A Black non-binary person with a leopard print cane presses a wall-mounted push button to open the cafe door. They are dressed in all black and have a shaved head, glasses, and a red lip on.

Photo from Disabled And Here

I’ve had enough! When access friction becomes an access barrier

Reading time: estimated 7 minutes

On This Page

Eric Bailey, Ad Hoc, Senior UX Designer. Eric speaks to “access friction” – accumulated impediments to using technology – in conversation with three assistive technology users. He shares technical examples and then emphasizes how to remove access friction in digital products.


Much like the word “accessible,” the term “access friction” can mean different things depending on who you’re talking to. In the context of digital disability, it means the accumulation of impediments as someone uses technology to try and do something.

I’m not the originator of the term access friction, but I would like to use this space to talk about it in terms of user experience. To do this I spoke with Charmaine Co, Jaclyn Pope, and Lew Boles, three people who use assistive technology to get what they need online. Their experiences provide priceless insight into the real-world intersection of usability and disability.

The worst volume control

Inaccessible digital experiences are bad design, but bad design isn’t necessarily inaccessible. 

A great example of this is the Worst Volume Control meme that was going around a few years ago. A user on Reddit posted a volume control UI that oriented the click-and-drag volume level strip so it was horizontally-oriented rather than vertical. 

Other people were quick to contribute to the meme, including my personal favorite:

ALT: A title that reads, “Current Volume Level” with a percentage after it. There is also a button labeled, “Change.” A mouse clicks the “Change” button multiple times, adjusting the volume by a random amount with each button press.

If you are patient enough, you can eventually get the volume level you want. However, getting there means you might have to spend a good deal of time and energy clicking the “Change” button.

Technically accessible

To be clear, the random volume button is a terrible experience. It is also completely accessible. 

The design appears to use a native button element, with a descriptive text label. It also appears to use an h1 to indicate the current volume level. This means that we have something that is completely operable via assistive technology, and therefore not an access barrier (provided the underlying JavaScript is wired up correctly).

I struggle to think of a Web Content Accessibility Success Criterion this design violates. Or, if it does, it is a case of the auditor conflating personal preference with the letter of the law. I also find myself wondering how someone with arthritis or another form of motor control disability would fare using this experience.

Equivalent experiences

Designers love to create experiences that they consider seamless, easy, and intuitive. Being able to get what you want with the smallest amount of hassle is the measure of a successful design, especially in an e-commerce context where a competitor’s site is only a click away.

To me, being accessible means making it so that you don’t have to think to use something. Like it’s so easy that you can just click and it works.

— Charmaine

However, a lack of representation by disabled people in the design industry means that forms of interaction other than clicking or tapping interfaces are barely ever accounted for. Fortunately, many forms of assistive technology can get around this. They can make up for poor design and development choices with specialized functionality to “brute force” their way through.

It should be as easy to use as someone who doesn’t have disabilities.

— Lew

This disparity creates a lack of equivalence in experience. Compared to an abled person, a disabled individual may have to expend far more time and effort to understand and navigate through a design that doesn’t take assistive technology into consideration to achieve a result. The irony of this is not lost on me.

Access friction can create a situation where someone can’t use a digital experience, not because of a single hard barrier, but because the cumulation of poor interactivity via assistive technology leads to total abandonment and no desire to revisit. This is no different than an abled person abandoning an experience because it is borderline impossible to use.

Sometimes, I don’t even bother to figure out the platform because I’m not a very patient person. If something doesn’t work, I stop using it.

— Charmaine

Good enough isn’t

There is another more subtle effect a lack of disabled representation creates: ownership. My conversations uncovered the phenomenon that without input from daily assistive technology users in the design process, a sense of false security can grow.

I’ve seen a lot of progress. But at the same time, I see there’s a need for constant scrutiny. […] I see friction because even though there’s a strong belief that they have addressed a lot of the areas, and yet, there’s a lot of areas that still need attention.

— Lew

This effect is often created by someone’s attempt to make something accessible via checklists, and not guided by feedback from daily assistive technology users. This sort of scenario creates two subtle effects:

  1. Compounding access friction. As more features are created using passive checklists without vetting their ease of use with assistive technology, the level of access friction scales exponentially.
  2. More insidiously, it can make an individual or a team think that effort has already been put in and that a disabled person should be satisfied with the experience they’re getting.

Not every experience has these two qualities, but they were both mentioned by all three people I interviewed. 

Get somebody who is disabled to actually take a look at their website. Become aware of what the problem is, and just be willing to change? You know, don’t be so stubborn.

— Charmaine

[Disabled people] should be able to use this, we should be happy with it. But you know, they don’t look at us. It should have the interface at the same level as a person without an accessibility issue.

— Lew

I don’t know if they’re willing to change or not. It just seems like they’ve put some Band Aids on there, but they haven’t really tried.

