User Research with People with Disabilities

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC
7 min readMar 6, 2019
Blackboard with cartoon bullhorn shouting “We Want Your Feedback” with numerous icons representing users including money, ideas, reviews, information, opinions, time, pieces of the puzzle and global indicators

I was really excited this week to be presenting at the #PacRim2019 conference on UX research involving people with disabilities, one of my favorite things to talk about. I will be giving the same talk with with my co-presenter David Fazio at #CSUN2019 next week, and on my own at Shape, an internal VMware design conference in April.

If you know a fair amount about user research, but haven’t done research involving participants with disabilities, there are a few significant differences that the moderator or interviewer needs to be aware of.

Give Your Personas Disabilities

The purpose of personas is to create realistic representations of your most important user segments for reference. You may have Jason, who is a mid-level IT staff member who does SaaS administration, or Sandy in accounting who does PCI compliance and is working on her MBA. Your personas may also contain real-life details such as how many years of experience they have, what languages they speak, and personality traits that impact their software use (impatience, for example). Your personas should:

  • Match the major user groups for your software/websites
  • Identify significant needs and expectations of these major user groups
  • Describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values

Most UX research personas *don’t* have disabilities, which is astonishing given that 18 % of the population does. Making Jason an individual who is on the Autism Spectrum, or giving Sandy a temporary broken dominant wrist from a spring skiing accident forces the researcher to look at that individual’s software interaction through the lens of someone with a disability. That, in turn, may help your UX group identify improvements that can be made in your product or services — Jason might want a single location he can turn off all motion which he finds distracting, Sandy may get frustrated and tired having to hit the tab key 27 times to get to the footer where a “skip to footer” bypass block would be of significant benefit to her.

Finally, use these personas with disabilities when recruiting for your user interviews. You can generalize from what is known about some disabilities, but without talking to people who live…

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

LinkedIn Top Voice for Social Impact 2022. UX Collective Author of the Year 2020. Disability Inclusion SME. Sr Staff Accessibility Architect @ VMware.