The following is a written transcript for a conference presentation at the International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) in October 2018.

Introduction to Session [slides 1-3]

[Brenda] Hello, and welcome to our presentation: “Universal Design in WCOnline: Exploring the Hidden Biases of Appointment Scheduling Systems and Their Effect on Writing Center Work.”

[Jenelle] To model Universal Design and accessibility in our workshop, we will be offering multiple ways for you to follow along and take information with you when you leave this session. We are passing around printed copies of our workshop transcript, so you can follow along word for word with us. You can also download this transcript and our PowerPoint from the website listed on this slide: Our presentation is listed on the homepage of this site, and our materials are mobile friendly. This URL will appear at the bottom of the following slide as well, to give you more time to download any materials.

A little more in terms of an introduction. I’m Jenelle Dembsey, and I’m the Coordinator for Technology and Accessibility at the Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. [Brenda] And I’m Brenda Tyrrell, and I’m a Graduate Assistant Director at the center as well as a second year PhD student, teaching composition classes. [Jenelle] We also want to thank John Peck and Emily Rowan for helping us to collect and analyze the data from our research study.

Activity 1: User Analysis [slides 4-12]

[Jenelle] Each writing center is different, but regardless of the services and support we are able to provide, we have users. These users can be students, staff, faculty, or community members.  While we may not always be aware of it, writing center users are often excluded not only by our traditional practices and lore, but also because of inaccessible scheduling systems.

The scheduling system is often the first interaction many users have with a writing center. But if this system does not consider all potential users and their abilities, these users can become excluded before they ever work with us. Thus, we need to think critically about our users and our scheduling systems in order to become more usable and accessible.

In our study, which we will discuss in detail later, we conducted an analysis of our users and their needs. So in our first activity, we are going to ask you to do the same. Over the next 7 or so minutes, you will consider your services, scheduling system, and users.

First, make a list of all the services that your center offers. This can include on-campus appointments, online appointments, drop-in hours, workshops, etc.

[Brenda] Second, think about your scheduling system(s): for someone to use your services, what is the scheduling system (or process) that they must follow? We are using the term “scheduling system” very broadly here. This could refer to a technological platform, such as WCOnline or Tutor Trac, or to a more manual process, where your users call or email to schedule.

[Jenelle] Third, think about who your users are: who are all of the users who may participate in your scheduling system(s)? Who are those who are trying to use your services and those who may help them through the process of scheduling? This could include students of a certain status or major. You may also have staff members who help others to schedule or later use the data that they provide while scheduling. All of these people will be your users.

[Brenda] Lastly, consider your user’s needs. What do they need in order to effectively navigate your scheduling systems? Here are a few examples of specific user needs. Think about users who

  • Don’t know anything about your writing center or its services
  • Use screenreaders
  • Are overwhelmed by a lot of text or options
  • Can’t see color
  • Live in a different time zone
  • Navigate webpages via their keyboard
  • Speak a first language other than English
  • Don’t have regular access to a computer
  • May need to cancel the day of their appointment, due to anxiety, depression, chronic pain, etc.

[Jenelle] We want you to continue thinking about your users and your scheduling systems as we explain our usability study and share our results. We will return to these questions at the end of the presentation.

Workshop Outline [slides 13-14]

[Brenda] We want to take a moment to outline the rest of our workshop.

First, we provide some background on our writing center and the research methods for our study. After that, we’ll introduce you to the concepts of Universal Design and  introduce each principle of Universal Design. Then, we present results that speak to each principle.

We want to preface that our research study is very complex and the theories we are discussing can also be complex. Thus, we encourage you to ask us questions at any point during the presentation or to tell us if we are going too fast. You are also free to move around the room or leave the room at any point if you need to.

Introduction to Our Center [slides 15-20]

[Brenda] Now we will briefly introduce our writing center and its context.

The Howe Writing Center mainly offers scheduled writing appointments in three formats: face-to-face, online synchronous appointments through video or text-chat, and online asynchronous appointments through written feedback.

In the 2017-18 academic year, we had 3,995 total appointments: 84% of these appointments were face-to-face, and 16% were online. We work with a lot of online students, and last year, these students were located in 22 states, 5 countries, and 8 time zones.

Students schedule all three types of appointments in our scheduling system. The Howe Writing Center has used WCOnline as its appointment scheduling system since about Fall 2008, which is over 10 years.

[Jenelle] We have 4 categories of users for our scheduling system:

  1. On-campus and online students who schedule appointments
  2. Our student writing consultants
  3. Student staff who manage our Welcome Desk and greet students in our main on-campus location
  4. Full-time administrators and graduate assistants who set up the schedules for each semester

Over the years, we have had several student and consultant complaints about our scheduling system, which has led us to do usability research. This workshop will be presenting the results of this research.