— Jaclyn

Mental models and cognitive load

Any person operating a digital interface needs to construct a mental model of how it works. Leveraging things like external consistency can make this easier—it’s why you can quickly infer how a checkbox operates even though it might not look exactly the same on every website and app.

If you have low or no vision and rely on a screen reader to browse the web, you don’t necessarily have the benefit of getting to see if UI looks similar to other offsite UI. This is why thoughtful, accessible code is so important.

Usually, I don’t expect websites to work 100%; I just expect them to work a little. But when they actually work the whole way, isn’t that really great?

— Charmaine

The cognitive load it takes to construct a working mental model increases if a website or app is not coded properly. This translates to spending even more time and effort figuring out how to figure things out. 

Oftentimes this necessitates the person using assistive technology to assume the intent of each page or view on a website or app, and make the best guess to try and get what they want.

I don’t have any other way to verify. I go, “Oh, so now I’m at the end.” And sometimes it’s right. Sometimes it isn’t. When it isn’t right, what do I do? Cancel and go back to the beginning. Again.

— Charmaine

As touched on earlier, poor design and coding can also sap someone’s physical endurance—the extra steps to accomplish something can be physically taxing in addition to mentally. This creates even more access friction and further disincentivizes use.

I’m tired of just making do to get along. Do you know what I mean? I wish things would just work the way they should. 

— Jaclyn

I’ll take my business elsewhere

We’re quick to think of accessibility as only being the domain of important services such as taxes and medical information, but it applies to all-digital experiences. For services such as shopping or entertainment, access friction means seeking out a competitor. 

Why should I be the one to do archaeology to figure out [an app]? I don’t need it. I don’t need to use it.

— Charmaine

A lack of access friction can also create loyalty. Well-built, considerate experiences with low amounts of access friction can aid in adoption, as well as generate positive word-of-mouth reviews.

What app did I start using? DoorDash. Because it was the most accessible even, though I wasn’t initially familiar with it. I was actually willing to learn it because somebody told me that it would be accessible.

— Charmaine

It’s worth acknowledging that services such as entertainment are also important. Doing things like socializing, relaxing, and playing games are experiences everyone should be able to enjoy.

Othering and tokenizing

Wanting an easy-to-use experience is something desired by everyone. At the end of the day, people want to get in, get what they need, and get out, regardless of if they use assistive technology or not. 

And that’s the point. Design is more than how things look, and digital experiences should be easy to use for everyone. Cumulative access friction, as well as accessibility barriers, are design concerns, just ones that aren’t prioritized as highly as others. The reason for this? Ableism.

More often than not accessibility issues are actually thought of as an extra feature. This is something extra that we’re going to do so that this special group of people can use it, but they’re not the majority. 

— Charmaine

Access friction and barriers also limit an individual’s opportunities. Lew, Charmaine, and Jaclyn are smart, technologically literate individuals. Their disabilities help define who they are, but they are not the sum of each person’s identity.

Jaclyn mentioned not being able to get reasonable accommodation for multiple coding boot camps, despite the fact that you don’t need vision to be a developer. This means her technical know-how gets put to use as an accessibility tester.

Don’t get me wrong: accessibility testing is a very vital job, and it is an extremely important space to have disability representation in. However, we don’t want accessibility testing to be the only career choice for all disabled assistive technology users. 

Limiting disabled people to only giving feedback on how they operate their assistive technology creates a tokenizing effect, where abled people may artificially consign technologically-literate disabled individuals to only doing auditing work, and be closed to the idea of a desire and ability to do something else.

So what can we do about it?

How to remove access friction

The more disability representation we have in design and development spaces, the more we can remove access friction and barriers from our digital experiences.

If the issue of accessibility can be put more like in the center, then then we would get more out of it. And then we would be able to do more.

— Charmaine

Consider your hiring practices, how accessible your HR applications are, and how they may be preventing individuals from being considered for a role. Also consider a Shift Left strategy, where accessibility considerations are introduced as early as possible into the design process as possible—a clever person might use one consideration to address the other.

By representation, I mean hiring disabled individuals in a way that their lived experiences can help inform the role’s responsibilities. Honor their accommodation requests, have clear directives and outlined expectations, and pay them for their time and expertise. 

I also strongly believe that they have to really have us participating as part of the research and the development of these different types of instruments that allow us to access the computer.

— Lew

Access friction proves that being able to technically get what you want isn’t the same as being able to fully participate in the digital world. Only by increasing equitable, disabled representation in the creation of digital products can we create equivalent experiences for all.

They shouldn’t be doing it for us. They should be doing it with us.

— Lew

Thank you to Charmaine Co, Jaclyn Pope, and Lew Boles for their time, perspectives, experiences, and insights.