Dana is a UX designer with a background in psychology and design. She currently works as programme director for User Experience Design at Victoria University’s School of Design Innovation. Dana recently sat down (online) with Kate McGuinness to discuss her special interest in design for accessibility, her current research and teaching practice.
Kia ora Dana,
Can you tell us about your personal design journey?
The combination of psychology and design is what brought me to user experience (UX).
I have always been fascinated by how the brain works, how and why people behave and think the way they do. This is what initially attracted me to study psychology. At the same time, I enjoy the creative process and have doubled in art. When I moved to NZ I was drawn to the field of UX because it involves research and creativity. The work is infinite, there are constantly problems to solve and experiences to improve.
After working in design and mental health, I decided to embark on a Master in Design Innovation at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). This is where I was able to merge my interest in mental health with game design. Having previously worked in youth mental health, I was interested in how we can make current therapies more engaging. At first, I explored ADHD and what therapies we can provide through computer interfaces. My research focused on developing interfaces to visualise brain wave activity in a way that could enable people to see their attention levels and learn how to control them through visual and auditory biofeedback.
In an academic setting, you can be experimental and explorative. I also had the opportunity to collaborate with software developers on a musical app to show how brain activity can be represented through music production. Another fascinating project I worked on involved integrating game design principles and stroke rehabilitation research to help stroke patients with their rehabilitation exercises.
When I finished my study, I returned to the industry where I worked on product design with 8i and then went on to create a government tech start-up with a friend as part of R9 Accelerator. I loved working for startups because it allows you to take problems and come up with solutions that add value for the users in collaboration with the business, software developers and stakeholders.
I then went back to VUW as a full time lecturer, focusing on teaching UX design and conducting research in the fields of design for health and education. Some of the core values in our university include Kaitiakitanga (guardianship in Māori), Whai mātauranga (pursuit of knowledge) and Manaakitanga (hospitality or the generous fostering of knowledge in our context). We are fortunate enough to be able to integrate these values in our work by seeking knowledge to tackle some of the challenges our society is currently facing (e.g. health and sustainability). We also encourage this practice amongst our students by thinking critically about the impact of design.
What does accessible design mean to you?
Accessible design is designing for people with different needs. It is about considering other people’s abilities and perspectives and enabling their access to a service through design. When you consider another’s perspective it helps you to create better designs for everyone. However, it is not simple to wear someone else’s shoes, sometimes the best way to learn about what other people need is to work with them in collaboration, and when that is not possible, there are accessibility guidelines and research available which can be used to improve the access to a service or experience.
Often as designers, we are focusing on a specific target audience. If this group doesn’t include users with disabilities we might miss them out and our design will be limited. When we design for accessibility, we can help make life easier for a wider group. To start with, businesses would be able to accomodate more people, thereby expanding their customer acquisition. Secondly, in many cases, you can satisfy everyone’s needs by designing with accessibility in mind. The most common example is curb cuts, they are designed for people with prams and wheelchairs but can also benefit people on skateboards and bicycles. Ultimately, accessible design can benefit everyone.
In your role as an educator, what methods do you use to teach design for accessibility?
We embrace the value of whanaungatanga (collaboration). By working with industry and community organisations, we can provide beneficial advances for the students and the partner organisations. The Master of User Experience programme aims to bridge the gap between academia and the industry and we are constantly looking for opportunities to engage our students in real world issues.
This year, the students worked with Special Olympics NZ and Alzheimers NZ to create digital products with an emphasis on user accessibility. We often think of accessibility as a physical thing but what about users with cognitive impairments? For example, how might we embed dementia-friendly guidelines in web design? As part of their learning, students prepare a research report and design output alongside their blog and portfolio to reflect on their work and share their process and findings.
Furthermore, we collaborate with Google on digital wellbeing and accessibility challenges. As part of the Master of User Experience Design we use Google’s design sprint methodology to tackle Google’s digital wellbeing challenges, carry out research and come up with tangible solutions in the form of prototypes – all in a short time frame. The students engage in design ethics and critical thinking by considering the impact of digital design through research, while providing potential solutions in teams. Working in a team and in collaboration with stakeholders is valuable in allowing different perspectives to be brought to the table.
