Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Equivalent Experiences: What Are They?

If you spend enough time interacting with digital accessibility practitioners, you may encounter the phrase “equivalent experience.” This saying concisely sums up a lot of the philosophy behind accessibility work.
Our industry tends to place a lot of focus on how, often at the expense of why. For accessibility-related concerns, it is vital to learn about the history, and lived experiences of disabled people as a context for understanding the need for design and code created with access in mind.
This is the first of two articles on the topic of equivalency, and how it relates to digital accessibility. It will help us define what an equivalent experience is. Once we have a common understanding established, I’ll then discuss how to go about implementing equivalent experiences for common accessibility-related issues.

The State Of Things

The truth of the matter is that even though we live in a multi-device world full of smartphones, augmented reality, voice assistants, and IoT smart sensors, our default is still predominately:
  • Visual,
  • large screen,
  • fast connection,
  • powerful computer and display,
  • male,
  • white,
  • wealthy,
  • young,
  • Western,
  • technologically-literate,
  • and abled.
This is reflective of the biases that are inherent in how we design, develop and grow products.
The previous list may not be the most comfortable thing to read. If you haven’t closed the browser tab already, take a moment to consider your daily workflows, as well as who your coworkers are, and you’ll begin to understand what I’m getting at.
At its core, delivering an equivalent experience is ultimately about preserving intent — with the intent being the motivating force behind creating a website or web app and all the content and features it contains.
This translates to making the meaning behind every interaction, every component, every photo or illustration, every line of code being understandable by the widest range of people, regardless of their device or ability.

What Isn’t An Equivalent Experience?

Showing examples of what something is not can be a way to help define it. For equivalent experiences, an example would be a web app geared towards use by the general public not having a mobile breakpoint.

With this example, everyone using a device with a small display is forced to pinch, pan, and zoom to get what they need. Here, the burden is placed on anyone whose only crime was using a smartphone.
Most likely, whoever conceived of, designed, and developed this didn’t stop to think about circumstances other than their own. In this sort of (unfortunately still all too common) scenario, I all but guarantee that the web app looks great on the laptops or desktops of the designers and developers who made it.

People using a smartphone to access this website are victims of circumstance. The extra effort someone needs to do to get it to work indirectly communicates that they weren’t a priority, and therefore not valued. If you’ve used the web for any significant portion of time, I’m willing to bet this, or a similar experience has happened to you.
This example is also a hop, skip, and a jump away from another common, yet serious accessibility issue we often don’t consider: screen zooming:

Screen Zooming

Screen zooming is when someone is prevented from being able to zoom their displays and make text larger—many native mobile apps are guilty of this. When you disallow this sort of behavior, you’re telling prospective users that unless they have vision similar to you, you aren’t interested in them being able to use your app.
For this scenario, a gentle reminder that we will all get older, and with aging comes a whole host of vision-related concerns.

Accessible Experiences Aren’t Necessarily Equivalent Ones

This might be a little difficult of a concept to grasp at first. Let’s use this Rube Goldberg machine made by Joseph Herscher to pass the pepper to his dinner guest to compare.

To pass the pepper, the machine, sends it through an elaborate system of weights, counterweights, ramps, rolling objects, catapults, guillotines, burners, timers, carousels, etc. — all constructed from commonly found kitchen items. While this setup will technically ensure the pepper is passed, it is an annoying, overwrought, time-intensive process.
Many digital experiences are a lot like a Rube Goldberg machine when it comes to accessibility. Since accessibility issues are so prevalent, many forms of assistive technology provide a large suite of features to allow their user to work around common obstacles.
Unfortunately, discovering obstacles, and then figuring out and activating the appropriate combination of features to overcome them can take a disproportionate amount of time and effort.
To say it another way: A simple click on a button for an abled person may take far more time and effort for a disabled person, depending on how the button has been made.

Chilling Effects

Frustratingly, the extra time and effort a disabled person has to put into operating a technically accessible experience may feed back into their disability condition(s). For example, the presence of a motor control disability such as arthritis may make the overall experience even more taxing.
Cognitive accessibility concerns are also another important thing to consider. What may seem easy to understand or intuitive to use for one person may not be for another. This is especially prevalent in situations where there is:
Cognitive accessibility isn’t an abstract concern, either. Poor user interface design that ignores the circumstances of the end user and dumps too much cognitive load onto them can have very real, very serious consequences.

Compounding Effects

These factors are not mutually exclusive. Proponents of Spoon Theory know that inaccessible experiences conspire to sap a person’s mental and physical energy, leaving them exhausted and demotivated. Worse, these sorts of scenarios are often more than just a person perpetually operating at a diminished capacity.
Frustrating digital experiences can lead to a person abandoning them outright, internalizing the system’s fault as their own personal failure. This abandonment may also translate to a person’s willingness and ability to operate other digital interfaces. In other words: the more we turn people away, the more they’ll stop trying to show up.


For some, assistive technology can mean specialized browser extensions. These micro-apps are used to enhance, augment, and customize a browsing experience to better suit someone’s needs.
Damien Senger, digital designer, uses a browser extension called Midnight Lizard to enforce a similar experience across multiple websites. This helps them “to focus on the content directly and to limit having too big differences between websites. It is also helping me to avoid too harsh color contrasts that are really uncomfortable.“
Damien also writes, “Often websites are really difficult to read for me because either of the lack of consistency in the layout, too narrow lines or just not enough balance between font size and line height. Related to that, color can create a lot of unhelpful distraction and I am struggling when too harsh contrast is nearby text.”
How To Maintain Equivalency
In addition, Damien also augments their browsing experience by using ad blocking technology “not only for ads but to block animations or content that are too distracting for my ADHD.”
It’s not too difficult to imagine why distracting and annoying your users is a bad idea. In the case of ads, the industry is unregulated, meaning that rules to prohibit ADHD, migraine, and/or seizure-triggering animations aren’t honored. Through this lens, an ad blocker is a form of consumer self-defense.

Kenny Hitt also chimes in about ads: “…regardless of the platform, the thing that annoys me most are websites with ads that essentially cause the site to constantly auto update. This prevents me as a screen reader user from reading the content of those websites.”
Again, a lack of regulation means the user must take measures into their own hands to keep the experience equivalent.

How To Maintain Equivalency


A lack of an equivalent experience translates directly to lost opportunity. Many individuals I spoke with mentioned that they’d abandon a digital experience that was inaccessible more often than not.
Brian Moore mentions, “there are web sites where I like their products a lot but won’t buy them because the site itself is such a struggle, and attempts to reach out have met with either silence or resistance to taking any action.”
Brian cites the Fluance website as the most recent example. The bugs present in its shopping user flows prevents him from buying high-end consumer audio equipment.
Fluance’s entire web presence exists to sell products. While updating a website or web app to be accessible can be an effort-intensive process, it would definitely be in Fluance’s best interest to make sure its checkout user flow is as robust as it could be.