Coffee shop UX ethnography

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I’ve always been a very observant person. It stems partly from growing up the littlest in a large family –  my quiet observation and constant awareness kept me one step ahead in the game of parent and sibling relations (I got away with quite a bit) and kept me from being (physically) squashed by my sizable older brothers. It makes sense that I’ve found myself observing and researching human behavior in my career.

I’ve noticed a similar benefit in the working world to quietly observing interactions and discussions. I often overhear colleagues discussing interesting project plans, then I try to find a way to respectfully insert myself into a helpful role. I’ve gained valuable experience and learned important UX skills by doing this. However, my colleagues offer only a small number of the vast collection of human perspectives, and I’m always looking for opportunities to learn more.

I noticed a blind person using a computer in my neighborhood coffee shop a few weeks ago. He spoke on the phone with a friend while also listening to a screen reader program dictate the contents of a webpage into his headphones. I was impressed by his multitasking, something that’s nearly impossible even for sighted people. I’ve watched a few screen reader demos on youtube, so I had an idea of how quickly his program was dictating the page to him (rather quickly to very quickly, depending on his preference. Sina Bahram, a visually impaired accessibility guru, prefers light speed).

I ran into him again in the exact same spot a couple weeks later. I introduced myself, chatted with him about the coffee and the neighborhood and the weather, then asked him more about his screen reader and about general accessibility on the web for blind people.  He seemed pretty excited to encounter someone interested in web accessibility and was incredibly open. He told me all about the various screen reader programs, their price points, their pros and cons. He told me which sites were notorious for shirking accessibility standards (and the legal requirements to adhere to them!) and which sites were better. He lamented not being able to use his Hotmail (which is owned by Microsoft) account anymore because the code had changed such that his screen reader couldn’t access the “send” button.

I was struck by the endless obstacles he faced while trying to access the digital tools that we (sighted persons) take for granted. If a giant like Microsoft can’t be held accountable for maintaining accessibility standards, who can? I tried to express my disgust at this situation to him, and he said something in response that sums up how absolutely vital it is that these tools are accessible for ALL:

My dad has always asked me how I deal with it all, and I tell him that I just have no other choice.

You can’t function as a human being in this world without it.

I hope I find a way to not only improve the user experience for the standard user, but also for the users who encounter such endless obstacles and have no choice but to persevere.

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