Using personas to teach accessibility

Designers and developers can have a tendency to concentrate on sighted mouse users when building a web site. This is usually due to a lack of knowledge about how other people can use the web.

Something I have been thinking about for a while is using personas to help teach accessibility. I think it would be really useful to come up with some detailed personas that highlight the most common disabilities, the problems they face on the web and how assistive technologies are used. These can then be used to get designers, developers and project owners on board with accessibility – and used in discussions about designs or code that have accessibility issues.

Here’s a quick first attempt at some personas. I’d be interested in what people think of the idea and suggestions for improving the personas.

  1. Tom, 54 is an accountant who spends 2 hours a day commuting to work by train. He is colour blind and uses a 3g dongle to connect to the internet when on the train.

    Tom has problems when a website relies only on colour to communicate something.

    Tom turns off images when surfing the web on the train so that pages download quicker and less expensive. Sometime he’ll turn off CSS and javascript.

  2. Ben, 20 is a deaf student studying computer science at university

    Tom has problems with websites that don’t include captions or transcripts

  3. Liane, 38 (once sighted) is blind. Uses JAWS and Internet explorer to surf the web.

    JAWS lets Liane get up a list of headings and links to get a quick overview of a web pages. She uses short cuts to navigate the page -jumping to headings, lists and tables etc

    She has problems when pages don’t make use of headings and when links don’t have descriptive labels.

    She has problems with pages that don’t allow keyboard navigation (e.g clickable ‘buttons’ that are implement with ‘span’)

    She has problems with pages that use ajax that don’t inform her when new new content has updated

    Video example of blind screen reader user – Victor Tsaran: An Introduction to Screen Readers

  4. Alice, 69, has poor mobility and poor vision. Unable to get out of her flat without help. Uses the web to do her weekly shop and buy presents.

    Uses IE 6. Has difficulty using a mouse so uses a keyboard. Due to poor vision she sets the font size to 200%

    Has problems with sites that don’t work with a keyboard and sites that don’t provide the option to skip links.

    Has problems with sites that break when font size increased.

    Her memory is not as good as it used to be – needs things to be explained in simple language.

    Get confused if a website does something unexpected.

  5. Derek does not have full use of his hands so is unable to type. On his desktop uses Dragon Naturally speaking.

    When using Dragon Naturally speaking can use the ‘button’ command which displays a number next to all the buttons on the page. Can then say the number to activate the button. Won’t work if developers have used ‘span’ instead of ‘button’

    An example Accessibility for the modern web – @ 4 minutes

Can you suggest any other or better personas or scenarios? – or help flesh out the these ones?

It would be great to include the number of people that have these disabilities, examples of sites that have good or bad accessibility for the above issues – and videos that show people using the mentioned assistive technologies

11 Responses to “Using personas to teach accessibility”

  1. Alistair Duggin says:

    How colourblind people see the world:!/grimmweb/status/186742268911292416/photo/1

  2. This is very similar to, which has been an all time favorite to me, although it would deserve an update now (it was published way before the WCAG2, for the record).
    Personas are a powerful tool to help raising awareness and empathy towards users who are barely known to most developers. Yet there’s an embedded trap about them. As David Sloan noted in his tweet in response to yours, not all users of a given group have the same needs and habits. In fact, probability is low to find two users with exactly the same approach to content, no matter how similar are their abilities, equipment, background, experience, and so forth. Just like the “other” users, actually. This is why WCAG2, which try to be as abstract as possible regarding users’ patterns, are such a powerful and useful basis.
    So personas can be used for discussion and education, but the greatest care must be taken when using the outputs for guidelines and remediation.

  3. Lucy Dodd says:

    Hi Alistair,
    Thanks for opening this discussion. I have created and used accessibility persona before and they can be very useful in informing product design and development.
    However, I would always advise the following:

    1) Alway ask “who is our target audience for this product?”; Do not use the same set of personas for all products – each product should have a different set of level 1 personas because the target audience will be different and thus the types of disabilities/requirements common in that audience. This is particularly crucial when designing and developing games, quizzes and/or media players.

    2) Try to do formative research e.g depth interviews to create the personas rather than basing them on ‘accessibility stereotypes’. By doing this, you will find out some fascinating facts. It’s also a great way to dispel some myths about accessibility, and even eradicate accessibility concerns in some cases.

    3) Testing with disabled users is also a great way to educate designers and developers. Personas can be relied on too much at times and quickly become a stereotype or ‘fact’. This is why it is so important for web teams to actually meet a sample of disabled and elderly users. Also, by testing products regularly, you will be able to gather a really good set of requirements that can be used to realistic create personas.

    4) Finally, try to avoid creating a separate group of personas. They should be users with disabilities rather than disabled users – this sounds pedantic but I find that teams are more receptive if the persona begins with the users goal first e.g Ben 20 is a web developer. He uses the web on his mobile everyday on his journey into work to check the days news, Sport and travel updates. He like to get quick snippets of information throughout the day while he’s at work but finds it very frustrating when these sites feature AV clips without subtitles or supporting text, because he’s profoundly deaf.

