Empathy Through Technology: What Happens When Accessibility Drives Design

If you work at a tech company, and you’ve never witnessed a blind person interact with your product, do it now. The results will change you forever.

Two years ago, the designers at CirrusMD and I were undergoing accessibility audits, doing what everyone else does: trying to make minor adjustments here and there to align with web content accessibility guidelines and federal regulations.

In the midst of our reactive efforts, one of our team members mentioned that the Blind Institute of Technology was hosting a symposium nearby. We decided to go. And things changed. Our team’s time at the symposium completely transformed our mission and values, the focus of our technology and understanding of our potential.

What Does Accessibility Really Mean?

There are standards and regulations around 504 compliance and WCAG 2.0 that designers and builders in our realm of digital innovation are well aware of - and they aren’t always “fun” to meet. But while we all know that violating those standards comes with consequences, meeting these bare minimum requirements doesn’t always improve the online experience - it can even hurt it.

Non-sighted accessibility tester navigates web pages.

Non-sighted accessibility tester navigates web pages.

At the symposium, listening to non-sighted speaker after non-sighted speaker deliver compelling presentations (with no slides), we were given the opportunity to experience a profoundly deeper empathy for the way non-sighted people interact with the world. We learned that some listen to text readers at 600 words-per-minute, having become accustomed to speeding through an oppressive amount of redundant information until they find what they are looking for on ill-designed yet technically “accessible” website pages. And that’s just when a web page is accessible in the first place - much of their web experience is hardly so. It’s no wonder that people with vision limitations report being 31% less likely to use a computer at home, work, or school than those who don’t report vision limitations. When engaging with an online product, the visually impaired deserve as pleasing a user experience as anyone else.

There exists a standard “checklist” that companies need to complete to be considered “accessible” to those who are deaf or blind. But by actually spending time listening to and getting to know our blind community, we quickly realized that in order for us to fulfill our mission of improving access to healthcare for everyone, we needed to go beyond checking boxes. 

Accessibility Is Good Business

At CirrusMD, our creative team started by zeroing in on the opportunity to rethink our color schemes for our brand, emphasizing both the importance of accessibility and the user experience. The importance of color contrast in enabling vision-impaired visitors to read content and navigate a website is often overlooked, especially when us designers get caught up in schemes that “look great” together from a brand perspective (and not from an accessibility perspective). We wanted to make a deeper commitment to starting with color accessibility, and ending with a pleasing experience for all.

Because we offer a white label product to health systems and payers, our design team created an algorithm that can take a brand partner’s desired primary color and create a mathematically determined color scheme around it. This ensures the right color contrast and saturation needed for people with color blindness or other significant vision impairments to meaningfully engage with the digital experiences we’re building. 

Our designers also thought to allow users to autonomously tinker with saturation, font size and other settings on the fly, without having to go all the way into their settings to make adjustments. Our underlying code is now intentionally designed to work more seamlessly with text readers, further improving the user experience. These sound like small considerations, but they are enormous when it comes to usability and creating a frictionless experience, not just for the vision-impaired but for everyone.

One year after we first attended the Blind Institute’s accessibility symposium, we joined the event as speakers, sharing what we learned and what we were able to accomplish by making accessibility an organizing principle in our company. The response was overwhelming.

Blind testers, who use other companies’ products to test for ease of use and accessibility, told us that ours was the first product they had ever tested that made it to the top five percent of accessibility on the first iteration. More importantly, they told us that we were one of very few companies who weren’t just going through the motions of meeting accessibility requirements; our dedication and commitment to an accessible, extraordinary experience showed. I share this not to brag, but to encourage other teams and designers to aim to see for themselves what a measurable difference a dedicated, empathetic effort can make.

CirrusMD at the Blind Institute of Technology’s 2019 ACCESS Symposium.

CirrusMD at the Blind Institute of Technology’s 2019 ACCESS Symposium.

I credit our designers for their talent, but even more so for their empathy. Empathy is what drives true accessibility, and that is what could lead to a shift in the entire tech industry. Making inclusive usability a primary value of our company has furthered deepened our mission, our values, and our purpose. It’s an incredible experience to go beyond minimum accessibility and strive for maximum usability. And it’s one that I hope more companies will undertake. 

There is a canonical story of our company: Our founder, Dr. Blake McKinney, was waiting for emergency room patients to wend their way through the triage process, when he received a text message from a family member who had a quick medical question. He immediately responded, resolving the issue within minutes. Meanwhile, sick patients were just on the other side of the door, separated from him by a bureaucratic process that could take hours. In that moment, he realized: Everyone should have immediate, affordable access to quality healthcare, without the barriers we’ve all grown so used to accepting. This is certainly true for those who experience the world with a disability.

All of us at CirrusMD have bought into this idea of improving access to care; and accessibility for the blind, elderly and vision-impaired is a natural component of that mission. Nothing has more promise to improve accessibility and usability than technology, which – when designed with empathy – could be the great equalizer.

Gabe Varela

Gabe is the Chief Technology Officer at CirrusMD. Gabe and his team built the original MVP for CirrusMD. He provides expertise and leadership in agile and test driven development, technical architecture, performance optimization/scaling, and infrastructure development.