Inclusive Design

Empathy in Design and Accessibility

Share this post:

(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

Accessibility Research

More stories
By Shari Trewin on May 17, 2022

New tools for designers from IBM Accessibility

For Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2022, let’s give a shoutout to designers, who play a critical role in accessibility. IBM Accessibility is proud to offer new free tools for accessibility in the everyday work of designers. The tools support both applications and web content. Streamlined designer guidance in the Equal Access Toolkit Accessible Design Kit […]

Continue reading

By Alexandra Grossi on December 3, 2021

Accessibility offers the Ultimate User Experience

Today is International Persons with Disabilities Day, which provides an opportunity to further reflect on IBM’s contributions to accessibility and inclusivity when it comes to the ever-evolving world of technology and design. I am the Lead UX Designer for IBM Accessibility. I am an inclusive design advocate. I also happen to be a profoundly deaf, […]

Continue reading

By Shari Trewin and Yves Veulliet on December 3, 2020

Designing AI Applications to Treat People with Disabilities Fairly

AI solutions must account for everyone. AI-based applications can treat people with disabilities fairly by embedding ethics into AI development from the very beginning.

Continue reading