Research Methods [slides 21-33]

[Jenelle] Last year, we conducted a user analysis and a usability study of WCOnline.

“Usability” refers to “how easy & pleasant the features are to use” (Nielson, 2012). In relation to that, we also looked into utility, or whether a product “provides the features you need” (Nielson, 2012).

With this in mind, our research questions were as follows:

  1. What are the needs and priorities of our 4 user audiences: students, consultants, welcome staff, and administrators?
  2. Is our current scheduling system (WCOnline) meeting the needs of these users?

This study also asked participants to user test an additional scheduling system and compare their experience to that with WCOnline. For the sake of time, we will not discuss these results in this workshop.

To answer our research questions, our research study had 4 parts:

  1. Survey of Students
  2. User Tests of Students
  3. User Tests of HWC Staff
  4. Survey of HWC Staff

Student Survey [slides 25-26]

Part 1 of our study involved surveying students who had recently scheduled appointments with us. We asked these participants to rate their experiences with WCOnline on a Likert scale. We asked about how easy or difficult it was to complete certain tasks, such as scheduling and cancelling appointments. We also provided them with a list of current or potential features and asked them to indicate how important they felt these features would be in our scheduling system.

We sent this survey to 1,918 students who had scheduled with us in the 2017-18 academic year. Of this total, we received 97 responses, which is a 5% response rate.

Student User Tests [slides 27-29]

Part 2 of our study invited students to complete 4 tasks in WCOnline. These 4 tasks included:

  1. Scheduling an on-campus appointment in King Library, which is our main location
  2. Scheduling an online asynchronous appointment
  3. Cancelling the asynchronous appointment
  4. And cancelling the on-campus appointment in King Library

Students completed these tasks with eye-tracking software, which records the user’s screen and tracks the location of their eyes on the screen. This example image shows what a student saw while completing a task in WCOnline. The location of the student’s eyes are shown with red dots, which appear in the mid left of this image. The size of these dots indicates how long the student has been looking at that part of the screen. The longer they look, the greater the size of the dots. The dots are also connected by lines to show the movement of their eyes from one location to another.

In total, 11 students participated in these user tests: 9 of these students had never used our scheduling system before, and 2 students had used it before.

Staff User Tests [slides 30-31]

Part 3 asked members of our writing center staff to complete these same 4 tasks in WCOnline. Staff members completed these tasks either as part of a focus group or individually as part of an interview. However, because staff members were participating in focus groups, we could not use eye tracking software, and we instead used Screencast-O-Matic to record their screens.

We contacted all writing consultants, welcome staff, and administrators to participate in user testing. Of these 54 staff members, we had 24 participants, which was 44% of our staff. We scheduled 6 focus groups and 5 individual interviews.

Staff Survey [slides 32-33]

The fourth and final part of our study asked our writing center staff to participate in a survey. This survey is similar to the one we distributed to students and asked staff to rate their experiences using WCOnline and to indicate the importance of certain features they could have in our scheduling system.

Of our 54 staff members, we received 42 responses, which was a 78% response rate.

Universal Design [slides 34-40]

[Brenda] So, what is Universal Design anyway? How many of you are already familiar with this concept?

According to the National Disability Authority (2014), “Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” This applies to both physical and digital environments, such as an appointment scheduling system. Universal Design argues that designing for persons with disabilities often results in a more beneficial design for all users. By the same token, if a design doesn’t work for those identified as disabled, it is likely not to work for lots of other users as well.

Jay Dolmage (2017), a well-noted disability scholar, has stated that “usability and universal design ask for one another” (p. 129). Usability encourages collecting information from and about users while Universal Design “offers a means of placing those with unconventional abilities, needs, and goals at the center of the design process” (p. 129).

To place these users at the center of the design process, usability testing needs to make a specific effort to invite and include the feedback of users with disabilities. While we publicly and privately invited many users to participate in our study, in hindsight, we realized that we did not invite those users considered to be disabled to share their experiences or contact Student Disability Services to ask for potential participants. This is something we hope to rectify by extending our study. In this workshop, though, we will still discuss and forefront the needs of users with disabilities.

Universal Design has 7 principles that account for different aspects of accessibility. These principles are guidelines, not strict rules, but we will be using them in this presentation to organize and analyze the results of our research. These 7 principles are:

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical Effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

As we go through the 7 principles and provide examples of each, we want you to continue thinking about your own users and scheduling systems, building off of your work earlier. Try to apply the 7 principles to your own scheduling systems and see where your scheduling systems do or don’t apply any of the principles. We will reserve time at the end to discuss what you’ve noticed or brainstorm any ways to make your scheduling system more accessible.

