UX Series: Digital Accessibility and the UX Design Process

Posted on Tuesday, 14 July 2020 by David Sloan

Read all posts in the series:

In the previous post in this series, we introduced the concept of user experience as a quality of a digital product. This post looks in more detail at the user experience design process and how it relates to a digital accessibility strategy.

Great user experiences are the result of deliberate attention to users and usage at all stages of the product-development life cycle. Inclusive user experiences—where people with disabilities can use products to complete tasks and achieve goals—emerge when the needs of people with disabilities influence all stages of the product-development life cycle.

What does deliberate attention look like? What are these stages?

Stages of the UX design process

There are many theories and constructs for user experience. To simplify things, it’s helpful to think of the user experience design process in two overlapping phases: discovery and design.

  1. Discovery involves learning as much as possible about the problems that a digital product is trying to solve, people who are expected to use it, and the context that it’s intended to be used. This data helps us understand the requirements our solution needs to satisfy.
  2. Design involves creating a solution that satisfies the requirements, evaluating the solution’s effectiveness, and improving it based on the evaluation’s results.

These phases overlap because of the importance of iteration. We conduct research to help us understand a problem and find a solution. Then we create a solution (or solutions), evaluate the solution to discover its shortcomings (or identify the best candidate solution), and revise the solution to reduce or eliminate its shortcomings. We then repeat this process until we have the best solution within our allotted time and budget.

By following this process, we’re likely to find multiple potential solutions based on our user research. We need to be prepared to discover that we haven’t fully understood our users’ needs or we’ve introduced a new problem that we hadn’t expected. This is okay as long as we follow the principle that the earlier in a product’s life cycle that we can test our ideas and correct our assumptions, the more efficiently we can adapt. Compare the approach of early evaluation of ideas expressed as low-fidelity prototypes—ideas on paper or in very basic digital format—with delaying evaluation until we have a highly polished, highly functional application that will be very difficult and expensive to change.

So UX design is based on evidence. This evidence might come from research with current and prospective users; it might also come from choosing and applying best practice in interface and interaction design that’s based on years of proven effectiveness.

Involving people with disabilities in the UX process

A design and development process that focuses on users helps ensure that the product will meet their needs. When we include people with disabilities in our definition of users and involve them in discovery and design efforts, that increases the chances that we’ll deliver an inclusive user experience.

Let’s consider some key activities that form part of the UX design process, the outputs of these activities, and how they might reflect the involvement of people with disabilities.

User research generates personas and scenarios

Early user-research activities might generate data about a product’s target audience that can be expressed in a set of personas and scenarios. A persona is a description of a representative user for a proposed product. A scenario is a representative situation that describes where a persona might use the proposed product to achieve a goal. Together, personas and scenarios can help us design for real-world usage based on research data, rather than on untested or incomplete assumptions.

When personas include accessibility needs based on user research with people with disabilities, they help remind product teams of their target audience’s diversity and the implications of design decisions on accessibility.

In their book A Web for Everyone, Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery created a set of personas that benefit from inclusive design. These personas demonstrate how to include accessibility needs along with other user characteristics and needs.

User research contributes to user stories

In an agile development process, user-research insights may also motivate teams to create user stories—standardized descriptions of how a product’s feature will help a user achieve a goal. When user stories capture the needs of people with disabilities, agile teams can focus their design and development efforts to meet those needs collaboratively.

Comparative reviews generate competitive insights on accessibility

Another early research activity might be to review competitors’ products to understand features that their alternatives offer and the usability of these alternatives.

When comparative reviews include understanding the accessibility of competitors’ products, we can identify what works well and where shortcomings exist for users with disabilities. We can use those insights to ensure that we don’t repeat those shortcomings and that we pay more attention to more inclusive approaches.

From defining needs to implementing solutions

Expressing the needs of people with disabilities in ways that people who are responsible for designing and developing solutions can recognize and use is critical. When we do so, we increase the chances that those needs will positively influence design and development decisions. And we increase the chances that the needs of people with disabilities are addressed at the earliest possible stage in the product life cycle.

So teams can take these needs and, guided by principles of universal design, create prototypes of design solutions to address them, following accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The next stage is to evaluate those prototypes so that we can spot flaws and make changes to improve the user experience for everyone.

In the next post in this series, we’ll look in more detail at methods for evaluating the user experience from the perspective of people with disabilities.

More reading

This article is one of a series of introductory articles on the importance of user experience to digital-accessibility strategy and practice. For more in-depth information, read our Inclusion Blog’s UX articles. To learn more how we can help you integrate UX best practices into your digital accessibility strategy, view our UX services or contact us.


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