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Study: How Researchers Can Increase Design Accessibility, with Lenovo

Creating accessible spaces and experiences requires intentionality. See how Lenovo and dscout's research with people in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community shed light on accessibility UX best practices.

Words by Karen Eisenhauer, Research by Dana Gierdowski, Peggy He, and Karen Eisenhauer, Visuals by Alisa Harvey

In the past, organizations have often looked at accessibility through the lens of compliance. Accessible design has been viewed as a box to be checked, with that box often coming from external guidelines rather than internal research best practices.

In some organizations, though, the tide is finally starting to turn. Industry researchers have begun to move away from the idea of accessibility compliance and towards a framework of inclusive design. Inclusive design processes emphasize the inclusion of participants with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and abilities, with the goal of making a product that can accommodate them all.

"Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging."

Susan Goltsman

The importance of inclusive design

Businesses are starting to understand that everyone can benefit from inclusive, universal design. And for many businesses and orgs, it's no longer thought about in terms of dollars and cents and bottom lines: inclusive design is starting to be thought of as the right thing to do to make user experiences better for everyone.

One company that takes accessibility and inclusive design seriously is Lenovo. In 2021, researchers on Lenovo’s User Experience Design team conducted research initiatives with users with disabilities* to better understand their everyday experiences with the technology they rely on, and the challenges they face as they use them. They began by using dscout to study users with visual impairments.

Lenovo partnered with the People Nerds team to run a generative study focused on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. Together, we developed a foundational study using the dscout Diary and Live tools that asked about scouts’ digital devices and assistive technology—including how they could be improved to accommodate their disabilities more effectively.

We spoke to 23 scouts across the spectrum of hearing loss and asked them all about their lives and their technologies. Read more about the methods and sample here.

Throughout this process, we learned a lot about the experiences of using technology with hearing loss. But while we were working, we also discovered many “unknown unknowns”—answers to questions we didn’t directly ask, but learned were important through conducting such an open-ended study.

We want to share these questions with our fellow researchers in hopes of inspiring new ways of doing inclusive research across organizations.

Jump to

  1. Are you designing an assistive device? (Are you sure?)
  2. Is that feature convenient, or is it inaccessible?
  3. How many users do you need to be designing for?
  4. What are your users’ other accessibility tools, and how does your product interact with them?
  5. How is your product fostering a disability-friendly society?
  6. Our study

*Throughout this article, we use a mix of person-first language (e.g. person with disability) and identity-first language (e.g. disabled person) in acknowledgement that there are a mix of opinions within the disability community on the pros and cons of each. Read more about this ongoing conversation here.

1. "Are you designing an assistive device? (Are you sure?)"

"I’m not sure if [my watch] was originally designed to help wake up Deaf people....It was probably just an accident…."

Scout (she/her) | 47 | profound hearing loss

This question sounds basic. After all, many assistive devices are purpose-made to help with various disabilities. But what we learned in our study is that “assistive technology” is more nuanced, and expands well beyond purpose-built technology.

Even in the most foundational stages of research and product development, many of us may go into the process with some assumptions about who is using a product or service, why they’re using it, and some idea of the range of use cases that might be relevant to their lives. These assumptions will inform who we recruit for generative research, which jobs we decide need to be done, and what usability tests we conduct down the development line.

However, as an industry, we all need to take a step back from those assumptions—especially when it comes to the disability community. Aside from purpose-designed assistive devices, there are a range of tools and services that may be in a disabled person’s arsenal.

These tools are crucial parts of their lives that assist in navigating a world that otherwise wasn’t built for them. And one of those tools may well be something that you’re designing or researching, whether you know it or not.

It’s important, then, to expand the scope of our foundational research to discover everyone who uses our tools and what they need them for.

What we learned by asking it

Headphones are assistive devices

We asked our scouts to provide an inventory of the technology they use on at least a weekly basis. We collected a total of 93 device profiles. What we found was that headphones were one of the most commonly used devices (n=10), after only laptops (n=20) and smartphones (n=19).