Principle 1: Equitable Use [slides 41-58]

[Jenelle] We will now begin with Principle 1. The first principle of Universal Design is Equitable Use. Equitable Use means that “The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities” (National Disability Authority, 2014).

The most important thing to keep in mind with this principle is that designs should work for as many people as possible and not “stigmatize” users with disabilities (National Disability Authority, 2014).

Examples [slides 43-44]

In the physical world, an elevator is an example of a design that works for diverse users. An elevator can be used by everyone equally, regardless if they are in a wheelchair, have difficulty climbing stairs, are carrying something heavy, or are pushing a cart or stroller.

Shown here is a photo of an elevator in one of the buildings on our campus. This elevator is particularly accessible because the buttons to choose a floor are very large and located right above the floor. This allows someone to press the buttons with their feet or another large object or to access the buttons from a lower height.

An example from the digital world would be a webpage that anyone can navigate and read, including people who use screenreaders. Screenreaders are an assistive technology that reads aloud the content on a screen: they are often used by persons with visual impairments. The webpage shown here is from the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, and the title of the page is “What Is Universal Design?” This particular webpage is accessible for two reasons:

  1. It divides the content into sections and labels these sections with a heading. Screenreaders rely on headings to easily skip between sections of the webpage.
  2. It provides links to other information, which are called hyperlinks. A screenreader can provide the user with a list of all of the hyperlinks available on a document, and it provides these hyperlinks out of context. Thus, it is important that these hyperlinks are placed on specific phrases that describe where the link will take you. One of hyperlinks on this page says “7 principles.” I know that if I click this link, I will be taken to a page that explains the 7 principles of Universal Design to me.

Separation of Users [slides 45-54]

WCOnline offers two versions of its scheduling system: the standard version and the text-only version. While this seems like an attempt to meet the needs of those who utilize screenreaders, it’s also problematic, as we found in our usability study.

I will now break down what both of these versions look like, not only to explain this principle, but to introduce WCOnline to any of you who may never have seen it before. My explanations will also attempt to point out features that we will discuss in later principles.

Our usability study focused on the standard version. The standard version is what users see when they use the main login screen. The image on the screen shows the login screen for WCOnline at our writing center. On the left are the boxes to type in your email address and password to login to the standard version, and to the right are instructions that we have placed on this screen to guide users in understanding our system.

Once logged into the standard version, users would be taken to the default schedule, which is our main on-campus location in King Library. This image shows what our users would see. The logo of our center appears at the very top. Underneath the logo is a blue bar that contains options for switching schedules or switching weeks and searching for consultants who have certain specialities, such as creative writing. Below this blue bar is what WCOnline calls an “announcement.” It is an optional feature that allows us to post instructions for this particular schedule.

If a student scrolled past the announcement, they would see options for scheduling appointments. These options are listed in a table-like format. In the left column, the date and day are listed in a dark blue box and the consultants who work on that day are listed underneath in white boxes. On the top of the table, the times of day are listed in grey boxes. Within the middle of the table are grey, teal, and white boxes that indicate when appointments are available and whether those appointments are open or already taken.

WCOnline’s second version is the text-only version. On the main login screen, the text-only schedule is mentioned and linked briefly and is hidden under the main login boxes. The link is prefaced with the phrase “Using screen-reader software?”

When a user clicks this link, they are taken to a separate screen to login. After users login to the text-only schedule, they are provided with a list of links for them to schedule new appointments, view upcoming appointments, or update their profile. When a user goes to schedule a new appointment, they use a series of drop-down menus, that first ask them to select a schedule, then date, time, consultant specialty, and appointment time.

The text-only version is more accessible to those using assistive technologies: there is less information to get through, and it walks you through the process step-by-step. In fact, this version is more accessible and easier to understand than the standard version. The problem here is that there are two versions intended for very different users, instead of one version that works for everyone, as Dolmage (2017) states earlier.

WCOnline makes this distinction very clear in the two paragraphs that appear at the top of the text-only screen. The first paragraph states the following:

“You have accessed the “text only” version of the WCONLINE scheduling system. This version was designed for those individuals using screen readers or other accessibility devices. If you are not using accessibility software, please return to the standard version of WCONLINE […]” [emphasis added]

This paragraph differentiates or “others” those users with accessibility devices. It is essentially the same as telling a person in a wheelchair to use the “handicapped” entrance at the back of the building, while everyone else climbs the stairs at the front of the building. This paragraph also explicitly tells users that if they are not using assistive technologies, they should go back to the standard version. WCOnline fails to recognize here that there are plenty of users who might benefit from a text-only version, and we will discuss some of these users later on.

