the graph that explains how it’s a graph that depicts the information in the table that immediately follows it, and we’ll also make sure that the caption on the data table has similar wording to the title of the graph. Of course, all users will enjoy having multiple ways of experiencing what you have to offer.

So what’s the accessible alternative for a 360-degree camera?

For Google Street View, Google has cleverly designed an equivalent experience for those who cannot see. Check out their Intersection Explorer app for Android. It’s not the same as Google Street View; rather it’s the creative result when they asked themselves the question of what becomes possible when they use their data and their resources to try to delight those who can’t see.

And that’s the question to ask yourself every time you are designing for all: how can we present our messages in a way that can intrigue and delight everyone? In this way we keep discovering again and again, that when we design for the extremes everyone benefits.

David Berman, FGDC, R.G.D.
-Special advisor to the United Nations on how to use accessible design to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals.

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