Accessible Ideation


Traditional ideation methods are not accessible for everyone. Often, students are taught to sketch when they ideate or brainstorm. Brainstorming in groups, iterating on each idea, and time constraints are often put in place to help students get their ideas out without developing them too far. This brief describes an activity that encourages participants to think about the ideation process and strategies for making it more accessible. This activity could be used in a class or as part of another training or workshop.

Accessible Ideation Activity

Plan to use an hour and a half for this activity. Participants will brainstorm about a design challenge and then reflect on access barriers inherent in that process. Participants will then brainstorm solutions to the identified access barriers. Teams will benefit from having at least one participant with a disability who is willing to talk about their disability during the design activity. Individuals with disabilities may be recruited from existing participants or the larger community.

Groups should be supplied with a variety of supplies that they can use in the ideation activity. Supplies might include pens, markers, sticky notes, stickers, Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, glue, tape, yarn, textured materials, and other easy-to-find art supplies. Participants should be encouraged to use supplies during each phase of the activity.

Begin by introducing participants to the user centered design process—needs assessments, ideation, prototyping, and usability testing. Discuss ideation in more detail as this will be the focus of the activity. Introduce them to resources on User Centered Design:

Participant Introduction

Once participants have a basic understanding of user-centered design, introduce them to their design challenge: Consider ways in which we can make physical spaces and communication in smart classrooms more accessible. Ask teams to choose one facet area of this design challenge to focus on. They could choose between

  • physical spaces and furniture,
  • hardware, and
  • software communication and collaboration.

Ideation Phase 1

Give teams about seven minutes to ideate. Facilitators can circulate around the room encouraging teams to expand on an idea about halfway through the brainstorming period. Facilitators also can engage in discussions with teams occasionally to learn what they were thinking and to encourage moving in one direction or the other when a team is stuck.

Reflection 1

Teams should to fill out a reflection form that prompts them to think about access-related issues regarding the ideation process. Questions asked could include these possibilities:

  • Was everyone able to participate?
  • Was everyone able to share ideas?
  • Was everyone able to build on each others’ ideas?
  • What went well?
  • What was challenging?
  • What was surprising?

Have teams share out their experiences with the whole group.

Ideation phase 2

Teams should identify an access barrier they encountered during phase 1 and ideate solutions to ease or eliminate it. Teams should spend five minutes identifying and ideating about a barrier. Then prompt teams to spend fifteen minutes prototyping their solutions.

Reflection 2

Teams were asked to revisit the same questions as Reflection 1 and responses were discussed as a group.


When we have used this activity, participants have been actively involved and enjoyed the process. Teams have been surprised to identify so many access barriers and so many potential solutions that could be helpful for ideation or other group activities. Engineers were often surprised at how effective simple low tech solutions could be.

Solutions that teams have presented include the following:

  • Allowing each group member to identify their learning styles and needs before the activity.
  • Methods for people to use various devices such as syncing handwriting and electronic text, and including provisions for telepresence.
  • Ways of communicating so only one person speaks at a time and everyone gets a turn to speak such as passing around something for the speaker to hold.
  • A method for facilitators to let participants know they are moving on without interrupting groups.
  • More scaffolding of activity steps including expectations of what should be done at the end of the step to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • Less emphasis on time constraints or other ways of getting students to share whatever idea comes to mind without consideration for feasibility.
  • Organized ideation so people can follow the progression of ideation such as placing sticky notes in a pattern rather than tossing them onto the table as soon as an idea is written down.
  • Providing high contrast and three-dimensional materials for ideating.


  • Bennett, C. L., Shinohara, K., Blaser, B., Davidson, A., & Steele, K. M. (2016). Using a design workshop to explore accessible ideation. In proceedings of ASSETS '16: The 18th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility. ACM: New York, 303-304. 

Discussion Questions

  • How do different disabilities affect individuals’ participation in ideation activities? Consider attention deficits, learning disabilities, autism, deafness, blindness and vision impairments, mobility-related disabilities, and other disabilities.
  • Beyond disability, how might ideation be inaccessible or problematic based on other aspects of individuals’ backgrounds?
  • How can students take lessons learned in this activity to teamwork that they are doing in their courses?