Alison Haynes is the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Compliance Coordinator on the Systems Development and Innovation team at Kent State. She is also a graduate of the School of Information’s User Experience Design (UXD) master’s degree program. Read on for excerpts from a recent interview in which she provided insights into how accessibility issues are a key factor in user experience design and how she came to that work.

What is User Experience Design

User experience design uses technical and design choices to influence how you feel about and interact with a product, service or company. The layout of a web page or app. The visual design. The font choices, the size, the color. Where the buttons are. How you interact with it. Every choice that makes it simpler, makes it work better, makes it more helpful will encourage a connection between the user and the product, which then creates customer loyalty.

I didn’t start in this field. I have a bachelor's in piano performance from Indiana University, so I spent the first 20 years or so of my career in the music industry: performing, teaching, writing, directing creative arts productions, accompanying—all of the above. But with tighter budgets all around, music is often the first thing that a family or a school is going to cut. So I started transitioning more into graphic arts and technology. In 2017, I moved to Kent, started working in Residence Services at Kent State and enrolled in grad school.

I’m in my 40s, so you don’t hop careers lightly. You need an industry that will continue to grow and support you for the next 20-30 years. Plus, I needed something that could tap my empathy, but also my graphic design and technical skills. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know what UXD was until I ran across the program in the School of Information.

And it clicked. It clicked instantly.

In class, we learned how to use the foundations of human psychology and technology to try to make that connection with the end user. You not only have to think about the average user coming to your site, but all the other likely visitors, prospective customers, or in my case, students.

After I graduated from the iSchool’s program in December of 2019, I was hired by Kent State to lead a team working to advance the accessibility of our entire digital footprint. Accessibility means that anyone using technology here at Kent State is able to use it in equally effective ways. For example, if we have a student who is legally blind who is using a screen reader to access course material, does all technology work together correctly? Are the course materials compatible? Are the materials, the web pages and such, laid out and designed in a way that plays well with the screen reading technology? Is it providing equal and effective access? (See sidebar for 3 Tips for Screen Readability.)

A lot of that work involves auditing our websites and the course materials we provide students, and then making recommendations to our departments and our faculty about how to make their material easier to experience for students who have these needs. If you’re making something more accessible, you’re making it more usable, and if you’re making it more usable, you’re making it more accessible. It’s two sides of the same coin.

3 Tips for Screen Readability

  1. Color contrast. The color of your text on your site has to have a ratio of at least 4.5 to 1, meaning a significant difference between the background color of the page and the color of the text. Near black text on a white background offers high contrast, while light gray text on an white background offers low contrast.
  2. Alt text descriptions of images. Screen readers use the “alt text=” field in HTML to provide information about images on your site. Leaving the field blank tells low or no vision users nothing about what that picture is meant to convey. Short, specific descriptive text up to 125 characters is useful for images that are relevant. Decorative images that don’t add information are coded as null, “”, so that the screen reader will skip announcing them to the user.
  3. Hyperlink labels. Too often websites will say “Click here for more information.” Screen readers that bring up the links on a page to navigate will bring up the hyperlinked words, and users could end up with multiple instances of “click here,” “click here,” “click here.” Hyperlinked language should be complete and specific. For example: “Click here to apply to the iSchool’s UXD program.”

So, both my user experience and accessibility work comes down to choices that reduce the mental bandwidth I’m asking a user to invest in getting through the basic functionality of a site. We want visitors to our sites to be able to focus on the information they’re searching for, and we want our current students who are doing coursework to have more mental and emotional bandwidth for the actual material they’re trying to learn. I want to make the interaction as seamless as possible.

I took this position at the beginning of February 2020, so I only had a few weeks in a new industry before the pandemic disrupted things in a big way. Because of my user experience degree, I was put on a key project—moving Destination Kent State, the on-campus, summer orientation program for new students, into a mobile application format. I became the lead User Experience designer for the DKS mobile app with developers, business analysts and project managers, and coordinating with departments all across Kent State to translate their information into a mobile experience.

I knew that students not coming to campus for DKS is a big deal, and losing that experience might really affect our enrollment numbers. So, I determined from the beginning to do everything I could to bring Kent State to them in a mobile application—to help them feel they belonged here, even though “here” might have been thousands of miles from where they were at the time.

Developing DKS mobile with the incredible team I worked with has been a really defining experience. I was able to use both my passion for making Kent State (literally) accessible for all students and the UXD training I received in the master’s program to help pivot existing programs into a mobile and online format.

Now that the big summer push on DKSmobile is over, I’m focused almost exclusively on advancing our digital accessibility. The team effort to move a majority of courses online—and it’s mind-blowing the number of people worked to do that—has more urgency than it ever had before. And even though this transition happened at lightning speed, more faculty and staff are now using our tech tools to bridge the gap between themselves and their students than ever before. That’s good for all users.