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Why Pinterest pinpointed features for the visually impaired

Ideas curation site has developed features for people with visual impairment. Its lead designer explains what has been changed and why it matters

Pinterest is well known as a highly visual platform where people use images and links they have found on the internet to inspire activities such as home improvements, recipes or party planning.

The platform relies heavily on imagery, enabling users to “pin” pictures and gifs to different pages on their profile to keep all ideas in one place.

But the platform’s designers began to realise that the website and app did not cater for people with visual impairments, even though there was interest from this group, which includes people with partial blindness, colour blindness and contrast sensitivity.

“It’s really about you,” said Long Cheng, lead designer at Pinterest. “We’re not building a product for an average user – we’re trying to include as many people as possible in that design process.

“We realised we weren’t doing enough, we weren’t including everyone as part of the product development process.”

So the platform – which has 10 million unique monthly visitors in the UK and more then 200 million active users worldwide – introduced accessibility features such as increased colour contrasts to make text easy to read against coloured backgrounds, dynamic font sizes and “strong type hierarchy, sizing and bolding” so that information makes sense when first looked at, clear focus indicators for easy navigation and the option of spoken feedback for people with total or partial vision loss, said Long.

His team of designers is responsible for discovery, search, profile and accessibility on the platform, and they aim to help users “discover and do what you love”, said Long.

“We have a shared belief that Pinterest can help people discover their ideas regardless of their level of ability,” he added.

But when conducting user research, Long and his team were “heartbroken” to discover that people with visual impairments were finding various elements of the platform difficult, including signing up and browsing for ideas – two fundamental parts of the service.

“Good design includes everyone, and we wanted to include people with disability,” he said.

There is a great concern across the tech industry that if the teams developing technology are not diverse, this will be reflected in the end result, and a section of the population will be excluded from using this tech.

Although Long’s developers consider themselves “average users” when working on Pinterest, they realise there are other use cases that need to be considered to find out what each individual experiences when using the application and to adapt the platform as required.

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Long said his team is focused on finding “where are the big pockets of users we know we are lacking and how we can make it better for these people”.

He even joked that developers are designing for their “future selves” when old age causes their sight to deteriorate.

But diversity in teams also includes diversity of thought, and creativity is becoming increasingly important in tech to encourage employees to think outside the box.

“Diversity is not just in hiring and how we market ourselves, but also in the product we are building every day,” said Long.

“Creativity is definitely really important and I think what design brings as an industry is an applied practice of humanity.”

Long emphasised that Pinterest’s culture is focused on “continuous improvement” and to make sure the future design of its platform considers inclusion at every stage.

The firm has created a design library that includes accessibility components for engineers and designers to use, as well as automated accessibility checks on particular design features to make sure new additions to the platform meet its accessibility standards.

Independence and equality

Pinterest has also partnered with an organisation that promotes independence and equality for the visually impaired.

But Long said that even though Pinterest is primarily a visual discovery engine, most pins made on the site are from business sites or blog posts, and these pins are ideas that will eventually be translated into the physical.

“A lot of the time, if you look at what people are saving, it’s things like actionable verticals such as food, shopping, home decor,” said Long.

“The end result of all those is not visual, it’s with your five senses. At the end of the day, you want to be there in person feeling the fabric.”

Retailers whose products depend on touch, smell, taste, texture or fit can often struggle with connecting up the online and offline because of this lack of physical sensation, he said.

External businesses have a huge role to play in Pinterest’s success, and 72% of the platform’s users said it introduced them to new brands and services.

The nature of the website means people using it are looking for ideas, which will eventually translate into a next step, whether it be a purchase or a product subscription.

With its new accessibility feature, Long’s design team has ensured that this search for ideas and inspiration can also include the visually impaired.

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