Headphones were not only commonly used, but were considered a key assistive device for many in our sample. Some used headphones as a complement to another assistive device, like a hearing aid or cochlear implant: it let them pipe sound directly to their ears from a connected device without disrupting folks around them.

"[My headphones] definitely do help with my hearing loss at times. I cannot take phone calls normally, just like without a mic or anything. I don't listen to my phone up to my ear. It doesn't work for me. My options are usually just having it on speaker so I can hear better. And to be honest, that's not always the most polite thing in public…so having [my wireless earbuds] in my ears, being able to hear, but anyone saying to me directly into my ears is super duper helpful, particularly when there’s background noise and I'm walking around. So I find them really, really essential. "

Scout (she/her) | 21 | moderate hearing loss

It's completely necessary….If I was on [an online] meeting and I didn't have these [headphones], the volume on these speakers would be completely loud. And even then I may not catch everything that the person is saying.”

Scout (she/her) | 41 | moderate hearing loss

Others used headphones as their sole volume amplification device. Some of these scouts used it because they didn’t need or have a prescription for hearing aids. Others couldn’t afford the high price of hearing aids without insurance, and turned to headphones instead.

Our scouts also tended towards a particular type of headphone if they could afford it, which had specific specifications to fit their set of needs:

  • Loud cap volume lets them amplify sound to a large degree without disrupting others
  • Comfortable, over-ear design lets headphones sit comfortably in conjunction with other assistive devices (e.g. hearing aid, cochlear implant)
  • Bluetooth connection lets user roam and have freedom of movement while still getting the information they need
  • Noise cancellation filters out unnecessary background noise, which can be overwhelming or difficult to process; allows scouts to have assistive devices on high sensitivity while still retaining focus

"I've had a hard time. I've asked music stores and places, even the hearing specialist places, if there are headphones that are hearing aid friendly….headsets are a big challenge for me with my hearing aids."

Scout (she/her) | 41 | moderate hearing loss

Of course, many of these would be of universal benefit to all users. However, before doing this study, we thought about wireless connection or noise cancellation as high-end, premium features—but we were wrong. These are accessibility needs as well, and ones that are all the more important for those who need companion devices and may not be able to afford them.

Our scouts knew that these devices weren’t built for them. Comfort on top of hearing aids or implants, glasses, and (in these days) masks was a consistent pain point. Durability was also a concern, since these products weren’t designed to operate at as long of hours as our scouts needed to use them. The price of “luxury” items that are necessities for them was a consistent difficulty.

The bad part about [my] headphones is they’re fragile. The cheaper they are, the more of a bad experience you're going to get. And for me as a deaf person that wears a hearing aid, it's frustrating when you need good quality headphones with a microphone on it, but you don't want to spend a ton of money….If there was only a way that the dollar store could sell high quality headphones with a microphone on it that doesn't cost me an arm and a leg.”

Scout (he/him) | 36 | severe hearing loss

What would these products have looked like if they were catered to these use cases—if the teams designing them had been fully aware that what they were building was an accessibility aid, and not just a premium product?

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2. "Is that feature convenient, or is it inaccessible?"

"[Software company] REALLY needs to work on their sensory accessibility. I don’t need the speakers to turn on all the time. I also don’t need my volume to turn up or down automatically."

Scout (she/her) | 37 | severe hearing loss

Presets, algorithmic guesses, automation…there are many ways that designers try to make the use of a product or service as streamlined and convenient as possible for users.

However, these “conveniences” are only truly convenient if you are spot on with who they are designing for and what they need. Perhaps, these features may come off as intuitive or welcoming for non-disabled customers: it communicates, “We thought about you. We anticipated your needs.”

But if you guess wrong, you risk sending the opposite message. This is the point where features that were meant to be conveniences or delights can end up being roadblocks to use for the disabled community.

For this reason, we as innovators may even want to reconsider the idea of “anticipating needs” on a more fundamental level. The spectrum of ability and needs is so wide and varying that in some ways, trying to predict at all can be exclusionary—especially if you don’t provide any custom options to change the “convenience” you’ve installed.

The challenge, then, is to find a way to balance a prioritization on streamlined design while still leaving enough customizability for everyone to find a way to use your product.

