Inclusive Design

Empathy in Design and Accessibility

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(The third in our series of articles on design and accessibility. Read the first and second articles.)

I am an accessibility tester & consultant at IBM, and I also happen to be a person with low-vision (I can see some, but not much) who uses technology.An IBM Designer uses low vision goggles during designer training to help develop empathy for the vision impaired.

I am also all-too familiar with the “pain” of getting mostly through an online order, only to discover a “submit” button that’s not visible. Or the urge to cry when that hot mobile app that’s the current rage uses horrible contrast, like yellow text on light grey background. Ugh!

It may sound simple, but the ability of tech developers to “put themselves in the shoes” of all who might use their technology can do wonders for accessibility.

Empathy (to share or understand the feelings of another) in design steps us outside our own experience or perspective to consider other possible viewpoints, needs or preferences. Realizing that not everybody will experience a given technology exactly as I do provides an important opportunity in the earliest stages of development to ensure it can be used by all.

When thinking about new or enhanced technologies, consider the full spectrum of potential users. You likely have people in your own life whose specific needs or abilities differ from your own, such as an elderly parent, a cousin with a physical disability or a friend who has trouble telling dark green from navy blue. With some creativity, it can be surprisingly easy to loosely simulate what a variety of user experiences might be like, including what works well and potential challenges.

Simple tests can be used to provide an empathic experience. Shutting off your office lights, or your computer monitor, and navigating a website using only the keyboard, can help simulate what using that technology is like with blindness or low-vision. Using a single hand to navigate your smartphone may simulate a loss-of-limb, or wearing latex gloves to snap a selfie with your camera can simulate doing it with diminished fingertip sensitivity. As technology advances, we’re seeing more and more sophisticated means for performing such simulations, as well.

Designers and developers are in a unique position – from the very earliest stages of product development – to create products which can truly be used by everybody. Stepping outside our individual experiences, and using empathy in design, is a powerful way to seize that opportunity.

Follow Erich on Twitter @ErichManser

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Eelke Folmer

The photo accompanying this article shows a person wearing visual impairment simulation goggles. These goggles are quite expensive and to simulate a different impairment you have to disassemble the goggles attach new lenses and reassemble them which is quite cumbersome.

My lab developed a free app for Google Cardboard called simviz ( that can quickly simulate various types of visual impairments, without having to take off the headset. SimViz allows for quick accessibility inspections. Let me know what you think.


    Erich Manser

    Thank you, Eelke. Simviz looks really cool – kudos on your work & empathic approach! 🙂