User personas establish realistic representations of your audience, enabling designers to make better user experience (UX) decisions. When created with qualitative data, personas can be an important part of an inclusive design methodology.
Since a sizable portion of the internet population lives with some form of disability, you’ll want to include personas with disabilities in your usability testing scenarios. Here are a few tips for creating accurate representations — and understanding the limitations of personas when designing accessible products.
1. Recognize the entire spectrum of disabilities
Personas are fictional representations of real-life users. Creating profiles for fictional users can help your team consider the experiences of a wider variety of people (as opposed to focusing on the experience of an “ideal" user who uses the website in predictable, consistent ways).
Including several personas with different types of access needs can help you build robust products. After all, about 1 in 4 American adults live with conditions that affect their hearing, vision, mobility, memory, or cognition. Considering the experiences of those users will help you make products that work better for everyone.
With that said, remember that disabilities are a spectrum. Including a single persona who uses a screen reader won’t necessarily make your website more accessible — and even if you include personas with vision, hearing, and cognitive conditions, recognize that your personas will be limited. People use an astounding variety of tools and habits to browse the internet; personas can only provide insights into a few specific situations.
Related: Is Web Accessibility Only for People Who Are Blind?
2. Define your persona’s demographic with concise, simple language
The purpose of a user persona is to help designers empathize with end-users. Your team should consider personas throughout each phase of product development — if accessibility persona profiles are too complex, they’re less useful as a point of reference.
Try to simply define your persona with unambiguous terminology:
“Maria is a 45-year-old woman with a vision disability. She can perceive content visually, but she prefers using a screen reader in most situations.”
Creating a simple description allows your team to “consult" Maria when making decisions. For example, if you’re deciding whether to add video content to a page, you might ask: Would Maria want to listen to a video, or would she prefer a transcript? Since we know that Maria can perceive content visually, she might prefer to have both options available.
Related: Inclusive Design Vs. Accessible Design: Understanding the Differences
3. Accurately define disabilities — don’t rely on guesswork
User personas should be based upon accurate data. When writing your persona profile, use authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control’s website to clearly define the disability.
Accessibility advocate Sheri Byrne-Haber has written about the importance of using real-world research for accessibility personas. As Byrne-Haber notes, a quick Google search can provide you with information about the prevalence of certain disabilities, the impact of various health conditions, and the assistive technologies that people might use to accommodate their abilities.
4. Use the principles of WCAG
Practically, you can’t create individual user personas to account for every disability or condition that your audience might experience. Fortunately, that’s not necessary — you simply need personas that represent their potential needs and goals.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the international standards for digital accessibility. The four principles of WCAG are especially helpful during the initial stages of product design: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
Consider creating a user persona to target weaknesses with each of these principles. For example:
- A persona with a vision disability might expose issues with perceivability.
- A persona who uses a keyboard alone for navigation might be impacted by your content’s operability.
- A persona with a memory-related condition might help you determine whether your content is understandable.
- A persona who uses assistive technologies might help you determine whether your product is robust enough for a wide audience.
By focusing on principles rather than the characteristics of specific conditions, you’ll accommodate a wider range of disabilities. We also strongly recommend reviewing WCAG in its entirety — the guidelines provide practical considerations that can help you incorporate accessibility into your development cycle from day one.
Related: Universal Design: An Introduction for Digital Content Creators
5. Know the limitations of user personas
User personas can play an important part in an inclusive design framework. Even so, they’re not a substitute for real-world accessibility testing.
Disabilities can change browsing behavior in significant ways. Often, those changes aren’t obvious to people who browse the web visually using a keyboard and a mouse. For example, many screen reader users skip to subheadings or hyperlinks before reading content — your user persona won’t be able to tell you about how these users experience your website.
Ultimately, user personas are an effective resource, but they’re not a complete solution for accessibility compliance. Testing your content against WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines ensures that your product is accessible for as many people as possible. Manual testing is essential, particularly if your goal is to ensure compliance with accessibility laws.
For more guidance, contact the Bureau of Internet Accessibility for a consultation.