Social media designs are becoming more streamlined – but they’re failing disabled people in the process

Access to these platforms is now a key aspect of navigating day-to-day life for disabled people. But platforms like Twitter are treating a huge community like an afterthought 

Jennie Kermode
Sunday 04 August 2019 14:04 BST
Social media designers need to consult disabled users much earlier in the design process
Social media designers need to consult disabled users much earlier in the design process

Rebranding online platforms from time to time is considered essential by marketers. But it’s also almost guaranteed to generate negative reactions from users. With this in mind, the outpouring of complaints about the new Twitter design that we’ve seen over the past few weeks will surprise no one – but for many disabled users, the problem is a serious one. Where others find the redesigned site annoying to use, we struggle to use it at all. What’s more, this is typical of a widespread problem with social media companies ignoring the needs of disabled users.

In a context where design is heavily focused on looking good and encouraging users to engage with new features, the basic functionality essential to engagement is often overlooked.

The new Twitter, for instance, produces a constant flow of tweets without prompting so that it’s necessary to keep constantly scrolling upwards once you’ve started to read them. If you then want to add something to a half-composed tweet at the top, you have to succeed in clicking on that box before it’s replaced by something else – not easy if you struggle to move your hands quickly and can’t use the scroll button on your mouse (both common problems for people with damaged joints).

Because the desktop Twitter interface is now mimicking the mobile one, there’s a lot more scrolling involved in general, an issue magnified by the reduction in the number of actual tweets on screen, even if one is able to manage with a small font size. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

While features like increased control over things like font size and screen brightness sound good in theory, they tend to amount to window dressing at best, as most computers and browsers offer these options anyway. Still, moves like these are typical of the sort of things designers focus on when they think about accessibility, and illustrate the extent to which accessibility is treated like an afterthought, rather than a feature of the main design.

One of the more useful options to decrease visual noise by turning off animations also has issues. Rather than opening up opportunities for disabled users to take advantage of new features, it turns off live tweet counts, one of the few new features people are actually excited about, so those who struggle with all those distractions – like a lot of autistic people – are forced to choose manageable access at the cost of functionality.

But shouldn’t they expect the same kind of functionality as others? If we see these features as a luxury, it might not seem like a big deal, but for the increasingly large number of people who use Twitter for work, it’s anything but that.

And therein lies the problem. Social media is part of the modern work environment; when it exclude disabled people, that’s yet another completely avoidable barrier obstructing our ability to do our jobs.

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It also exacerbates social isolation. In 2017, a report by the charity Sense found that half of disabled people experience chronic loneliness, with 26 per cent of non-disabled people actively avoiding interacting with us. Social media offers a great solution to that by taking away physical barriers and offering access to a vastly larger pool of potential friends – but not if we can’t access them. Issues with online activity are often seen as trivial but they have real world effects.

How can these problems be resolved? Designers need to consult disabled users much earlier in the design process. They also need to shift their focus, to put less emphasis on aesthetics (despite what advertisers may demand) and more on how users actually interact with their products. They need to think about issues like the amount of movement or the number of clicks needed to complete basic tasks and – across social media platforms as a whole – they need to be much better at accommodating screen readers.

They also need to stop burying access information just because they have concluded that only a small proportion of their users will need it. The more one struggles with access in general, the harder it is to trawl around the web in search of advice on hidden shortcuts – they need to be clear and obvious in settings menus. Despite what some people seem to think, disabled people are not all members of a secret club with instant access to such information. What’s more, a lot of non-disabled people also find it helpful.

Access to social media is now a key aspect of access to a normal life. The revolution in communications has the potential to do great things for inclusion and equality – as long as adequate care is taken not to leave people behind.

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