Beyond the persona

Being deaf herself, our UX designer Marie van Driessche has a natural interest in accessibility. But more and more she discovers that the Design Thinking method is not quite suited for this goal. In this article, she exposes its limitations and looks for ways to make inclusivity and accessibility an integral part of your design process.

September 27, 2022

A summary for non-readers

Brands increasingly realize they need to be inclusive, accessible and social to remain relevant and successful, especially among a younger audience. This takes time and effort, from both brand and designer, and requires a revision of the Design Thinking method.

  • To simply Empathize is not enough; you can't really know what it's like to be different. Your interpretation is therefore always different from the personal experience of the user for whom you design.
  • Using personas in Define is a severely flawed method. It is an average user, a construct that doesn’t do justice to the diversity of actual people.
  • Test on those same averages and you will keep yourself from obtaining valuable insights from people who are different from you or your customer.
  • Therefore, look for people who are different in as many ways as possible, and involve them in every phase of your process through human centered co-design.


Want to know more? Then read on below


Another one of those gloves

About every other year you hear about new students or start-ups presenting an app, a glove, AR glasses or another device, aiming to offer a solution for translating sign language into spoken language. They often go viral and the creators get a lot of attention and praise for their efforts. But have they ever asked deaf people about their problems? Do we indeed have any problems that need solving? Are the deaf really involved in the design process? Looking at the results, I tend to be skeptical.


The limits of empathy

I don't want to detract from their good intentions at all, quite the contrary. But as a hearing person, it’s simply impossible to really know what it’s like to be deaf. As far as I'm concerned, it's the biggest misconception about the first step in the Design Thinking model: Empathize. True empathy is more than just 'pretending' by briefly putting yourself in someone else's shoes. Using painted glasses or noise canceling headphones for example makes you feel disoriented, anxious and severely handicapped. But if you were born deaf or blind or have been able to get accustomed to it for an extended period of time, then the experience is quite different; it's in fact, normal.

If you’re designing with just a superficial understanding of your target audience's experience, you risk creating quite the opposite of what you idealistically intended. A principle that is sometimes referred to as the Design Savior Complex. Instead of making your service accessible, you marginalize a large part of its potential users and their experience by excluding them from the design process.

I therefore want to call on designers and clients to enter into a dialogue, to ask questions, verify the answer, to keep the dialogue going. This will help prevent making wrong assumptions about the people they design for. For example, start with the question whether the deaf actually need help with communication.


Emancipation of the 'other'

I feel the underlying topic here is in fact the emancipation of people with disabilities. Because even if they are actively involved in the development of a solution, they rarely get credit for it. They are never the co-creators, they never come to the fore. Most of all, they seem to be used for the beautiful story: “Look what we've created to help these pitiful people!”

I lived and worked in France for a while and made some good friends there. What always strikes me is how strongly the deaf community in France identifies with their disability; they are proud of it! They’re very self-aware and know very well what they need, stand up for their rights and are very outspoken about it. I think that's something very beautiful and powerful, but it also gives me an inner struggle. Being deaf is of course part of my identity. But I am also a woman, an ‘Amsterdammer’, a UX designer, a teacher at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and a passionate kiteboarder. There are so many facets to me that I feel uncomfortable with an identity so singularly linked to my deafness.

All my life I've had to fight to be accepted and to be seen, to just be able to participate in society and to prove that I can do just as much as 'normal' people. At the same time, I have slowly come to realize that it is also nice to be able to see yourself as 'different', that it makes you a bit special. I still have a long way to go to embrace my deafness as part of my identity, to be proud of it. But because I don't know any better than not hearing anything, it doesn't feel like a limitation either. It is the environment that makes me feel limited by being ignorant and inaccessible.


Fictional personas exclude real people

Which brings me to the second step in the Design Thinking process: Define. In this phase you formulate the end users’ needs and problems based on your understanding of the target group. A popular tool in human centered design is the persona: fictional characters that you create to represent different user types. The personas should help the designer understand their needs, experiences, behaviors and goals.

Of course it’s very practical to merge large groups of users with similar traits into a persona to help you design possible solutions. The result however, is that you will design for those one or two personas that describe the averages. But the average user doesn't exist in real life. And an even bigger disadvantage is that you exclude large groups of 'unaverage' users.

I think it is very positive that there is growing awareness about the importance of inclusivity. I also think there is a task for designers to make that awareness more visible and practical in the communication, interaction, products and services they help create. But if personas aren’t a good tool, then what’s the alternative?


Co-design (with people different from you)

I advocate a co-design of sorts, by working with real, living people instead of personas. Follow them on social media, talk to them, test your assumptions, try to understand them and challenge them to come up with solutions themselves. Only then can you really empathize and come together to create designs that are truly human centered instead of persona centered.

The best thing is of course to have more diverse team members that can come up with solutions that work for everyone, informed by their personal background, identity and life experience.

A good example of why this works is from my personal experience at Unc Inc. There was this client who asked us to remove the contact form from their app, simply because no one in the organization checked the mailbox that these emails were sent to. But for a deaf person, that's a barrier: I have to open my interpreter contact app, enter the number and wait for someone to answer. It’s so much hassle that I often don't feel like doing it at all. Thus it’s not a good idea if accessibility is a strategic goal (and in this case a legal obligation). If I hadn't been on that team, the contact form would have been removed.

It also happens that there are plenty of hearing people who prefer not to call, for example because they (think they) do not master the Dutch language well enough and prefer to use a translation app instead :-)


Go for diversity in your test users

Things often go wrong in the final phase of the design process too: the Test. Functional testing can be expensive and is often seen as a closing item on the budget. Many clients are mainly concerned with getting as much functionality as possible for their money. But if no users have been consulted that are fundamentally different from you, there is room for that very human tendency towards self-affirmation: "This is going to be a great success." Then, when they look for reasons why conversion rates are lagging, they’re staring themselves in the face.

And when a product IS functionally tested, it is often by that same average user. That a shame and in fact a missed opportunity, as feedback from 'deviant' users often makes a much greater contribution to the quality for all users (see also the Business Case for Accessibility).

In view of the delivery (and deadline), practical considerations also tend to play a role, especially if you are not well prepared. This was the case, for example, with one of our other clients at Unc Inc. We had built a platform for them on which they could exchange knowledge and information with thousands of volunteers, in addition to a limited number of professionals. But because it was much easier and faster to recruit test users among the latter group, the platform was not tested by the platform's primary target audience: the volunteers.

One size fits none

My conclusion is that a design can never be fully accessible to everyone. It is never universal, there will always be users for whom a product is less suited. But whether it's for moral or commercial reasons, it’s rewarding to talk to real people, outside your own bubble or that of your client, and ask them what they really need. Don't see those people as edge cases, as an exception, but make them an integral part of your design process so they can help you improve the outcome for all.


To be continued…

In this article I mainly gave context and a critique of the application of Design Thinking. In my next article I will elaborate on this a little more and offer you some more practical tips on how to achieve a good and more inclusive design without using personas.

Ready to improve your own digital accessiblity?

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Afraid that improved accessibility will come at the expense of brand experience? Read here how you can unite accessibility with aesthetics in your digital design.

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