Universal UX: How empathetic design helps all users
- Universal design is meant to ensure that all types of users can use a product without difficulty, regardless of the type or duration of their impairment
- Writing standards, an important element of universal design, can help address cognitive load and minimise stress
- An empathetic approach to UX has important benefits for the higher education community
Accessibility is a hot topic in UX. Many people associate the term with physical disability accommodations, and that’s certainly an essential element. But as the name suggests, it’s meant to ensure that all types of users can use a product without difficulty, regardless of the type or duration of their impairment. This kind of empathetic approach to UX has important benefits for the higher education community.
Most of us have experienced some form of temporary physical disability after breaking a bone or tearing a ligament. We struggle with the inconvenience, but also find ourselves noticing (and appreciating) design elements we normally take for granted. We realise that features like automatic doors, lever handles, and angled curb cuts—while helpful for all—are necessary for some.
Of course, disability takes many forms. It’s often invisible, and it may be permanent or transient. Universal design is aimed at providing convenience and accessibility to all users by anticipating and alleviating the impact that various difficulties might have on a user’s ability to engage with a product.
We talked to Ellucian’s Sania Khan, director of UX design, and Lacey Gerard, principal UX analyst, about universal design and the importance of empathy in UX.
Q: What does an emphasis on empathy mean in the context of software design?
L.G.: It means widening your focus from accessibility for people with disabilities to ease of use for people facing all kinds of difficulties in their lives that could, even temporarily, change their ability to interact with our software.
It means creating products that everyone can access comfortably, whether their challenges are short-term or permanent, physical or cognitive, situational or chronic.
We take it so seriously that we even have a motto:
Everyone should be able to use Ellucian software, regardless of physical disabilities, age, role, status, or situation.
It means that as part of our universal-design methodology, we design with empathy.
Q: Colleges and universities in the United States are legally required to provide universal solutions, and there are minimum standards in place. To provide the best user experience, is it sometimes necessary to exceed those requirements?
S.K.: Yes. We have found that designing for the existing Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG AA 2.0) is a good starting point, but there are instances where the best experience requires us to go further. For example, did you know that icons and images help users with dyslexia, learning disabilities, and those reading a second language? Or the fact that designing larger touch-and-hit targets for UI elements greatly improves the experience for users with motor disabilities? We look for these opportunities because our underlying goal is to make sure that we’re providing the best experience for all of our users.
L.G.: We’re making changes to practice universal design by thinking about these edge cases and optimising their experience. We have a team devoted to curating a set of design patterns and components, so this work is shared across our Ellucian portfolio. As a result, the entire spectrum of users benefits.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of word choice in universal design? As we all know, communicating well isn’t just about what you say; it’s how you say it, too.
L.G.: One in five people live with disability, including cognitive disability, and we want all of our content to be understandable by as many people as possible. So we focus on clarifying our message, writing for the seventh- to eighth-grade level, and creating thoughtful messages that convey the right idea in the fewest amount of words.
S.K.: Voice, tone, and word choice are really important. So when we recently developed our new UX writing standards, universal design was very much on our minds. Two key priorities were addressing cognitive load and minimising stress.
It’s not meant to talk down to our users. Rather, we recognise that outside factors like anxiety or stress may impact their ability to understand content. What if you're a student and you're getting ready to check your grades for next semester, and a poor grade could potentially jeopardise your academic status and corresponding financial aid?
Designing and writing in a way that understands that anxiety for that student—that's universal design. It’s really accessibility taken to the next level.
Q: To continue with that example, how else can a universal design help minimise user anxiety? Would it help point the way towards a solution? What design elements are involved?
S.K.: A huge part of it is the tone of the interface. It's not going to have a big, giant, red letter that says “C-“ on it, or “F.” It’s going to be clear and legible, but not alarming. The tone is calm and conversational, with guidance toward next steps: “This is your grade for this last semester. Please reach out to your advisor and the financial aid office if you have any concerns.” No exclamation points.
Q: Financial aid eligibility and tuition worries are big stressors, too. How can empathetic design help?
It’s about being mindful. It’s terrifying to see a bill for $26,000. So we create a consumer-grade experience, like a banking app, that makes that information clear and helpful. We take it to that level.
Q: How do you incorporate user feedback in the development process?
S.K.: In the recent PowerCampus Self-Service redesign, we spoke with users in 3-week cycles, in what we call “design sprints.” We engaged them at the start of a sprint to gather formative information, then again at the end to validate the experience. To date, we have researched over 150 sessions across various user groups, including students, faculty, administrators, registrars, bursars, and advisors. We also made sure to reach out to people internationally, so that the research was representative of our global customer base. This approach has allowed us to refine our design and development.
Q: What are some of the key elements of your universal design process?
S.K.: When we create a new experience, we follow a checklist of things that need to be included in the design: it needs to be intuitive, accessible, and global. It's the same on the development side. An accessibility defect is as important as a functionality defect.
It’s a strong customer-first approach that we’re really proud of and that we think brings a level of empathy to the larger organisation—which can get lost, sometimes, if it's not a specific focus. We really want to make these experiences better for everybody.