Accessibility, empathy and legal tech

“If you design for the marginalised, then everyone benefits.”

Josef's CTO, Kirill Kliavin, shares his thoughts on the role of tech, design and empathy in making both digital products and legal services more accessible.

“If you design for the marginalised, then everyone benefits.”

Ever since I heard this quote, it has inspired me to centre accessibility in my work as an engineer and in the products that I build. (Funnily enough, I can’t actually remember where I read the quote! Please ping me if you know who said it.)

What struck me about this was the idea that accessibility – or, in tech, “a11y” – wasn’t just about making digital products that were accessible to everyone; it was about making better digital products for all.

The great equaliser

The internet is supposed to be the great equaliser – a place where everyone, no matter who you are, can come together to learn, share, create etc. But that’s not true for everyone.

How do you Zoom if you have a hearing impairment? Are there subtitles? Or how do you do internet shopping if you have a vision impairment? How do you know what you’re buying? How do you find the button to add something to your cart?

These may be novel questions for some, but for many in our society they are a daily reality. And that is why, as creators of digital products, we need to consider everyone when we design solutions.

Accessibility benefits people without disabilities. Sometimes we are limited or restricted by our situation and environment.

Accessibility benefits people without disabilities. Sometimes we are limited or restricted by our situation and environment.

It affects us all

But making digital products accessible isn’t just about making them usable for people living with a disability. Disability affects all of us from time to time, whether it’s permanent, temporary or situational.

So, just as we need to build digital products that are usable and enjoyable for people with a vision impairment, in a similar way we need to build digital products that people can use while they’ve only got one hand free on a busy train on their way home from work.

To be clear, that’s not to say that the “disability” is equivalent in any way! But rather that the solution to these problems can be found in the same place: empathy.

Accessibility is empathy

In the world of accessibility, it can be easy to get caught up in checklists and guidelines and how-tos. There are endless tools available to help us determine whether the products we build are “accessible”.

But while all of that can be really helpful, ultimately accessibility boils down to empathy. The question we have to ask ourselves is always: “What does the user need?” No checklist will ever be a good stand in for an honest answer to that question.

In the world of legal services, for example, the answer to that question is often that users just need to get the job done so they can get on with their lives. Most people don’t care how the law works. They just care that it does work. 

(I started Josef partly because of how inaccessible tax advice was. I didn’t care about the advice itself – I just wanted to sort my taxes so I could go for a surf!)

“At its best, good design is often invisible. This is particularly true in legal tech.”
– Kirill Kliavin, Josef's CTO

Make it invisible

Knowing that, the idea of accessibility in legal tech becomes more meaningful. It’s not just a matter of making sure that Josef is compatible with screen readers. It’s a matter of performance too, so that people can get in and out as quickly as possible.

It also tells me that our aim in legal tech has to be to make these products less conspicuous. What we design shouldn’t draw attention to itself. It should allow people to accomplish their tasks with minimum fuss or friction and in the most efficient manner possible. 

At its best, good design is often invisible. This is particularly true in legal tech.

What’s next?

In the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my tips and hints on how to make digital legal tools that are accessible. In the meantime, get empathising! Download a screen reader and try to use it with a product. Turn off your screen and try to use an app. Access a website with very slow internet.

Not only will this give you a sense of how the internet isn’t always equal. It will also begin to teach you the meaning of accessibility.

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