How does designing for users with and without disabilities shape student design thinking?

Date Updated

How do student designers regard disability? How does designing for both users who are disabled and non-disabled encourage students to think about accessibility throughout the design process? These are the questions researchers at the University of Washington (UW) investigated via a design course study.

Despite the popularity of teaching design thinking, most technologies are not made to be accessible out-of-the-box. When students design, projects typically do not cover accessibility unless accessibility was directly included in the course syllabus and project directions. Researchers from the UW came to ask how they could teach design thinking to incorporate accessibility in the design process and include accessible design as a key part of design thinking rather than a “special topic.” To this end they created an undergraduate course in which students focused on a design project while learning user-centered design (UCD) concepts and techniques, working with people with and without disabilities throughout the project.

The researchers reported that students often came into the project with their own preconceived perceptions and that designing for both users who were disabled and non-disabled surfaced challenges and tensions in finding solutions to satisfy both groups, influencing students' attitudes toward accessible design. Working on projects students were often forced to confront their biases and change their perceptions. In addressing these tensions, non-functional aspects of accessible design emerged as important complements to functional aspects for users with and without disabilities.

Most students reported learning that designing with accessibility in mind was not as hard as they originally thought. The experience shaped their design thinking in that they expressed interest in including accessibility in future projects and designing for a wider range of users.

For more information on this study, consult Shinohara, K., Bennett, C.L. and Wobbrock, J.O. (2016). How designing for users with and without disabilities shapes student design thinking. Proceedings of the ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS ‘16). Reno, Nevada (October 24-26, 2016). New York: ACM Press. ACM Digital Library.

For more on teaching about topics related to disability consult, Where can I learn about incorporating accessibility topics in computing/IT courses? and Teach Accessibility.