Personas in Accessibility

Silhouette of a personA co-worker and fellow User Experience designer asked some good questions the other day about the merits of creating personas — including who their ideal audiences should be and how to evangelize them. We all weighed in, and afterwards it got me thinking about what role personas should play in accessibility.

For those unfamiliar, a persona is a fictional person based on your actual users. Leveraging research and observation of people who use your product, you craft a representation, right down to giving him or her a name, using a picture (photo or sketched), and filling in attributes like their background, desires, typical work day, etcetera.

Personas provide alternatives to vague, impersonal references like “Users should be able to blah blah blah” or “The technician needs this feature because of X,Y,Z”. It’s an effective way to create empathy and remind everyone — stakeholders, developers, fellow designers, project managers — that the product being designed has actual people at the end of the road who’ll need or want to use it.

I’ve created personas during a current project, and they seemed to resonate immediately with certain people. Our primary stakeholder started referring to one of them by name a lot. Some teams hung them up outside their cubicles as a reminder.

It’s sometimes challenging to keep them front and center throughout the lifespan of a project, but in short it’s a way to put a human face with real needs, concerns, and motivations to what otherwise can start to become a vague, distant audience when left to bland requirement documents and spreadsheets.

They can be complex or simple. We’ve done nice layouts suitable for printing out. I’ve seen simpler but equally effective approaches.

Sample Persona Template
Source: Explaining Personas used in UX Design – Part 2

In fact, one of the first sources I hit up often when learning about accessibility was Mark Pilgrim’s Dive into Accessibility. The information is over 10 years old, but a lot of it is timeless.

One of the methods he uses to illustrate accessibility issues and solutions for certain types of disabilities is through personas, like Jackie, a 19-year-old who has been blind for 8 years.

This enabled him to refer to these “people” by name throughout his whole book. It gives things a human touch and a seemingly real person who you really feel for and remember.

This all leads to what I’ve been thinking about lately. First off, it seems undeniably useful to incorporate disabilities into personas — when appropriate and naturally.

Mark’s personas all being disabled of course work because of intent of his book. But generally speaking for the average web site or application, it feels risky to approach it like, “Okay, now I’m going to create the disabled persona”. It should be more natural and less contrived, by weaving a disability in more subtly than that.

If you have five personas that represent different types of users of your product, maybe it makes perfect sense to mention that one of them is colorblind and often has troubles when applications don’t use distinctive enough colors. Maybe if your audience is older, one of your personas should convey that small fonts are a real burden because of weakening eyesight.

I’d love to hear from people who have woven accessibility into personas. I’ve not done it myself…yet.

4 thoughts on “Personas in Accessibility

  1. Kevin

    Dive Into Accessibility was my first exposure to accessibility back in 2003, and made such an impact on my career and thinking that when Mark P pulled all his sites off the web back in 2011, I created the mirror at .info you referenced above.

    Part of the value of that content, and the thing that humanized accessibility, were Mark’s personas. They’re still relevant today. While they would be a little heavy handed for the typical UX project, there is real merit to inflicting some real world physical limitations. Colorblindness is easiest — but which *kind*? Maybe one person is confined to a wheelchair. Maybe one person still uses dial-up. Less obvious “problems”, but still factors that might inspire different solutions to a given UX challenge.

    This is an excellent discussion that should extend to the broad UX community. I’m sure some people are already doing this, but most of the examples I see are characters fleshed out from the perspective of needs and social context.

  2. Steve Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Kevin.

    Agreed all around. As I said, Dive Into Accessibility really stuck with me when I first got into accessibility, and still does. The personas are a big reason why.

    Yeah, the sweet spot has to be a soft-handed, natural approach, like the examples you gave.

    I’m hoping to hear from some people in the UX world who have tried weaving accessibility considerations into personas.

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