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Colorblind Users Push Technology Designers to Use Signals Beyond Color – The Wall Street Journal

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Colorblind Users Push Technology Designers to Use Signals Beyond Color - The Wall Street Journal

Trello’s mode for colorblind users adds patterns (left) to help people distinguish between labels.



Photo:

Trello

By
Katie Deighton

Leaving a Zoom meeting used to be a challenge for Marta Olea, a university professor based in Madrid. Ms. Olea is colorblind so could not see the app’s red-on-black “Leave Meeting” text on her computer screen. A large proportion of the 300 million people living with color vision deficiency world-wide would have trouble finding the button too. The most common forms of the condition affect a person’s ability to clearly see shades of green and red.

Zoom redesigned the button in April to display white text on a red background.

That kind of tweak—however small—falls into the practice of accessible design, a process that considers the additional needs of disabled people.

Accessibility considerations are a question of compliance for U.S. companies under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Drafted to protect disabled citizens in the physical world, the law has been used in court to argue for accessible technology.

Guillermo Robles, who is blind, sued Domino’s Pizza Inc. in 2016 after he was unable to order from the chain online using his screen-reading software. The Supreme Court sided with Mr. Robles in 2019, and the case will return to the trial court later this year, Domino’s said.

While colorblind users like Ms. Olea do not require a screen reader to access a website, they can miss information because of the ways designers deploy color. Kathryn Albany-Ward, founder and chief executive of British nonprofit Colour Blind Awareness CIC, said colorblind people struggle to discern basic color-coded information in many experiences with technology, from reading maps online to figuring out whether the LEDs on a Wi-Fi router are blinking green or red.

Ms. Albany-Ward said colorblind people have historically been hesitant to raise accessibility issues in the way other disability rights activists have. “It’s often because they’re embarrassed, or because they think they haven’t got a serious disability that warrants change,” she said, adding that some people don’t even realize they have the condition.


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But the colorblind community has started to make louder calls for progress. Colour Blind Awareness and organizations such as We Are Colorblind formed to advocate for colorblind-friendly design through education and awareness. They call out inaccessible design online and offer companies advice on accessibility, alongside individual Twitter users and members of Reddit’s ColorBlind forum.

Tom van Beveren, a colorblind user experience designer and founder of We Are Colorblind, said it is usually difficult to push large companies to change their designs. But more creators, developers and publishers are asking for help before products’ release.

The gaming industry has proven progressive on this front, Mr. van Beveren said, with a large proportion of new games arriving with a built-in colorblind mode. “That wasn’t happening four or five years ago,” he said.

A raft of color- and contrast-checker tools entering the market is making it easier for designers to understand what colorblind people need to see, said Joseph Rinaldi, a colorblind senior designer at Connecticut-based Impact Branding & Design LLC.

Google Chrome in March introduced a developer tool that mimics a range of colorblind visions so user experience—or UX—designers can check their work for accessibility. “Data shows that the most common accessibility issue is color-related, so this seemed like a worthwhile problem to tackle,” said Mathias Bynens, a software engineer at Google.

Accessible designers need to present visual information through means other than color. Work management platform Trello did so when it began overlaying patterns and explanatory text on top of its colored features in 2012.

Michael Pryor, head of Trello at parent company

Atlassian Corp.,

said designers placed the toggle to activate colorblind mode in Trello’s main interface, rather than burying it deep within a settings menu. “It’s a way to make the software more human and tactile,” he said.

Spotify Technology SA in 2017 also made a small but effective accessibility change: the addition of a dot that appears when the shuffle and repeat buttons are pressed. Before, the activated buttons lit up with color alone, meaning people with certain color vision deficiencies could not tell whether the features had been enabled.

Apple Inc.

in 2019 introduced a “Differentiate Without Color” iOS setting, which replaces interfaces that rely solely on color with noncolor alternatives. The company said it has supported customers with colorblindness for more than a decade with tools such as the iOS Color Filters setting, which was rolled out in 2016.

The accessibility progress of international brands is vital to the expansion of colorblind-friendly design as a whole, Mr. Rinadli said.

“As these bigger companies push for this, I think smaller companies will kind of take notice of that and follow suit,” he said. “They dictate the way the web is going to look for most people.”

Write to Katie Deighton at Katie.Deighton@wsj.com

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