On the importance of noticing things

I never knew how much I took seemingly mundane things for granted – until I started working at Funka.

Emil Gejrot

Title: Researcher

I never used to consider pavements. I didn’t question why they look the way they do, and who made them that way. To me, a pavement was as natural as moss in the woods or waves on the sea. That was simply the way things were! What other way could they be?

Then I came to Funka, and I was forced to reconsider my position. I soon came to learn that to many, a pavement can be something of an obstacle course – indeed, you might even call it a disabling environment. All of a sudden, I started to notice details of which I had, up until then, been completely unaware. Now, when I see a pavement without a dropped kerb, I try to imagine what I would do if I were in a wheelchair and had to get to the other side. Or if I see a delivery vehicle parked clumsily on a normally unobstructed street, I wonder what difficulties it would have caused me had I been severely visually impaired. I’ve even started pondering what obstacles there are that I don’t notice at all. Could something which, to me, seems wholly uncomplicated, to someone else present an exceedingly real problem?

Fundamentally, this is also Funka’s perspective when it comes to the web, which is, after all, our main focus. Our insistence on testing web solutions with all kinds of users really is precisely about being made aware of those things that neither we, nor our customers, can notice. Our recommendations may well be perceived as pedantry, but our indefatigable hunt for issues also fits into a larger context: the digitalisation of society.

A digitalised society

This is a worn-out and vague phrase, so to cut through the jargon: before, we had to queue up, fill out reams of paper or argue with clerks to enjoy the services of society, such as banking, employment agencies or just civic information. Now, however, we are able to – expected to – handle all such matters online. In many ways, this is a happy development. At its best, digitalisation makes society more efficient and makes it easier for us to be engaged as citizens. For persons with disabilities, digitalisation can even mean more opportunities to participate in society.

Too often, unfortunately, digital solutions assume that none of their eventual users will have disabilities or limited IT skills. Sometimes it’s worse than that, such as when it becomes clear that a digital solution has been cobbled together without the slightest thought of who the end users might be. In this way, digitalisation may also cause problems, and exclude rather than include.

The gears of politics have already begun grinding in an effort to address these issues. At the moment, the EU member states are implementing the so-called Web Accessibility Directive. By September of this year, the same minimum requirements for accessible web solutions will apply to the public sector throughout the EU. While Funka has been rather critical of the Directive, we are nevertheless encouraged to see that more people now realise the importance of web accessibility.

Still, in the midst of all this, I hope that accessibility work won’t be reduced to merely crossing things off of a checklist. No list can cover everything; there will always be something that even the most well-appointed accessibility expert hasn’t noticed. User tests will continue to be one of our most important tools for figuring out what actually works.

Research creating new conditions

I don’t work with user tests myself. Rather, I’m a part of the research and innovation department. We’re tasked with creating opportunities for our experts to use their know-how creatively. We track down the funding that allows Funka to research new methods, tools and solutions within the realm of accessibility. In other words: we create new conditions for our experts to solve problems we didn’t even know existed, down to the smallest detail.

Whether it’s an evaluation, a test or research – at its core, the guiding principle of our work remains the same. As a certain Danish prince once put it: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ No matter how well we think we understand how things work, there will always be something unconsidered, something gone unnoticed. This goes for matters high and low alike: for the digitalised society in which we are to live, as well as for the way in which we design our pavements.