When I tried on my first set of myo-electric arms, I was excited, anxious and a little bit scared. Through The War Amps Child Amputee Program (CHAMP), I grew up with other amputees all around me; so, I was used to seeing a wide variety of prosthetic limbs and assistive technology. I was eager and excited about trying new technology, but I was afraid that I would have to re-learn everything all over again and I wasn’t wrong.
Experimenting with expensive hardware, such as prosthetic limbs is quite the investment and I spent hours, days, months and years re-learning how to do simple things like holding a banana, typing on a keyboard, or opening a door. It was an extremely frustrating experience because I would press a button to open the hand and press another button to close it and then the banana would break or the hand wouldn’t open. Over time, those buttons turned into sensors and the technology evolved, but that feeling of pure frustration sticks with me even today.
It is our responsibility as product managers to make sure we deliver a valuable product that not only eliminates current user frustrations, but is forward thinking and actually delights our users.
Product managers play a vital role in setting the tone and communicating accessibility and inclusive design principles early in the product lifecycle, ensuring each team member knows their responsibilities, and keeping the team accountable for building accessible and inclusive products.
Just like chocolate chips, accessibility is a key ingredient in your product pancake — and it’ll always taste best when it’s added to the mix at the beginning. It’s also more time- and cost-effective, as fixing a usability issue after the product has been released can cost up to 100 times more than earlier on in the development process.
I know designing and developing prosthetic limbs seems like an extremely narrow and customized example, but I think we can all learn something from the process. Before being fitted, I took the time to do some research, discuss my personal goals with my family and friends, weigh my options and develop a plan forward. My prosthetist also took the time to sit down with me and my family to discuss my needs, goals, wants and desired outcomes before scheduling my initial fitting, and she continued to check in with me periodically over time to see if my needs were being met or if an adjustment would be required. So, what can we learn from this experience?
Include accessibility in the full product lifecycle
Consideration of accessibility should occur continuosly throughout the entire product development process and beyond.
Start with market and user research — Include the disability market in your market surveys and conduct research on an on-going basis with customers with disabilities
Make it a roadmap regular — Make sure accessibility and inclusive design is included in your roadmap and every release includes another enhancement or adjustment specifically targeting access or inclusion barriers. Your roadmap should work towards the principles of inclusive design, universal design, and accessibility principles.
A checklist for every product review — Before signing off on new user interfaces and design changes, ensure you’re not adding any new hurdles for users with disabilities and are instead removing existing barriers and frustrations.
Add accessibility to the definition of done— Does the product demo include showing the product using screen readers, keyboard navigation, screen magnification, or in high contrast mode? Make sure you are not unintentionally introducing new barriers or frustrating your users.
Recruit diverse beta testers — Just like you want testers using different browsers and operating systems, find some testers that rely on various accessibility options and assistive technology as well. The insights and learnings you gain from these testers will prove to be invaluable.
Fail fast — In other words, embrace rapid learning and maintain a growth mindset. You will make mistakes a long the way, and your product may not be built for everyone, but product inclusion is a continuous journey and you and your team will learn something new each and every step of the way.
Trust the process — It may not always feel like it, but trust that the positive changes you are making are not only good for your team and your product, but they are contributing to making the world a better, and more inclusive place for all.
At first, I wasn’t seen as a good candidate for prosthetic limbs because I had hands, but who knew fingers pressing buttons inside a socket would lead to sensors connected to nerve signals, and a deeper personal understanding of positive body image, definitions of beauty, usability testing, product development and problem solving. In the end, I broke up with my myo-electric arms but the experience of trying something new and learning a thing or two about prosthetics and myself made it all worthwhile.