As part of the Master of Design Innovation and research at the university, students examine real world problems. My colleague Dr Gillian McCarthy taught a UX Practice course last year and her students worked with Blind and Low Vision New Zealand to examine how we design digital interfaces and audio experiences with visually-impaired users.
Recently, we developed a micro-credential course for digital accessibility with the Department of Internal Affairs which can give people insight on what is digital accessibility and why it is important, how can we design, develop and test content and services for accessibility and how can we effectively communicate best practice in digital accessibility.
What about your own ongoing research?
Currently, my main research focus is design for Alzheimer’s prevention. I am working with colleagues at the School of Medicine, Otago University and the School of Design, VUW. This research is also an opportunity to address digital barriers amongst the ageing population. During the stroke rehabilitation research, user testing was a beneficial method to learn more about possible accessibility issues amongst stroke patients. It’s important to familiarise yourself with the literature and guidelines to be prepared, but working with people to understand their perspectives can help you discover issues that may have not been encountered before.
How do you practise critical thinking?
Critical thinking comes up often in UX, particularly through our research methods, analysis, and group discussions. The real world problems and projects expand students’ experience and prepare them for a professional context. While the students practice autonomy, adaptability, and collaboration, they constantly critique, test, and iterate their own solutions and continue to develop them.
At VUW, students practise critical thinking right from their first year through to postgraduate level. For example, in first year design, students designed posters to represent and communicate different values. They then were asked to write feedback for each of their peers. At the end of the session, each student could read the comments to understand how other individuals have perceived their designs. It’s a useful task to encourage students to consider how other people may perceive a visual representation and why. Furthermore, the inquiry is initiated by the designers themselves as they investigate and analyse the efficacy of their own visual language, which can be an empowering learning process.
What makes VUW different to other design schools?
My initial impression of VUW was its strong emphasis on pushing the envelope in terms of research and design, and moreover, the bridge between design and other disciplines such as engineering. The university also encourages students to use design thinking for larger social problems. It’s important for us to consider the future and how students can drive change. As designers, we need to think about how we can improve our world (for example, see Design for Social Innovation).
We have recently made changes to the Bachelor of Design Innovation course structures to make it easier for students to take courses from other disciplines (such as science or the arts) to support their design process and practice while nurturing curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge. These days, designers can specialise in UX writing, prototyping, machine learning, Mātauranga design, user research and more. It’s good to have the ability to take a few electives in different disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, Māori studies, software development and literature. I remember enjoying the media study and philosophy electives during my first degree, and believe that they enriched me as a person and a designer. In the long run, I think the university is not just a place to get your degree and start working, it can help you achieve this, but it’s more about building a community with a goal to expand the knowledge and create a better world for everyone, work through challenges, and grow as individuals and as a society.
In your opinion, why are some designers reluctant to design for accessibility?
I can imagine that most designers work to deadlines, and it can become a challenge to consider accessibility within the constraints of time. However, I do think that awareness of user accessibility is increasing and more designers are discussing its importance.
W3C and the government provides information on how to make your designs more accessible. But it is a constant pursuit. We need to work together to learn, review and develop these guidelines and how we might embed them in our designs.
How does our industry here in NZ do better?
People in New Zealand are known to be kind and designers here are highly ethical and caring. Designers usually end up in this profession because they are passionate about it and they are constantly pushing for better designs. It is really about supporting each other in learning and improving what we have now and being aware of what is there more to learn about. We need to work with communities, other practitioners, developers and people with disabilities to make things better. We need to constantly expand our knowledge in this area.
New Zealand government is on to it as well. As discussed before, we have been working with the Department of Internal Affairs to design a micro credential course so people can learn to make their designs more accessible. This short, professional course is designed for people already in the industry and can help them gain those skills quickly in a safe and supportive environment. Once you complete the course, you get a credential that represents your accessibility expertise:
Videos by W3C Web Accessibility Initiative:
Micro-credential course – Introduction to Digital Accessibility: Delivering inclusive digital content