Details matter. Just ask our Input and Accessibility Design Team.
By Ed Lane
Making the new features in Windows 11 accessible for all was the mission from the very start. And to make that happen, our Input and Accessibility Design team focused squarely on the details.
It began with how users initially discover and engage with the tools, Julia Carlson, a senior designer at Microsoft, explained.
“One of the things we did first was address accessibility settings,” Carlson said during a recent briefing for journalists in Asia.
That included having a rebranded icon and name, a refreshed interface, and clearer organization of content. The updated accessibility settings are designed to be easier to parse and navigate.
Categories include vision, hearing, and interaction with tools like magnifier, contrast themes, narrator, captions, sticky keys, and more.
“We do a lot to make sure all of these tools work with every single feature in Windows 11,” Carlson said, noting that when the Windows team builds something new, “we review the feature to make sure that all of our accessibility tools work well with the changes.”.
Microsoft accessibility tools are built into all Windows 11 devices by default, Carlson added. Some accessibility tools are available before logging in to help customers get their device set up.
Users at the heart
John Porter, a senior UX designer at Microsoft who focuses on the intersection of user experience, HCI (human-computer interaction), inclusive design, and accessibility, said that at “a high level” the accessibility tools “feel like part of the operating system, it feels like Windows”.
That meant having users in the design process, Porter said, citing work done with South African Disability Rights Advocates in the 1980s – with the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
“There are unique nuances to their needs,” Porter said.
He added the design principles revolve around features that are intuitive, efficient, integrated, predictable, non-stigmatizing, complete and scalable. “As a team, we all work to live up to this.”
Getting people with disabilities as active participants also opens a window to new insights, Porter said, and teaches a life lesson to “be humble about our own expertise as designers, our customers are their own experts.”
Real-world customer problems are a focus for all Windows 11 applications, said Jiwon Choi, design lead for Windows Accessibility at Microsoft.
In her role supporting two product teams, Choi said the team strives to understand and answer how our diverse spectrum of customers prefer to interact with and use Windows.
These cut across the use of voice, pen, fingers, switches and eye tracking.
“We design assistive tools and modern input experiences,” Choi said, adding they also consider diverse abilities and human interactions gleaned from users.
“It’s super important to share perspectives and share learnings,” Choi said.
Light and calm
New contrast themes in Windows 11, such as Desert and Night sky, meet the needs of customers with light sensitivity, said team member Natassia Silva, a product designer at Microsoft.
“We regularly talk to people with lived low vision experiences to find out where their pain points are – getting feedback on their experience such as colors, and border treatment on application windows,” Silva said.
“We leveraged feedback that helps those with light sensitivity and other vision conditions.”
For example, multiple application windows that blend into each other making it hard to determine which one is active and in focus came out of discussions with users so the design team could determine how to address the issue.
Porter also noted what he called “one of the coolest features of Windows 11” — voice typing.
“This was designed with inclusive outcomes in mind for people with limited mobility and also for those who prefer to speak rather than type,” he said.
” Voice typing allows people to create content as fast as they talk, when traditional typing methods might be slower or impossible, making this a mainstream feature capable of also supporting specific accessibility scenarios.”
Additionally, Windows 11 has a renewed focus on the design of sound experiences that everyone can benefit from and enjoy, with new calmer sounds which feel more consistent with the updated visual style.
The sounds are also subtly different across light and dark themes, giving users more nuanced control over their audio experience.
One other new accessibility addition, according to Porter, was the introduction of a new boot up sound. Previously, some blind and low vision users would have trouble knowing when a boot was complete.
“By including this new boot up sound,” he explained, “we are providing another signal to the user that Windows 11 is ready to be interacted with.”
Ed Lane is a journalist based in Singapore.