Women in UX: Meet Henny Swan, Advocate for UX Inclusivity

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Women in UX: Meet Henny Swan, Advocate for UX Inclusivity

It was the 1990s, back when websites were flashier than RuPaul’s most glamorous gown. Henny Swan, who is now the director of user experience at the Paciello Group in the UK, was working in China on an early search engine. Websites at the time were so flamboyant and unusable in her opinion that they ignited her career in what we now understand to be user experience design.

Henny Swan presents on inclusive design principles at the a11yTO conference in Toronto, Canada on accessibility in web and design

“Everything that we know about design in the West is counter to what people love about design in China,” she said. “They like it busy and animated, so I inadvertently found myself going, ‘Actually, this animation is a little bit too much.’”

When the dot-com bubble burst, Swan found herself back in the UK, where she is originally from. Around this time, the term accessibility was starting to shift gears and gain traction. The Royal National Institute of Blind People, based out of London, England, was looking for an accessibility consultant. Swan applied and got the job, a decision that would come to define her career in web and establish her niche as an accessibility expert in the design industry.

While many become passionate about accessibility in design because they or a loved one has experienced an accessibility challenge, Swan realized early on that design has the power to disable us all — if not already, then most certainly in the future. The term is much broader than the traditional definition that many associate it with.

“Nobody is immune from having an accessibility challenge,” she said. “Whether you have a permanent disability, or a temporary one like a broken wrist — or a situational one, like looking at the phone on a sunny day, we’re all going to be affected by it at some point in our lives.”  

Not to sound bleak, but for UX designers to begin thinking more about accessibility — implementing inclusivity, a word Swan tends to prefer in our conversation — is not just to benefit current users, but is actually a way of future-proofing our online experience.

In this slide, Henny Swan illustrates some of the ways users can be disabled by design

Swan has observed anecdotally that people of her generation who entered the Internet era in their teens are beginning to speak out more about accessibility, as if they realize “at some point this is gonna come for me,” Swan said.

So what’s a UX designer to do about it?

Swan’s tips for creating more inclusive UX designs

Swan’s work is embedded in inclusivity. Prior to joining the Paciello Group, which works with organizations across the globe to improve web accessibility, she served as a senior accessibility specialist at BBC in addition to running her own consultancy. She contributes to numerous accessibility groups, including the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG), the W3C Mobile Symposium, the UN Global Initiative for Accessible ICT (UNG3ICT), the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines User Group (UAAG), and previously the Web Standards Project (WASP)’s International Liaison Group (ILG).

Suffice it to say, she has developed some key recommendations for UX designers looking to make their designs more inclusive.

1. Experiment with screen readers on Android or iOS

Swan prefers iOS, since it comes built in with accessibility features, but numerous Android devices have these native capabilities as well. For iOS, you can find the accessibility settings under the general settings. See what it’s like to use your application with these features. Is it intuitive? Impossible? For Android, accessibility settings may vary by manufacturer, but a quick scan indicated most of the major players have instructions available online.

To further explore your app’s user experience from an accessibility standpoint, Swan recommends an iOS app called Screen Curtain to see how to navigate the device verbally.

2. Familiarize yourself with digital accessibility standards

Swan used to feel that although these guidelines are useful, they lack overall in design guidance. However, she has recently changed her thinking.

“I don’t think you can put guidelines around design because design changes depending on context of use. Design changes depending on whether I have use of my hands, whether I’m able to read fluently, whether I’m able to see, etc., and so we need to be more forgiving about design and we need to think about design within context of use,” she said. 

3. Remember: Accessibility and inclusivity are intentional in design

While these guidelines are helpful, let Swan’s current pinned tweet serve as a reminder that reviewing them is not enough — only by putting them in place can UX designers make a difference for their users.  

“Behind every great site or app lies [sic] thought, empathy and inclusion. This doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by design.”

4. Include users with disabilities in your design process

Although, for some, the prospect of including people with disabilities can be overwhelming at first, Swan promises it is by far the best thing you can do.

“I’ve been in this industry for 18 years now and every time I sit down, whether for a user interview or usability testing, I learn stuff and it’s incredible,” she said. “That has a two-pronged effect. It helps you build empathy, but also I’ve seen it just light a firecracker on the teams. I’ve seen teams who don’t know much about accessibility have this experience and then be so enthusiastic and just go off and do it.”

If you don’t have the budget or scale for including people with disabilities, Swan says this can be as simple as joining groups or communities where people talk about usability and accessibility, or even doing research online.

Attendees at the a11yTO conference in Toronto, Canada listen to Henny Swan speak about inclusion in UX design

5. Annotate your documentation for accessibility

Finally, Swan advises UX designers to annotate their documentation for accessibility before handing anything over to the developer teams. She says this simply doesn’t happen enough in design.

“If you are a designer, an interaction designer, make sure that you annotate your documentation for accessibility so that when a developer takes off on the design, they’re not just coming up with their own idea of what, say, the order the content might be, or where does the focus go when this button’s clicked and the dialogue opens,” she said. “You need to be describing this within your designs. You need to be describing what the focus styles are and stuff like that.”

What’s next for Henny Swan?

Swan will be turning much of her experience into a series of webinars that she’ll be producing out of Brighton, the small UK coastal town where she currently resides. She’ll also continue to travel, speaking on accessibility and UX at conferences and events around the world.

When she’s not doing that, you might find her enjoying the new hobby she’s recently taken up: making kitschy, tongue-in-cheek pom pom wreaths with her space-obsessed seven-year-old.

Brighton may be beautiful, vibrant, diverse, and digital, Swan says, but her place looks like a “space capsule” in “a galaxy far away.”

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