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White paper: conducting user evaluations with people with disabilities.

The purpose of this guide

The purpose of this guide is to serve as a starting point to enable the reader to conduct usability testing sessions that incorporate feedback from people with disabilities (PwD). Best practices were analyzed for inclusion in this guide.

Iterative testing of product designs by observing the difficulties users have when exercising the product is at the heart of usability, human factors and user centered design (UCD) processes, all aimed at making products easy to use. While there is a great deal of cumulative knowledge and practice in this area, including PwD in this type of testing has not been common. The practice of making products easy to use has, by necessity, focused on the average, or the most common, or most influential user of the product being designed. The UCD methods that have evolved have borrowed from scientific approaches concerned with establishing general laws. For the most common practice of human computer interaction design this has translated into testing and designing products for the most common human characteristics. By definition, this excludes users with most disabilities. As a result, there is much yet to learn about accessibility and the process of incorporating ease of use into accessibility efforts. This paper outlines the current state of the art as well as areas needing additional research and methods development.

Who should use this guide?

This guide is intended for use by user experience practitioners and those familiar with the principles and practices of user-centered design and user engineering. For further information on these topics.

Why perform evaluations with users with disabilities?

Accessible information technology (IT), software, and products just make sense, but there are worldwide laws and regulations in place providing incentive for organizations to comply with accessibility standards. Refer to the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center's Web site for more detailed background, but some of the factors influencing accessibility are:

  • changing demographics for both customer and employee populations,
  • increasing visibility of those with disabilities to government and to society in general due to
    • Increased access through technology advances (e.g., the Internet)
    • the efforts of advocacy groups (e.g., the American Federation of the Blind (AFB) and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD)),
  • increasing numbers of World Wide governmental laws, regulations, and purchasing guidelines aimed at
    • making government all inclusive
    • helping disabled citizens be more productive contributors to society.

All IBM products are required to implement the guidelines of Section 508 of the United States Rehabilitation Act. This ensures that a product is enabled for use with assistive technologies (ATs) and is minimally accessible. That is, a user with a disability using a standard AT will be able to access and use the function of the product.

One of the principal goals of product evaluations is to increase the ease of use of the product being evaluated. IBM has long recognized that ease of use is vital to the success of our products. The ease of use message is well defined within IBM's development community. However, following existing accessibility standards is necessary, but not sufficient, for making products easy to use for users with disabilities. IT accessibility standards for the most part are designed to provide access to product function.While providing access to product information and function is a major step for PwD, mere access does not guarantee ease of use, and accessible products are most often not easy to use for users with disabilities.

For example, a product might comply with the guideline to make semantic information about user interface objects available to assistive technology (AT) such as a screen reader (e.g., it is an "OK button", or it is a "Name entry field"). Sighted users can access this information in any order since it is displayed visually; however, blind users must navigate to each user control sequentially by tabbing and allowing the screen reader to voice the semantic information aloud one at a time. As long as the semantic information is available and read aloud by the screen reader, accessibility standards are met. Actual evaluation sessions with blind users, however, may reveal an ease of use problem that forces the user to press two keystrokes to get the screen reader to voice the semantic information aloud, or that presents the user controls in an order that is unexpected and confusing.

In recognition of this fact, most assistive technologies (AT), like screen readers, are built to be extensible. Very often PwD end users of IT products must customize their experience of the product through these AT extensions, known as configuration files or scripting files, in order to make the product usable. If we are to make our products easy to use for all users, then including users with disabilities in our user centered design process is a necessary part of this process, and evaluating the product with users with disabilities at various phases of the product development process is an essential component.

Those of us who have participated in product evaluation sessions know that actually seeing users exercise a product is often a revelation especially to those of us who have participated in designing the product. Our designs, particularly our first iterations, do not always meet our users' needs, and User-Centered Design defines a process that responds to this. This is also the case with teams designing products that have obtained feedback from non-disabled (i.e. able-bodied) users only. Even for those designers and developers who have designed the product with accessibility standards in mind, it is eye-opening to involve users with disabilities in user evaluations. For example, most of us have not seen a visually impaired user interacting with an application through a screen reader. In addition to the explicit feedback about ease of use and accessibility "bugs" obtained, participating in user evaluations with PwD sensitizes product personnel to the needs of their users with disabilities. Knowing, understanding, and empathizing with users and customers always produce better products. It is a fact of life that PwD are our users, and we need to provide them with better, easier to use products.

Usable Access

The focus of the current work on ease of use for users with disabilities is a natural extension of the focus on accessibility, which up until recently has been dealt with independently. User evaluations with PwD are part of a broader effort to move both areas forward by expanding the focus of User Centered Design and User Engineering methods to be inclusive of all users, and by expanding the focus of accessibility from product enablement and interoperability with ATs to include ease of use. We refer to this confluence of these areas as Usable Access.


IBM's Accessibility Center has developed a Strategic Framework which views the co-development of accessibility and ease of use as a natural evolution of the IT industry's focus on accessibility. With the industry moving to this focus now, it is time for us to embrace this broader focus and implement plans for products that accomplish greater ease of use and accessibility.