The second paragraph states the following:

The “Text-Only Scheduler” provides complete registration, appointment, and client report form functionality. If other features are needed, return to the standard scheduler by clicking the link above. While not text-only, the standard scheduler is compatible with all major screen reading programs.” [emphasis added]

In this paragraph, WCOnline clarifies that the text-only schedule does not provide all of the same features as the standard schedule, so for some tasks, users will have to use the standard schedule even if they are using a screenreader. In addition, it also states that the standard schedule works with screenreader programs. If this is true, we wonder  why the text-only schedule is necessary.

Accessibility to Screenreaders [slides 55-58]

So we decided to test whether the standard version is accessible to screenreaders. We used WAVE: Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool offered by WebAIM. WAVE is a free tool that you can use to check the accessibility of any webpage or browser-based application. The tool checks for areas that are accessible and inaccessible. We downloaded WAVE as a Google Chrome app and performed a check on the standard version of WCOnline.

WAVE found 61 errors, 415 alerts, and 75 contrast errors on our WCOnline schedule for King Library. The red and yellow icons that you see on the schedule indicate the type and location of these errors and alerts. The two most relevant to screenreaders are missing alternative text and missing form labels.

  • Missing alternative text. Screenreaders cannot see or read images, so if an image is used, there needs to be a textual description of the image (also called alternative text) that the screenreader can convey to the user. WCOnline uses images and icons that do not provide a textual description. Two examples include the button at the top that is used to switch to the “blackouts” administrative feature and the clock icons on the side that are used to join the waiting list.
  • Missing form labels. This refers to drop-down or pop-up menus that do not tell the screenreader what the menu is for. WCOnline does not label its menus for choosing a schedule, choosing a consultant specialty, or selecting a day on the calendar.

Obviously, the standard version is not as equitable as WCOnline would like its users to believe.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use [slides 59-70]

[Brenda] The second principle of Universal Design is Flexibility in Use. Flexibility in Use means that “The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities” (National Disability Authority, 2014).

Examples [slides 61-62]

An example from the physical world would be a light that offers options for brightness. In this photo, the light fixture has buttons to turn the ceiling lights on or off and arrows to turn the brightness up or down.

An example from the digital world would be the ability to control what you see on your social media feed or on your personal computer. The image here is of the start menu on Jenelle’s Windows PC laptop. On this start menu, she can choose which computer apps appear, so she has included the apps she uses most often, including Microsoft Suite products, her email, Facebook, and Hulu. She can also organize these apps into groups, name the group, and choose whether the apps appear as large, medium, or small-sized tiles. She has complete control over what this menu looks like.


In the focus groups, our staff noted several areas where WCOnline was flexible. They liked that they could:

  • See a whole week of appointments on the same screen
  • See other consultants’ schedules
  • Check the waiting list
  • See the system update every few seconds
  • Email session reflections to the student

Personalized “My Appointments” Page

However, both students and consultants wished there was a more flexible way for them to view records and session reflections from their past appointments. In WCOnline, students and consultants (who have basic administrator accounts) are limited in the information they can access about their own appointments.

When a student has a future appointment, this appears in a drop-down menu under their name. They can also look for a yellow tile in the scheduling system’s table layout, which indicates their own appointment.

However, students cannot access all past appointments in one place. They would need to search through previous weeks to find past appointments, and even this is only an option for the current semester. After each semester, the schedules are archived, and then it is impossible for students to see or access any appointments from those schedules. This is problematic when it comes to session reflections, which are notes that consultants record for the student after the appointment and attach to their appointment form. Students don’t have access to these notes within WCOnline once that semester has passed.

Students do receive these notes through email, but one student mentioned in the questionnaire how they would prefer to receive and find session reflections in a different way.

  • “It would be great if there were a way to view writing consultant’s notes in PDF format rather than receiving individual emails. Often there are issues of compatibility in emails and characters like apostrophes are displayed as a line of code. It would also be easier to find consultant notes in a unified system.”

Similar to students, consultants cannot access a list of their past appointments or session reflections from previous semesters. In the staff questionnaire, a consultant stated:

  • “It’s easy to see student’s past appointment reflections, but I wish it was easier to see past reflections that I’ve written”

In the staff focus groups, one consultant wished that WCOnline offered students a “My Appointments” page to view:

  • All past appointments
  • Past session reflections and consultant notes
  • Future appointments, with options to edit and cancel them

Several consultants also mentioned that they wanted a customized place to view:

  • Past session reflections
  • Past appointments
  • Upcoming appointments
  • Appointment statistics
  • Current consulting schedule

In other words, when it comes to flexibility and use, WCOnline does not display information in a way that is relevant to its users’ needs.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use [slides 71-88]

[Jenelle] The third principle of Universal Design is Simple and Intuitive Use: “Use of the design should be easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level” (National Disability Authority, 2014).

In other words, the design should make sense to someone who has never used it before or whose first language is not English.

