Leading with empathy to improve digital accessibility

November 30, 2022 Chelsey Sleator
Designing digital experiences with all users in mind.

As Schwab’s digital accessibility subject matter expert, Enrique Sallent is bringing digital accessibility—the practice of ensuring that websites and other digital tools are adaptive to the needs of people with disabilities—to the forefront of digital design.

“It's a problem industry-wide that accessibility is simply thought about as a way to write code or pass a QA test,” explains Enrique. “Instead, it should be about understanding the interactions and the needs of a user who may not have five active senses and help them complete their [digital] journey.”

And while he acknowledges that there is plenty of room for improvement, Enrique is focused on establishing a mindset shift about accessibility by developing processes designed to bring empathy to product teams and in turn, make Schwab a leader in digital accessibility.

An opportunity to understand a different experience

Upon joining Schwab nearly three years ago as a user experience (UX) researcher, Dondrea Thompson noticed that Schwab emphasized accessibility in a way other companies she’d worked for hadn’t. Inspired by this, Dondrea, along with Joshua Drake, UX lead of the DARE (Digital Accelerator Retirement Experience) Inheritance team, proposed a plan to test the digital death notification experience (which helps members of the public notify Schwab of a client’s death) with users who were visually impaired.

“We didn’t need to do much convincing,” explains Joshua. “Enrique and our leadership team immediately opened the doors, made connections and gave us the fuel to complete this effort.”

Acknowledging that they were doing something new, Dondrea, who moderated the sessions, wanted to ensure they were using the right tools and that she wouldn’t say or do anything that might be considered insensitive. In particular, she wanted to be conscious about using inclusive language.

Through the live, moderated sessions, the team observed as the participants navigated the experience, and along the way they learned that language wasn’t really an issue at all. Participants used words like “look” (I’m looking for something) and “see” just like users who aren’t visually impaired. But the team did learn many other things.

“We learned [that] the screen reader or the browser that the person was using had an impact on their experience,” explains Dondrea. “From one screen reader to the next, the experience could change, and it might read different things.”

The team also learned about the impact of “aural clutter,” or being overwhelmed by the amount of content being read by the screen reader on the page. Sometimes the benefit of explaining everything on the page may be outweighed by including just the information that a person needs to complete the desired task.

Increased empathy leads to improved experiences

The impact of the study was felt by both the observers and participants. One of the participants wanted to make sure the team members knew that they should not only do what’s considered standard when it comes to digital accessibility, but that they should continue to do research like this to make it better. His statement acknowledges the fact that companies can meet ADA requirements, but still not meet user needs; something that can be true for both digital and physical accessibility.

“This is an underrepresented group of users within UX research,” explains Dondrea. “They’re very used to adapting to subpar digital experiences, and they were very appreciative that we wanted to hear from them and improve things for them.”

For the observers, in addition to understanding how to adapt the experience for a visually impaired audience, the bigger impact may have been the development of a deeper empathy and understanding of the experience of trying to navigate the experience with a disability.

“All those that got to observe the study had a big empathy moment,” explains Joshua. “You could see the emotions people were feeling; they were moved by the study itself.”

Since the study, the team has been focused on implementing changes to the digital death notification experience to make it seamless for clients with visual impairments. The result is an easier experience for clients who are likely dealing with emotional distress on top of navigating accessibility challenges.

They’ve also been sharing best practices and the success of the study across Schwab to enable more teams to conduct testing with disabled participants—bringing the company closer to Enrique’s vision.

It’s the right thing to do

Enrique is thrilled by the success of the study. Next, he says he’s interested in seeing a study with participants with cognitive disabilities. He also has a long list of other enhancements to consider, including adapting the call center to handle video calls with reps using sign language for clients with hearing loss.

“With accessibility, companies have historically been driven by the fear of getting a lawsuit if your website isn’t ADA compliant,” explains Enrique. “But if you’re driven by the need of the user and by empathy with them, you can toss that fear aside, because you’re doing the right thing.”