What we learned by asking it

Customizability is king

In our study, we asked scouts to show us examples of what they thought was good design, and examples of what they thought was bad design.

We learned that one of the most annoying things a product can do is making decisions on their behalf.

"I keep the speakers turned off because I can't hear them and just having noise turnout is really annoying. The problem is, a lot of times when I join meetings and go to a turns my speakers back on and [usually] I don't realize that they're back on until I hear a random noise from the laptop…I don’t need the speakers to read, only turn on all the time. I also don’t need my volume to turn up or down automatically.

Scout (she/her) | 37 | severe hearing loss

On the other hand, features that offered extensive customization were lauded as fantastic design, because they allowed users to tailor to their own situation and needs.

For example, scouts described great caption design as captions that were not only able to be toggled on and off, but that had a variety of other customizable features, like size, color, font, and position on the screen.

"You can make [the captions] small or big. I prefer to have them smaller and you’re able to move them around. I noticed that I like to have them at the top because I like to read them and then look down at what’s happening on screen. That's just me, but you can choose wherever you like. It’s really improved so much since the previous design."

Scout (he/him) | 41 | profound hearing loss

A small customization like the position of captions might not make a lot of difference to some, but to some of our scouts it was exactly these kinds of things that make a huge difference. Being able to tailor it to their own needs sets these products apart more than any guess at what their needs are.

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3. "How many users do you need to be designing for?"

"No one is actually independent; we are all actually interdependent. The difference between the needs that many disabled people have and the needs of people who are not labeled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their dependencies normalized."

Ki'tay Davidson

Our mainstream cultural values often include individuality and independence. Those from Western cultures, like the U.S., consider the single person to be the assumed fundamental unit of expression and action. This trickles down into our product design and research, where we tend to design for “the user”—a single individual who will be engaging with your product.

However, it’s important to note the ways in which the assumption of the single user may be flawed, and even have ableist undertones. Many people in the world do not engage in services as individual units. In fact, interdependent relationships exist everywhere.

Members of the disability community often work together with interpreters, aides, or health professionals. But they’re not the only ones who might use tools as a unit: parents and children may use tools together, or elderly people and caregivers, or families accessing a tool as a single unit.

It is worthwhile to expand the aperture beyond the individualistic model of the “user” and consider how to design products and services that will meet the needs of people using tools independently. This is all the more important in our digital world, when we may need to take extra steps to bring together two users working together when they’re not in the same physical location.

What we learned by asking it

Challenges with interpreters

Scouts with profound or severe or profound hearing loss, as well as those who communicate primarily through signing, all told us about various services they use to help communicate with friends and co-workers.

These services include:

  • Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) - Someone provides live captions of a presentation or conversation
  • Video Relay Services (VRS) - Audio is translated into ASL via government-provided interpreters. Non-VRS interpretive services, hired by organizations, are also used at times.

Unfortunately, the current technology available is not well set-up for these collaborations. Video calling in particular created many pain points for our scouts. Working with a sign language interpreter in a video call can be difficult, since the interpreter needs to be visible at all times to the D/deaf user. Some features (e.g. pinning videos, “stage” features) can work, but they’re not without their issues.

“There is one design feature that is infuriating: when I raise my hand to interject a comment, it is the interpreter’s video that is highlighted. I am signing my comments, but because the interpreter is speaking it shows their video, making the members of the meeting think it is actually the interpreter commenting, not me. Every time I have to explain that it is actually [me] speaking, not the interpreter. It is worse with people who are new to the setting. Generally people I work with understand what’s happening, but it is still frustrating that they can’t see me automatically.

Scout (he/him) | 35 | moderate hearing loss

“[In one video conference software] I have to end up trying to find the interpreter. Especially if it's in a big meeting, I've got to search all the different pictures to find where the interpreter is…It also has a ‘stage’ but sometimes you have two interpreters having to go back and forth. After 20 minutes, one disappears and then I've got to play ‘Where's Waldo’ to find where the other person went….it could take me a minute just to find the other interpreter, and I've lost that information.