Examples [slides 73-74]

An example you’re probably familiar with from the physical world is cooking instructions on the back of something you buy in the grocery store. This photo shows the back of a frozen pizza box and gives instructions for cooking the pizza in the oven. The instructions are broken down into 3 steps and convey information through both simple images and concise text. These instructions could be followed by someone regardless of their English proficiency skills or reading skills and can be understood by someone who has never cooked a frozen pizza before.

In the digital world, a common example is the apps on our phones. Regardless of the brand of the phone, the apps look and work similarly. The apps are recognizable by their image, their color, and/or the brief name written below them. The apps are also listed in rows, and we know we can click on them to open them and interact with the interface.

Ease of Use [slides 75-83]

For many aspects of WCOnline, students and consultants report that it is easy to use. In the questionnaire, most students and staff found it easy or very easy to complete basic tasks in WCOnline.

For students, two tasks received over a 50% positive response:

  • Finding available appointment slots (61%)
  • Cancelling appointments (56%)

For staff, five tasks received over a 50% positive response, and two of these tasks overlap with the student’s responses:

  • Finding available appointment slots (83%)
  • Locating online and satellite appointments (64%)
  • Cancelling appointments (60%)
  • Finding appointments with a specific consultant (52%)
  • Marking students as no-shows (52%)

Some members of our staff had very positive comments about WCOnline:

  • “I think it’s a simple design that works”
  • “Our current scheduling system is great and widely used by writing centers across the country.”

Other consultants acknowledged that what is easy for them may be difficult for students or new consultants:

  • “For me? Easy, because i know the system. For students? Jesus Christ. Talk about difficult difficult lemon difficult.”
  • “Design could be clarified for students that are not familiar. I.e: open appointments/locations/types”
  • “[…] Also, I find the system easy because I was trained on it and have been using it for awhile…I’m not sure how intuitive it is or how useful our instructions/videos are for a new user because it seems simple to do simple things.”

It is worth noting that over 10% of students found the following three tasks to be difficult or very difficult:

  • Finding available appointment slots (24%)
  • Finding appointments with a specific writing consultant (10%)
  • Scheduling a specific type of online appointment (10%)

Over 10% of staff found the following five tasks to be difficult or very difficult:

  • Scheduling specific type of online appointment (21%)
  • Finding appointments with specific consultants (14%)
  • Rescheduling an appointment (12%)
  • Cancelling an appointment (10%)
  • Marking students as no-shows (10%)

Based on the data, there are 3 areas where WCOnline is consistently not simple or intuitive for users:

  1. Cancelling appointments
  2. Scheduling online appointments
  3. Using the waiting list

However, for the sake of time, we will only focus on scheduling online appointments.

Scheduling Online Appointments [slides 84-88]

As we mentioned earlier, our center offers face-to-face, synchronous, and asynchronous appointments. We place both types of online appointments together in their own schedule, called the “Online” schedule. However, students need to know how to find this schedule and they need to figure out which consultants can do the type of online appointment that they are looking for. We attempt to explain this in our “announcement” at the top of the schedule and we offer a search option, but our results have shown that users still become confused.

In the questionnaire, students reported having difficulty finding and differentiating between our two types of online appointments:

  • “I have tried to schedule [asynchronous] appointments in the past and accidentally signed up for [synchronous]. This has occurred twice and the process can be a little confusing.”

In the user tests, students consistently stumbled when trying to schedule an asynchronous appointment. One student admitted: “I have no idea where that is.”

This confusion happened so often in our user tests that our student researcher was actually surprised when another participant completes this task without direction: “You’re actually the first one to do this successfully.” This same participant, however, expressed their confusion over the variety of online appointments and the differences between them: “I don’t understand what the purpose of just ‘online’ is then.” In response, the student researcher (who is a member of the writing center staff) even admits that they are “getting twisted up in [their] own head about them.”

Clearly, if our own staff are “getting [all] twisted up” even simply trying to explain the various options, there is a disconnect between the system and the users that needs to be addressed.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information [slides 89-105]

[Brenda] Principle 4 is Perceptible information: “The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities” (National Disability Authority, 2014).

This means the method of communication should not depend on the assumption of able-bodiedness. Information should be accessible to those with either a visual or hearing impairment.

Examples [slides 91-92]

An example from the physical world is railroad crossings. This picture shows a train moving through a crosswalk, with the gates moved down to block cars and lights blinking on the signs. At railroad crossings, information is conveyed visually with blinking lights, physically with gates placed down, and aurally with the signs beeping and the train blowing the horn.

An example from the digital world is closed captions on videos. This is our writing center’s video on Universal Design, with the closed captions at the bottom that convey what the speaker is saying. A video with audio and closed captions conveys information to those who are visually or hearing impaired. In addition, closed captions benefit anyone who wants to watch the video without audio, such as those studying in a noisy, public location.

