Shifting the furniture (a cautionary tale)

I had a conversation with a colleague this week, during which he gave me a simple but excellent example of how changes – which might be made for good reasons – can have important, undesirable consequences when we don’t consider the people they may affect.

Here is a fictional scenario based on that true story:

Chris is an office manager. The company where he works is experiencing some success and the team is growing. Unfortunately, some of their equipment and furniture is no longer fit for purpose. The team have been complaining about the printer for a while now; it is several years old and doesn’t provide many of the features they would like. Meanwhile, the growth in the team means that desk and cupboard space are at a premium.

Chris arranges for some changes to take place one weekend.

A new Multi Function Device – to replace the printer – is leased from a local supplier, and some new furniture is purchased. Having coordinated their delivery, and arranged for someone to lift and shift the items, Chris gives up his Saturday morning to oversee proceedings, and to make sure everything is in place.

When the printer arrives, it doesn’t fit neatly into the same spot as the old device. To make more space, many of the desks have to be moved, some just slightly but others by around half a metre. This wasn’t part of the plan and takes some time. The new cupboards are placed with a minimum of fuss, although the corridors between the desks are now somewhat narrower in places.

Pleased to have created a better working environment for his colleagues, Chris heads home. To compensate for his lost Saturday morning, he takes Monday morning as leave, but shortly after 9 o’clock, he is surprised to receive a call from his director, Julie.

“Hi Julie… I’m on leave this morning. I was in over the weekend.”

“Hi Chris. I know and I’m sorry to call you. I wouldn’t normally, but we have a problem with the changes made in the office. Some of the things that have been moved are making life difficult for Samantha.”

Immediately, Chris realises the problem. Samantha is blind and uses a mobility cane to help navigate. Because she has been with the company for a while, Samantha has become familiar with the position of the furniture and equipment.

By moving furniture and adding new unfamiliar obstacles, Samantha’s mental map has been torn up. Chris had been trying to make life better for his co-workers but had ended up making it a lot worse for Samantha. He heads in to the office right away…

Unfortunately, this lack of consideration is also a feature of software development. The desire to make changes in software products is generally motivated by good intentions to improve the experience of using those products.

But in making these changes, it might be that we make the experience considerably worse for someone with a disability or impairment, perhaps by:

In the same way that Chris created an unfamiliar and confusing environment for Samantha, we could easily do the same for people with impairments who use our products.

In the quest for more rapid deployment, evaluation of the threats to different quality criteria might not always be the highest priority. Through increased awareness of problems relating to Accessibility,  perhaps we can avoid making some of these mistakes and provide a more inclusive kind of quality.

Another bite size blog – thanks to Kevin for the story which prompted this!

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