Scout (he/him) | 61 | profound hearing loss

VRS adds a layer of complexity, since the service is run via a separate app. Many devices currently don’t allow two apps to use the built-in camera simultaneously. This means that D/deaf scouts need to have an entirely separate device running simultaneously just to participate in a basic meeting.

- Scout (she/her) | 42 | severe hearing loss

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4. "What are your users’ other accessibility tools, and how well will your product interact with them?"

"The most challenging aspect of using all this equipment is it has to be plugged in. It has to be synchronously, simultaneously working together as one unit so that I can hear as soon as I sit down and turn on the computer."

Scout (he/him) | 74 | profound hearing loss

When building a product or service, it will always be a key question to understand how it will interact with the rest of a users’ product ecosystem. However, it may be the case that the only “ecosystem” being considered are products in the same category or tools meant to do the same job.

However, it’s important to remember that many people have additional tools that they use for accessibility purposes across many different contexts. That means that any “ecosystem” they may have will also include those tools. Not only that, but interaction with those tools will be a top priority.

What we learned by asking it

Bluetooth barriers

Assistive devices like hearing aids and cochlear implants have many different functions. One use case was picking up, amplifying, and sorting through voices and ambient sounds in physical space. But another key use case for most of our scouts who used such technology was as a direct sound delivery system from other electronic devices, such as laptops, smartphones, and televisions.

In fact, connectivity to an assistive device was a huge consideration when determining which piece of hardware to buy. Unfortunately, most laptops are not capable of pairing directly with assistive devices. This led scouts to use workarounds like the use of premium headphones to amplify sound.

"Since everything is remote now, I wish all laptops and computers would be compatible with all hearing aids. Instead of putting an earphone on, we could just use our hearing aid and be able to communicate and hear people during meetings."

Scout (he/him) | 51 | moderate hearing loss

"[My hearing aids] also double up as headphones for me…they will stream through my phone through Bluetooth which is very, very, very helpful, especially for phone calls. But I can't do the same thing on my laptop...I need to wear headphones… They're uncomfortable and not very functional. That's also why I don't work in public spaces very often, because I can't use headphones. My hearing aids get in the way of that."

Scout (she/her) | 27 | moderate hearing loss

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5. "How is your product contributing to a disability-friendly society?"

"If everyone was taught sign language at an early age, a deaf person would no longer be disadvantaged. If towns were built and planned with physical disabilities in mind and there was no social stigma attached to looking or sounding different, then having a physical impairment would no longer be disabling."

Dr. Nancy Doyle

According to the social model of disability, a disability is not caused by a physical impairment an individual may have. Instead, the real problem is that society isn’t set up to properly accommodate diverse ways of existing in the world. Physical barriers, social stigma, oppressive ideologies and other exclusionary societal strategies are the true disabling factors, rather than someone’s body or mind.

Considering this model when it comes to researching and designing new products or services means expanding our model of “accessible design” beyond “something that an individual with a disability could use.” It means also thinking about the worldviews and messages being communicated to your entire community of users.

After all, we are well aware that the design of products influences the way people use them, and can even influence their wider behavior. With this power comes an opportunity—and a responsibility—to consider what behaviors we are encouraging in our wider user base. That also includes how those behaviors could be impacting the experience of disabled users.

What we learned by asking it

Opt-in is othering

In keeping with the social model of disability, we found that many of our scouts’ primary issue with digital communication was not their technology, but in other users.

Video calling was a particularly difficult space to be in. Many scouts reported having to educate and re-educate their co-workers about their disability and the expected accommodations. Others felt shut out of conversations entirely because of the actions (or lack of actions) taken by others on the call.

"So I have many meetings with people [online]. Sometimes I try to click the captions and it works, sometimes it doesn’t and I won’t know until the meeting starts and someone begins speaking. At that point I have to ask the host if they can change the setting. It’s just a hassle to interrupt and have everybody look at me—it’s a little embarrassing. I’ve tried to have them contact IT before the meeting begins, but that typically doesn’t happen."