Recurring Themes of Unclear Information

The participants in our study noted two areas in which WCOnline does not communicate perceptible information:

  • Color coding and appointment availability
  • Announcements at the top of schedules

Color Coding and Appointment Availability

In its standard version, WCOnline relies on color to convey information about open and closed appointments. Each writing center can choose their colors, but color is the only way to convey information in the table. There are four colors that students must recognize when using our system:

  • White = open appointments
  • Teal blue = booked appointments
  • Light grey = open appointments whose time has passed
  • Dark grey = time when consultant is not at work

Conveying information through color alone is not accessible because it assumes that everyone can see the same colors and perceive the contrast between colors. If someone is color blind, they would not be able to use this system well at all. As you can see in this grey-scale image, the only color that really stands out is white: all of the other colors would be indistinguishable for a user to tell apart.

Even for those who can see color, the color coding can be confusing. In the questionnaire, students wrote:

  • “the colors for open appointments versus closed appointments are confusing”
  • “The coloring of the system confused me at first. I didn’t know that the blue blocks were already taken and that the white blocks were the openings. After I figured out the system it wasn’t hard. But it did confuse me.”

Overwhelmingly the most discussed topic in these interviews was color:

  • “If I can’t take it, then why is it there?”
  • “Ah, white is available–and this stuff is taken? Then why is it not grey? I mean she is only available one hour during this day and it’s already taken, interesting.”
  • “The blue pops out at you; you want to click it and it’s closed.”
  • Several students asked if the colors couldn’t “just be black and white?”

Even in the staff questionnaire, a staff member commented:

  • “The colors used in the scheduling system confuse me, and the layout is a bit hard to follow. […]”

Announcements and Instructions [slides 101-105]

As we mentioned earlier, WCOnline has a feature to place “announcements” at the top of each schedule. This is the only way in which we can provide scheduling instructions within the system, so we have these announcements placed at the top of every schedule in our system. At the time of the research study, Jenelle had designed some images to try and communicate important information visually, such as the color of the appointments.

According to our findings, the “announcement” area does not work effectively in its current form: many students believed it was merely “an ad.” Interestingly, however, when scrutinizing the eye movement of the user, they actually look directly at this “ad” as they were trying to determine what the colors of the appointments meant.

  • One student doesn’t see these instructions initially; the researcher points it out and asks “Did this catch your eye at all”? To which the student responded, “Yes, it looked like an ad,” continuing with “I think there needs to be…a larger panel or something like that but this is– it’s just super so hard to find.”
  • “Um, I was gonna tell you–I was a little confused. I guess I knew that before but I forgot about the colors and they don’t have– I don’t see… ah I didn’t read this one: ‘Find white spaces when open.’”
  • “Uh, there’s a lot of open space besides the directions, and the directions have a lot of words in them, if that makes any sense, because people aren’t going to be too prone to read them right away. They’re more likely to just try to figure it out. Click away like I did.”
  • “This little box looks like an ad.”

Because of the limitations placed by WCOnline in not only color choice, but also in the appearance of the “announcement” area, users are not perceiving necessary information.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error [slides 106-121]

[Jenelle] Principle 5 is Tolerance for Error. Principle 5 means that “The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions” (National Disability Authority, 2014). In other words, the design anticipates that users will make certain errors and puts features in place to prevent those errors or reduce the consequences of them.

Examples [slides 108-109]

A common example from the physical world is a double-sided car key. This slide shows two photos, with my car key inserted into my car door from both directions. This design prevents the error of someone inserting their key from the “wrong” direction and having to repeat the action. Instead, the double-sided key lets users open their car door on the first try, regardless of the direction that their key is facing.

In the online world, technology programs try to prevent errors by auto-saving drafts of your work, letting you undo typing errors or mistakes, and trying to auto-correct errors as you’re typing. This photo is of the automatic options in PowerPoint for correcting spelling errors. User can control what they want to be corrected automatically.

General Errors [slides 110-112]

In our questionnaires, we asked users about errors they may experience in WCOnline. The majority of students and staff agree or strongly agree with the following statements:

  • They rarely make errors when scheduling an appointment or completing their usual tasks
  • When they make errors, they can easily recognize them and fix them.
  • When they make errors, they rarely have a negative effect

Between 5% and 12% of users disagreed or strongly disagreed with these statements. The highest was 8% of students and 12% of staff stating that their errors do have a negative effect.

Our research revealed that there are two consistent and predictable areas where errors have a negative effect in WCOnline:

  • Forgetting time zone differences
  • Losing client report forms

Time Zone Differences [slides 113-116]

The biggest error that seems to affect students is confusion about time zone differences. As we mentioned earlier, last year, we worked with students in 8 different time zones. So while our consultants are working on Eastern Standard Time, many of our students are not.

