The Broad Narrows

Yesterday I had a long conversation with my friend S. about a subject we rant about often. We are both designers, and spend a lot of time thinking about what tools and systems are the best for the things we want to achieve. We are also both firm advocates of technological accessibility, but we got caught on one particular paradox.

Technological accessibility, in my mind boils down to two basic facets: The capacity to reach the greatest number of people, and the fundamental ease and capability of that technology to serve that same number of people. The paradox we found ourselves stuck on is the realization that in many cases, the thing that is the most accessible in its use is not the thing that’s most accessible in its reach. For example, I am writing this blog on WordPress, the broadest reaching content management system that has built itself upon over a decade of backwards-compatible, versatile, open-source practices. However it would be difficult to argue that it is the simplest or the most immediate way to create and distribute information on the web. Ecommerce for example requires a lot of dedicated functions that aren’t best addressed by WordPress. So platforms like Shopify create their own languages that best address the needs of ecommerce, but as a result have created a proprietary system that is only accessible for the small channel of users on their particular platform. It serves those users very well, but it doesn’t address the needs of anyone not paying to use their platform. Another example is the idea of web apps vs native apps. An iPhone app may be the most seamless way to empower a user with a particular technology, but it will only serve the portion of the population that has one extremely specific product in their pocket. Conversely, building the same tools on more broadly accessible web technologies will open the door to a greater potential group of people, but at a reduced efficiency, and will rely on the savviness of that broader group to find and use these tools.

So if the debate is between making something accessible to either many people in a satisfactory way or a smaller portion of people in an exemplary way, how does one decide? Do you cut out one demographic entirely in order to better serve another? Or do you make sacrifices for everyone in order to cast the widest possible net?

S. and I didn’t end up with a good answer to these questions, and I still haven’t landed on any myself. I try to support those that want to support the wide audience, but I recognize the limitations of that effort. There will always be reasons to create dedicated tools for a narrow audience, but I hope at the very least those behaviours eventually bleed out to reach a wider group.