After graduating from college, I was working a one-year post-baccalaureate position at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In undergrad and at the lab, I worked with a team that studied data from the instruments onboard the Cassini spacecraft that was in orbit around Saturn. While working with the team at LANL, I was also doing the things needed to apply to graduate programs: performing and presenting research, getting recommendation letters, and taking exams. I wanted to 100% the math section of the GRE (the test needed for entry to graduate school in the US), so I spent months drilling math problems every day for hours.
On testing day, I showed up to the testing center. The last thing needed before I could begin the exam was a handwriting sample. I was handed a piece of paper with a typed paragraph on it that I was to copy in cursive. I didn’t go to college right after high school. I was a bit older and it had been a long, long time since I had written anything in cursive. My anxiety increased. I looked down at the page and the paragraph began with “I (your name), do…” I froze. I had no idea how to write a capital I in cursive. The longer I thought about it, the more my anxiety increased. I started to wonder if I should even be there. I wondered whether or not I was graduate school material. Heart pounding, I finally decided to skip the I and continue on. By the end, how to write an I had come back to me and I filled it in, but owing to this inauspicious start, I did not do well on the exam. I did take the exam again and I got my 100%. And to this day, just seeing cursive writing makes my skin crawl.
In the story above, there was a conscious decision made by the GRE organization to use the handwriting sample as a fraud prevention tactic. This was based on an assumption that a student who graduated from college and was prepared for graduate school would be able to write in cursive. This assumption seemed reasonable. Reasonable, however, was not enough, and created an unintended barrier to entry. Any time you are creating materials that others will use, you should be thinking about barriers to entry. Making reasonable assumptions is easier than critically thinking about the needs of your users and the specific abilities that they may or may not have, but it often has the unintended consequence of leaving otherwise qualified people out.
Providing accessibility is often thought of as “reaching down to help someone up.” In the case above, I didn’t need help at all - I was able to 100% the exam! Making things accessible for others is not about providing charity. It’s about removing obstacles you may be unaware of.
Requiring a specialized skill set to get through a single step in an exercise can be an insurmountable hurdle to otherwise approachable content for some. It can be difficult to identify these specialized skill sets if we, ourselves, are in possession of the skill.
So, the next time that you’re thinking about drafting content for onboarding or designing a new experience for your users, ask yourself: Can I remove steps that require special skills? If there are any steps in your onboarding experience that require writing in cursive, remove them!