man with ipad accessibility

Summary: Ethnography, a core UX technique for intercepting user needs and issues is essential for getting beyond the guidelines-following approach to Accessibility. Understanding the needs of your users with disabilities can take your accessibility efforts to a new level, that can be measured in quality of experience. 

Ethnography for Accessibility?

Ethnography is the Greek word for 'culture-study'. Originally an Anthropology technique, it is widely used in corporate research and staple to Design Thinking--an empathy driven approach to User Centered Design. Field studies provide teams with empathy that is laden with insights and contextual understandings. The industry agrees: Empathy is critical to doing good UX Design. But, it is also a valuable reward of doing Accessibility Testing. Yet, involving users in accessibility is a rare event, let alone accessibility field studies. 

So why do teams miss out on conducting Field Studies with their users with disabilities? 

Accessibility is typically handled by developers in many organizations. Developers do not typically get involved with user research and few are trained in User Research or Ethnographic Field Study techniques. Even UX experts often have low accessibility know-how, so working with users with disabilities is unfamiliar or uncomfortable ground. 

Why are Ethnographic interviews valuable?

Ethnographic Field Studies in UX uncover: issues, opportunities and cultural factors. This includes an understanding of user tasks, workflow triggers, their needs, their values, technical limitations and relevant desires for an improved experience. Accessibility efforts tend to focus on optimizing code and meeting compliance guidelines-- almost robotically.

We assume that users with disabilities just need to access content-- not whether the content is even relevant or in a format that is suitable to that disability type. 

For example, here are some things mobility impaired, blind and low vision users have told us, that otherwise were not apparent without a chairside interview:

  • The excessive motion in this video makes it look like a scene out of a horror movie (400% magnification). 
  • Blind employees or colleagues do not need a PowerPoint of your training or message-- it might be better delivered as an audio book. The visual bias of a PowerPoint presentation is not relevant to a blind user.
  • The content in the table is too complex to be read aloud (by a screen reader). A different format is required. 
  • Swipe targets are too faint and easily missed. 
  • Thin fonts (popular these days) are difficult to read.
  • Browser tools to increase font size add more effort (adjustment needed on each page). 
  • Interviewer: "How about the red icon next that symbol?"; User: "I don't see what you are talking about, I am color blind". 

What is even more valuable to be gained from sitting with users at home and at work?

The same thing as with a typical user study: an understanding of the how, why and when they want, or need to access content or features on your site or app. The added difference with a user with a disability is that they are typically having a different experience with your content and features, by using Assistive Technology, and in a context that might require additional support (eg. Dyslexia or Low Literacy, Aging etc.). This adds additional requirements and insights into the how and why...which means your layout or UX strategy needs adjusted to accommodate the enhanced understanding. 

But be clear, Accessibility is not just an access issue. Wait, let's retract that-- of course it is-- but it is also a user experience issue or what we call a Quality of Experience issue. Just because your content is accessible to a screen reader (ALT tagging an image) does not mean it is sensible or easily understood by a user using a screen reader or magnifying it to 300%, for example. The horror movie imagery of a 400% magnified fast moving video is a favorite example. Slowing the video down would probably improve the experience for all users (since it was decorative) but would also allow it to be meaningful. An image (ALT tag) that described the significance of an image that took up half the page would provide access plus meaning, offering a quality user experience. 

Conclusion: Conduct Ethnographic interviews as part of your accessibility efforts so you can go beyond a guidelines-only mentality and instead can dig deeper into the accessibility user experience that offers users improved access + meaning.  

Want to learn more? Accessibility Bootcamp online workshop is coming up August 7th 2018.

Or register for this FREE webinar: Accessibility testing: How to correctly evaluate Section 508