Don’t Forget that Some People Can’t See Colors

Did you know that estimates say that up to 8 percent of males (and .5 percent of females) have issues seeing some colors?  Nobody is sure why, but many of us are affected by this problem. I was almost thirty before I realized that when people said something like “he’s turning red with embarrassment,” they were being literal. I had always thought it was just an odd saying. It’s surprising how many minor, day-to-day, things are based on colors.
  • What color hair does she have?
  • What color was that car?
  • Is the grass green or turning brown?
  • Is that steak rare or medium?
And then there are some larger issues to deal with.
When I first learned to drive I had to teach myself that the middle light meant slow down, top meant stop, and bottom meant go. While the colors of the lights don’t all look quite the same to me (which allows me to compare them to each other) none of them look like the colors people tell me they are. To me, the bottom light is an off white, and the other two are different shades of red. When it comes to those single, flashing lights, I have nothing to compare to so have no idea what they are. I always assume they are red, just to be safe.

When I was nineteen I joined the Navy and was interested in the nuclear program. During my physical they did a vision test which included some color testing.
Can you see anything here? I can’t.
After miserably failing that, they informed me that they didn’t want me anywhere near something nuclear if I might connect (or cut) the wrong wires.

A few years after that I started a PC repair shop and consulting company to help home users and small business owners. One of my reasons for doing this was because I could build custom PCs and sell them for quite a bit less than the big brands of the time. While building a PC is pretty straight forward, back then there were many wires that weren’t labelled so I frequently ran into color coded diagrams.

I never caused a fire, but I did wire things incorrectly more than once.
When DSL started to appear in my town I was able to get a contract with one of the larger ISPs to install and configure DSL modems. They aren’t hard to set up, but they caused me some embarrassment. Once connected, they check for DSL signal on the phone line and a light blinks to let you know the status.
Error codes were not a pattern of blinks (which would have been great) but were color coded. Consider how awkward it is to call your client over, point to the little blinking light, and ask what color it is. I eventually learned to say that I needed another pair of eyes and would intently stare at the monitor while having them tell me the LED color.

In today’s tech world the issues are different, but still there. My cell phone has an LED that flashes for alerts. It can flash different colors for different things, but they all look pretty much the same to me. I’ve run into many games over the years where the character colors all look the same. Some web sites use link colors that (to me) look identical to the regular text so I have no idea there’s a link to click on. If you are in IT and design anything for others to use, please keep us color disadvantaged folks in mind. Make your error codes show a number or blink in a pattern, not just depend on a changing color. If you have to use color-coded wires, please label them too. Making a web site or game? Offer a black and white or ‘color blind friendly’ version, too. We may be a minority, but there are millions of us. Making millions of people happy with your product certainly can’t hurt.