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Personas and Designing for Accessibility

'Persona' Defined

A persona is defined as "a single representation of a cluster of target users who represent similar behaviors, goals and motivations." ~ © Nielsen Norman Group

More simply put, personas are models, usually based on research, representing an individual's characteristics, needs, goals, and motivations. Taking it a step further, truly diverse personas include attributes like aptitude, ability, and attitude, as well as access points to assistive technology.

Common Attributes for Diverse Personas

  • Name: Giving your persona a name helps humanize that persona; you may even begin to refer to the persona by name.
  • Demographics: These include age, gender, location, and occupation.
  • Picture: Giving the user a face makes them more real and relatable, although it is not required.
  • Ability: Do the user’s abilities create challenges when using a computer or mobile device?
  • Aptitude: How experienced is the user in navigating the web?
  • Attitude: What is the user’s attitude toward the web?
  • Access points: Does this user need assistive technologies to access the web?
  • Motivations: Why would this user visit your website? What does your website have to offer this user?
  • Goals: What’s the user looking for? Information, a specific product, to sign up for your newsletter?
  • Frustrations: What difficulties does this user have with certain tasks? What is the severity of those difficulties?
  • Quote: What quote or change statement describes this user and the challenges they face that you are working to solve?

Why Is It Important to Define Attributes in Detail?

Well-defined attributes create a well-defined persona, and that persona creates an understanding of and empathy for our users. And if we don’t understand our users, we will make assumptions about them; our innate biases will be baked into our designs and code. We can easily slip into the self-referential design. We then lose the opportunity to create an experience that is more accessible to a more diverse audience.

How Do Personas Work?

Personas communicate about our users in a way other data and artifacts simply cannot. Personas:

  • Create empathy – one human being's ability to understand, relate to, and share and “feel” the feelings of another human being.
  • Tell stories – the ability to mix facts and narrative to create and share something emotionally engaging while creating a sense of community.
  • Encourage experience taking – the ability to identify with and simulate a fictional character's emotions, thoughts, goals, motivations, and beliefs.
  • Encourage theory of mind – the ability to predict someone’s behavior by understanding their state of mind.

Example Personas

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has a terrific collection of written personas. This is a fantastic place to start if you are getting familiar with constructing and implementing personas in your project lifecycle. Stories of Web Users

Personas are in no way a substitute for automated, manual, and user testing – or good old-fashioned customer interaction. However, they are a great tool for better decision-making – focusing on user needs and goals, providing an organization-wide understanding of your users, defending design decisions, and enabling you and your team to create a richer, more accessible user experience.


Deeper Dives

Personas and Accessibility | Udacity (video)

Maggie Vaughan, CPACC
Content Marketing Practitioner