Empathy in Design and Accessibility

How do we design tools and products that can truly be used by everyone, including people with specific needs? In celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) on December 3rd, we are featuring this blog on how our IBM Accessibility Research team uses empathy in design to develop products that can be used by people with varying needs and abilities.

Erich_Manser_3162_rt_aBy Erich Manser

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.

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.

Simulating a Variety of User Experiences

AccessibilityWhen 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 empathetic 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.

Watch this video to understand what IBM’s Accessibility team does to improve the user experience of people with disabilities.

This article first came out on the IBM Age and Ability blog.

Erich Manser is a Software Engineer who is part of the IBM Research team. Erich is fast becoming an industry thought-leader for his work on research initiatives around accessibility. His involvement in IBM projects with eyes-free navigation, self-driving tech and Watson Personal Assistant are earning him a reputation as a researcher keen on using technology to empower humans of any ability.


Erich Manser will be live on our Facebook profile talking about Accessibility Design for Technology! Have a question to ask him? Write it on the comments section now and tune in on Monday to hear his answers!

Facebook Live Details:

December 4th, Monday, 2pm US Eastern


Follow @IBMAccess on Twitter to learn more about the different things that IBM is doing to eliminate barriers to technology and information, so people of all ages and abilities can live more independent, productive and meaningful lives. ibm.com/able

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