Scout (he/him) | 61 | profound hearing loss

“Really, it’s anything I do with most of my colleagues that is the most challenging. None of them know anything about communication with DHH individuals. Some of them always speak at a million miles a minute and it’s so annoying since AI can’t keep up and I can’t understand them. Most people at my company hate turning the camera on as well, even if they are speaking, so I can’t speech read to make sure the CC and the audio is correct.”

Scout (she/her) | 37 | severe hearing loss

Social media also caused difficulties, since content from other users on the platform was not uniformly accessible or intentionally inclusive.

"The hardest tasks involve audio, videos, or other such media with no written documentation or transcripts to review. I have to rewind constantly...Creators should create detailed documentation or transcripts. Don’t assume you can give extra information or tips not on documentation or transcripts, because we may not hear it."

Scout (they/them) | 30 | moderate hearing loss

These are, on their face, user errors. But we also can see how the platforms are allowing and even encouraging of some of these behaviors—however unintentionally. For example, leaving accessibility decisions in the hands of individual users, without incentive to use them, helps engineer an online space that is inconsistent or sometimes hostile for hard of hearing users.

"Captioning content is crucial as so much content is out there on social media, websites, etc. that are not captioned. We have automated captioning technology. So why is it not prevalent in the hardware and software we use? I know it's not perfect yet. I’m okay with not perfect, as it’s better than nothing, but with the actual effort to get better which AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (machine learning) are aspiring to do.”

Scout (he/him) | 41 | profound hearing loss

Although many of our scouts think of these issues as primarily relating to other users, we as product designers cannot deny our responsibility in creating the environments that allow users to act in ignorant or exclusionary ways. We have the opportunity to design environments that encourage—rather than discourage—truly inclusive environments. It’s difficult, but it’s necessary.

The first step on that road? Asking the right questions.

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Our study

This study employed a diary-style survey using dscout Diary, as well as a series of 1:1 interviews conducted using Zoom and the dscout Live tool.

The diary study consisted of five parts:

  1. Background and consent – Telling scouts more about the mission and asking various questions about how they prefer their data to be used.
  2. Your tech space – Scouts tell us about the space where they use technology frequently.
  3. Your devices – Scouts show us all the devices they use on a daily basis.
  4. Great design, bad design – Scouts tell us more about the highs and lows of the technology they use.
  5. Challenges and final thoughts – We ask about particular challenges scouts face as someone who’s D/deaf or hard of hearing, and ask them their final thoughts.

We also conducted a series of 1:1 interviews following up on the findings of the diary study.

Our sample consisted of 23 scouts for the diary study, with nine going on to participate in follow-up interviews.

Hearing loss, like every other disability, encompasses a spectrum of conditions or experiences. Disability experts and advocates remind us, “If you’ve met one person with a disability, you’ve met one person with a disability.” (Lu and Douglis 2022).

Disability is not one-size-fits-all, and individuals who have similar disabilities or conditions can have vastly different lived experiences, needs, and diverse preferences. In order to gain as broad an understanding as possible, we tried to recruit respondents with a range of different types and severities of hearing loss. We also attempted to recruit scouts with varying assistive technologies.

Out of our 23 scouts, seven used American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary mode of communication. Accommodations were made via live interpreter services, as well as translational services for signed diary entries.


We asked scouts to self-sort into different levels of hearing loss while providing understandable explanations for how being in each group is like:

  • Mild hearing loss: Difficulty understanding normal speech, especially with background noises (e.g., Conversations are easier to hear without background noises, such as TV or radio)
  • Moderate hearing loss: Difficulty understanding most normal speech even with no background noises (e.g., Conversations and TV volumes may become louder even when there is no background noise, so they’re easier to hear)
  • Severe hearing loss: Difficulty understanding even loud speech and will not perceive most noises (e.g., Sounds such as airplanes and lawnmowers can be more challenging to hear without amplification or an assistive listening device)
  • Profound hearing loss: Cannot perceive even loud speech and noises (e.g., Louder decibel sounds such as sirens may be perceived as vibrations instead of sound)
  • We also provided an ‘other’ option in case scouts feel like they don’t fall into any of these categories.

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Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.

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