    I am happy to email you some recent persona examples.

  4. Alistair Duggin says:

    Oliver, thanks for the link to – this is exactly the kind of thing that I was thinking about. An up to date version of this would be incredibly useful.

    Lucy thanks for your detailed comment. I’ll be sure to follow your advice in point 4 when fleshing out my personas. Do we need new personas for every project though? An individual visits many websites and will try to interact with each one in a similar way (based on there device and how they have learned to use it) – and are likely to encounter similar accessibility issues. My feeling is that we are trying to make the web more accessible – not just individual websites.

    The angle that I am coming from as a front-end developer trying to learn more about accessibility and encouraging others to do the same is:

    • Every project shares some core accessibility requirements – such as using semantic markup, using alt text, descriptive links, full keyboard access
    • A large part of how accessible a website is relies on how a front-end developers writes their code (html, css and javascript)
    • Most accessible websites I know about are due to a developer on the team being particularly passionate about accessibility – rather than accessibility being a core part of the proposition.
    • A checklist or accessibility audit is normally used at the end of a project to check if a website that is about to launch (or has just launched) meets the core accessibility requirements
    • We should be ensuring that developers care about accessibility, and are knowledgeable, at the start of a project – not just when it fails an audit
    • In all the projects that I have worked on in 9 years as a web developer I don’t think any have used personas or done formative research. If any have they have not been used by the whole team throughout project lifecycle.
    • Using some common personas to help contextualize core accessibility requirements and instill empathy in developers (and designers) with little previous knowledge or experience of accessibility could do a huge amount of good.
    • Fleshing out some common personas that address the common accessibility and usability issues is a more pragmatic approach than doing it for every website.
    • I’ve been inspired by Karen Mardahl article Let’s talk and teach, not fight, about accessibility. I think that some good personas would be a great communication tool.

    Perhaps a better question to ask is: What’s the best way to illustrate to people why accessibility matters (especially developers) and demonstrate what the most easily introduced accessibility issues are and what problems they cause ?

    Do you think real case studies are more useful than personas? Do you know of any you can share?
    I found Victor Tsaran’s An Introduction to Screen Readers video very useful

    Something else that would be incredibly useful would be the sharing of user testing results – especially those that include users with disabilities.

  5. Hi Alistair,
    those are great points indeed. There’s an on-going discussion about how web developers should be approached and convinced to embrace accessibility as a core aspect of their job. And I think you bring valid points of view.
    My own “epiphany”, as I call it, happened during the training course I took at Braillenet. I saw a screen reader user actually surfing the web, pointing at flaws that made the most mundane task (like, buying yogurt) a real chore. Then they unplugged the screen and asked everybody to try searching on Google’s home page, with the vocal output only. It definitely changed the way I design, up to the point of a change of career. So I would say a first-hand experience is the most effective way. Of course it’s not always feasible, but there are substitutes:
    – live demos can be organised with accessibility NGOs, who often have similar actions towards businesses and orgs
    – recorded demos. I would suggest searching Youtube with terms like “blind+web” or “screen reader”, or similar searches. This site has a great list: (“Vidéo” section). Some are in French, those with an English title should all be in English.
    – simple situation tests: deactivate the CSS; large zoom (in text mode in Firefox); unplug the mouse; have Siri read the website. There are many ways to put a developer in the users’ shoes – or some approaching shoes…
    – evangelism: great speakers like Derek Featherstone and Chris Heilmann know how to convince newcomers, and motivate tech-savvy people that accessibility is one of the coolest way to show-off your talent. There are many other awesome speakers out there, just citing those that inspire me most.

    Happy to keep the discussion going!

  6. Greetings from a huge fan of your site. :)
    This is a good topic for discussion. There is a great place about personas and accessibility at , but it is not supposed to be used at all. I agonize over that because there are some great scenarios there. It has been “off-limits” for most of the time of its existence. The first pages go back to 2005. Maybe your discussion here can be the nudge that helps the EOWG finish that project?

  7. I meant to add… as Lucy says, there really is a need for data behind a good persona and not just some ideas being bounced about. However, proto-personas can be the first step. I just found this article on that concept, which might inspire readers: Then it is – get out there and meet real people and get real data. Not everyone is able to get out and meet their readers/users directly. Those people will benefit from the proper creation of good personas by those who can meet their readers/users.

  8. Katja Forbes says:

    As everyone has said, the most valuable personas really must be data backed and derived from research. The most inportant quote I got from an interview when working on a persona for a visually impaired user was:

    “My disability doesn’t define me, it is part of me. I want people will see me first and then my disability second“.

    I think its really important to keep this at the forefront of any persona developed to represent people with accessibility needs. Their tasks and goals are likely to be the same as anyone else but the methods they have to use to achieve them may be different as well as the support we need to give them as designers and developers. Take care that you’re still creating a holistic persona and not just a description of a disability.

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