WCOnline only allows appointment times to be displayed in the time zone of the writing center. So any student in a different time zone must recognize and remember that the appointment times listed are in Eastern Time. As we can reasonably expect, students have made the error of scheduling according to their own time zone and later missed their appointment.

Students reported the following in their questionnaire:

  • “I scheduled in the wrong time zone which was pretty frustrating when I missed my online appointment […]”
  • “I am ‘attending’ appointments online from a different time zone[.] not realizing the scheduled time vs my [actual time] is the other common mistake.”

In the questionnaires, 65% of students and 74% of staff felt it was important for users to be able to see appointment times in their own time zone.

Client Report Forms [slides 117-121]

The biggest error that seems to affect consultants is losing client report forms. Client report forms allow consultants to record information about each appointment or write a summary of the appointment for the student. To complete a client report form, consultants return to their appointment and complete the form in a pop-up window. They can also have WCOnline email the form to the student when they are done.

The error happens as consultants are typing up their client report forms within WCOnline. If they accidentally click on something else or if the internet becomes unstable for a few seconds, all their work is lost.

Two consultants had a particularly interesting conversation about losing session reflections:

Participant 24: Oh my god, that’s something I completely forgot to mention. Like how if you ever click on the person’s appointment again, when you’re in the middle of typing up a session reflection, it just auto-updates and gets rid of everything.

Participant 96: Yeah! Yeah, There’s no like “save” button. It’s horrible.


Participant 24: That’s why I had to start doing it in Word, cause it was so annoying.

Researcher: Have you lost a lot of them?

Participant 24: Only the first one or two, then never again!

Participant 96: Yeah it was very– well it’s like baking brownies and then having it just spill all over the floor, and you have to like pick it up. It just takes more time out of your day, so that– that kind of stinks.

In sum, consultants experience losing session reflections so consistently that they have to use a different technology, Microsoft Word, that will auto-save their work. And lose their brownies.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort [slides 122-129]

[Brenda] Principle 6 is Low Physical Effort. This means that “The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue” (National Disability Authority, 2014). Fatigue refers to physical exhaustion, chronic pain, headaches, or frustration.

Examples [slides 124-125]

This example photo is of a lever door handle. Lever door handles have low physical effort because they don’t require users to have full mobility of their hands or twist their hand in a full circle in order to open a door. With a lever door handle, you can open the door simply by putting pressure down on the handle, which can be done with an elbow or an item that you’re carrying.

In the digital world, low physical effort would refer to whether you can navigate a design without feeling exhausted or wasting a lot of time. It also refers to designs that can be navigated only by a keyboard. Some users don’t have the mobility to control a mouse, so they use the tab key, arrow keys, and enter key to navigate around a webpage and select information.

Using Keyboard Only [slides 126-127]

The most important element for this principle is whether WCOnline can be navigated solely by a keyboard. Unfortunately, we found that it is not accessible to keyboard-only users. We return to the WAVE Evaluation Tool’s assessment of accessibility errors in WCOnline. In the image on the screen, WAVE has placed an error icon on every single one of the appointment boxes in WCOnline. The error boxes indicate that these appointment boxes cannot be selected by the tab or arrow keys. In our own tests, the tab key allowed us to select all of the links at the top of the page, the left side of the system, and the bottom of the page, but would not select any of the appointment boxes in the middle of the screen, which is the most important information in the system. Thus, users who navigate with only a keyboard cannot schedule appointments in the standard version of the system, and if they are forced to use a mouse, then this is not low physical effort.

Now, the text-only version of the system that we discussed in Principle 1 is accessible to keyboard users. But remember that this version of the system is under-emphasized on the login screen and is advertised only to those who use screenreaders. Mobility and hearing impairments are not the same. This speaks to the importance of not advertising a feature only to a specific group, because this can alienate other users who could also benefit.

Students Giving Up [slides 128-129]

In addition, at our center, we have heard stories that some students, particularly student athletes, become very overwhelmed by our scheduling system, and that this has deterred them from scheduling appointments with us.

So in our student questionnaire, we asked students whether they or someone they know had ever given up on scheduling with us because of our appointment scheduling system: 15% answered “yes” to this question. One student explained:

  • “I’ve had undergraduates inform me that they had a difficult time scheduling, and so didn’t follow through.”

This is disheartening, because we want our center to be accessible to all students, and it seems that our scheduling system has stood in the way of that. Students can call to schedule appointments, but this is less accessible and more intimidating than being able to schedule by yourself. As we noted at the opening, appointment scheduling systems are often the first thing that our students interact with, so it is particularly important that these technologies are not overwhelming or uncomfortable to use.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use [slides 130-139]

[Jenelle] The seventh and last principle of Universal Design is Size and Space for Approach and Use. This means that “Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility” (National Disability Authority, 2014).

