Accessibility in the Retail Experience
Shepherd Center's Accessibility User Research Collective (AURC) teammate Kelsey Koupal, M.A., CCC-SLP, is a lead user experience researcher. She has led numerous usability and user needs studies for retail clients through the AURC, and also maintains her speech-language pathologist license, having experience in both pediatrics in schools and adults in rehabilitation programs.
We spoke with Kelsey to get her thoughts on the current state of the retail experience for people with disabilities.
1. Why is the retail experience important for people with disabilities?
Retail experience is important for everyone, but it is not always accessible. People with disabilities are often excluded from simple day-to-day retail experiences, whether that be for lack of accessible stores, websites and apps, transportation, or other factors – the list is endless when you think of all the factors that might be barriers if they are not designed and implemented with accessibility not only in mind, but with intention. The retail experience is an essential aspect of individual autonomy, community participation, and economic growth – and that includes people with disabilities.
2. When we talk about the retail experience, what does that include?
There are so many retail experiences that come to mind right away, but I think this is a great opportunity for people to think about how they interact with retail environments (both physical and virtual) and then consider how accessible those are for people who are blind or have low vision, are hard of hearing, Deaf, mobility impaired, and/or neurodivergent.
For example, I think back to a recent morning of errands – I started by picking up coffee to get my day started. Even swinging through the drive-through might pose considerable barriers for someone who can’t access the menu, pay window, or use the retailer’s rewards app. Depositing a check on my banking app, returning a shirt at the department store, and picking up a new read at the library with their kiosk were next on my to-do list. I ended by getting a gift for an expecting friend, ordering and picking up my week of groceries, and driving through the car wash. Now, all of those are day-to-day retail experiences that should be available for everyone – and accessible. It is a privilege to complete these, but it shouldn’t be.
There are endless potential barriers in each of these experiences if they are not designed with accessibility in mind, limiting the options for people with disabilities to get what they need done for their daily living. I used a variety of means to get my errands done (apps, websites, kiosks, brick and mortar stores) just in that brief time frame. With technological advances, many of these tasks are theoretically possible to do with many companies having websites, apps, voice assistants, and AI chatbots. This sounds great, but those are not always easier. Making sure those are also accessible and enjoyable is one of the things I and my AURC teammates dedicate ourselves to improving.
3. What are some of the specific accessibility/usability concerns that you have observed as a user experience researcher and clinical specialist in speech-language pathology?
This is a fun one! Yes, my journey to user experience (UX) research is one that is a bit nontraditional with my background in speech-language pathology. However, a reason I wanted to transition into a field that focused on asking more questions and making more strides toward accessibility was the common thread of intersectionality of disability and advocacy. Both of these roles allow me to amplify the voices of people who face struggles that are not always heeded and champion their experiences while encouraging them to share their likes, dislikes, and ideas.
One usability concern that I have observed both as a UX researcher and a clinician in school and hospital settings is the lack of affordable, attainable technology that is designed for easy use and true accessibility. People with disabilities statistically have lower socioeconomic status, but the products that might be more accessible or allow them to have more autonomy in their day-to-day are increasingly expensive. I would say a specific frustration that I have encountered in both careers is products that were not designed to be accessible from the start, and now that piece is either being worked on from the back end or ignored completely. Equal access is so important, but we need to continue to ask and learn from those with the lived experience to be truly great.
I look forward to seeing companies that have the resources to make their products and environments more inclusive with full ADA and WCAG 2.0 compliance, less harsh lighting and sounds, screen-reader-friendly apps, sign language options, and staff who are trained and diverse in disability fully embrace accessibility from these user stories and experiences.
4. What efforts or progress have you observed in your work as a UX researcher in terms of improving the retail experience for people with disabilities?
Most retailers today have a dedicated team or programs in diverse sectors with varied product and service offerings, each with experience in specific retail challenges for accessibility/usability. There have been great strides taken toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) but sometimes the “A” is left out: accessibility! Again, intersectionality here is key. People have so many identities that weave together, and taking disability into account is incredibly important. It is no secret that the economy and retailers face new challenges with the growth of online shopping and skyrocketing technology, and I have seen progress in making retail websites and apps more accessible with better chatbots, accessible buttons, screen reader compliance, etc. However, this is not yet a widespread norm, and DEIA practices, while aided by wonderful programs, should truly be in the design of every retailer’s environment, whether it is a small business, nonprofit, or a Fortune 500 company. After all, they serve customers – and we are all, in some way or another, customers.
Learn more about the AURC on their website here.
Shepherd Center lead user experience researcher Kelsey Koupal, M.A., CCC-SLP, discusses her view on the accessibility of the retail experience.
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.