Examples [slides 132-133]

In the physical world, this principle would ensure that you can navigate a design without bumping into another person, can sit down or approach something without hitting your knees, or sit at a desk without having pressure placed on your stomach. The photo here shows a very wide aisle in a grocery store. The size and space provided here allows users to navigate the aisles from both directions with grocery carts or wheelchairs and not bump into each other.

In the digital world, this principle would refer to responsive design. Responsive design means that websites, applications, and other technology platforms are responsive and adjust to the size of the user’s device or internet browser. So a website should be easy to use on a laptop, tablet device, and mobile device. This is important because not everyone has the ability to own a desktop or laptop and may need to access information on their phone instead.

Responsiveness to Mobile Devices [slides 134-139]

In our questionnaires, the majority of both students and staff agreed that accessing our scheduling system on mobile devices and tablets was an important feature: 74% of students and 88% of staff said this was moderately or very important to have in a scheduling system.
When asked whether it was easy or difficult to use WCOnline on a mobile device, most participants were neutral or had no response. Of those that answered

  • Only 16% of students and 17% of staff found it easy or very easy to use
  • 13% of students and 24% of staff found WCOnline difficult or very difficult to use on a mobile device

In our staff focus groups, consultants discussed having a difficult time trying to check WCOnline on their phones. One of the participants who locked himself out of his WCOnline account tried to reset his password on his phone during the focus group. While in the process of doing so, he said: “Slight note that I’m just realizing now. This is not a very mobile friendly interface. Like my god! [laughing]”

The next five images show what this consultant was reacting to. These are screenshots from my phone that show what WCOnline looks like on a mobile device. The photo on the left shows the top of the schedule for our main location in King Library and shows our announcement with instructions for scheduling. The text in our announcement is far larger than any other text on the page and is the only text deciperable on the phone without zooming in. The photo on the right shows what a student would see if they scrolled down past the announcement. The dates, the times, and the consultant’s names are all too small to read.

Zooming in does not help much either, because certain information no longer appears on the screen. In the new image on the left, you can see only the date, the names of the consultants, and the very first time slot at 10am. In the middle image, I have moved the screen over to view appointments at 1pm, and I can now no longer see the date of the appointment or which appointment slot belongs to which consultant. The last image on the right shows what I see when I click on an open appointment slot. I see the left margin of the appointment form and the questions listed in this margin. The textboxes to answer the questions and the information at the top of the form are all hidden off of the screen.

Our users not only felt that a scheduling system should be mobile friendly, but also that it should be available as an app. In our questionnaire, a student suggested “Maybe a system with an app, for easier access?” In the focus groups, consultants also discussed this kind of feature and explained why it would be beneficial. A phone app would allow for automatic phone notifications and and easier cancelling options, which could potentially make cancelling easier and solve an earlier problem that students identified.

Pause for a Breath [slides 140-141]

[Brenda] All right, cool. We just threw a lot of information at you and, if you recall, we asked you earlier to try and apply some of these principles to your own centers. Let’s take a few minutes to write down some thoughts, stretch your legs, and just breath before carrying on.

Here is a reminder of the Universal Design principles:

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical Effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

Recap [slides 142-143]

[Brenda] Now, let’s recap some of what we have discussed today. We think, through our study and examples we have discussed, it’s pretty evident that scheduling system technologies like WCOnline are problematic when it comes to Universal Design and issues of equity for all users. And this is problematic, right?

What’s so problematic about it?

Google Document Activity

[Brenda] We’ve done a lot of talking at you and thrown out a lot of information in this session. What we’d like to do now is get your thoughts, hear about your writing centers and, ultimately, leave you with a tangible and useful document that you might take to your own writing centers and, perhaps, reexamine your scheduling systems for how they might or might not be unintentionally excluding users.

Let’s go principle by principle. Where did you all find connections between what we discussed about our own writing center and your own?

  • Principle 1: Equitable Use?
  • Principle 2: Flexibility in Use?
  • Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use?
  • Principle 4: Perceptible Information?
  • Principle 5: Tolerance for Error?
  • Principle 6: Low Physical Effort?
  • Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use?

Thank you all for attending!


Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

National Disability Authority. (2014). What is Universal Design?: The 7 principles.

Nielson, J. (2012). Usability 101: Introduction to usability.

Twenty Six Design LLC. (2018). WCOnline [software].

WebAIM. (2018). Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE).

Cite This Presentation

Dembsey, J. M., & Tyrrell, B. (2018, October). Universal Design in WCOnline: Exploring the hidden biases of appointment scheduling systems and their effect on writing center work. International Writing Centers Association (IWCA). Atlanta, GA.