Ethnographic interviews for Accessibility?

Summary: Ethnography, a core UX technique for intercepting user needs and issues, is essential for getting beyond the guidelines-following approach to Accessibility. Even accessibility testing, while essential, will not help you understand the underlying needs and context of information access for people with disabilities. This makes Field Studies vital for quality and equity goals. 

Ethnography is the Greek word for ‘culture-study’. Originally an Anthropology technique, it is widely used in corporate research to uncover hidden user needs. Field studies provide teams with evidence-based insights and context of use understanding. 

First, Accessibility testing is crucial so you can watch users with disabilities use your design with their Assistive Technology (eg screen reader). However, to understand the tasks you are making simple and accessible, you need an ethnographic interview first. 

Next, accessibility is typically handled by developers in many organizations. Developers do not typically get involved with user research; few are trained in User Research or Ethnographic Field Study techniques. Even UX experts often have low accessibility know-how, so working with users with disabilities is unfamiliar or uncomfortable ground. That’s why UX teams must embrace Inclusive Design

Why are Ethnographic interviews for accessibility valuable?

Ethnographic Field Studies in UX uncover issues, opportunities, and cultural factors. This includes an understanding of how a user with one of the 5 disability types needs to access your content best. 

Is it better to offer information:

  • As sound
  • In print format
  • As braille
  • Larger text
  • Captioned
  • Transcript
  • A visual
  • Text based format
  • Something else?

Field studies look at Assistive Technology in the context of user tasks, workflow triggers, needs, values, technical limitations, and practical approaches for an improved experience. 

Often, we assume that users with disabilities just need to access content— not whether the content is even relevant or in a format that is suitable to that disability type. 

For example, here are some things mobility-impaired, blind, and low-vision users have told us that otherwise were not apparent without an ethnographic interview:

  • The excessive motion in this video makes it look like a scene out of a horror movie (400% magnification). 
  • Blind employees or colleagues do not need a PowerPoint of your training or message– it might be better delivered as an audiobook. “A PowerPoint presentation’s visual bias is irrelevant to me”- blind user.
  • The content in the table is too complex to be read aloud (by a screen reader). A different format is required. 
  • Swipe targets are too faint and easily missed. 
  • Thin fonts (popular these days) are difficult to read.
  • Browser tools to increase font size add more effort (adjustment needed on each page). 
  • Interviewer: “How about the red icon next to that symbol?”; User: “I don’t see what you are talking about; I am color blind”. 

Improving the quality and equity of your accessibility

Striving to enhance both quality and equity in accessibility is a fundamental commitment that embraces inclusivity and progress. By focusing on improving the quality of our accessibility efforts, we create more than accommodating experiences but empowering ones. Addressing equity in accessibility not only breaks down access barriers but amplifies the power of access to people with disabilities. In short, just because a user uses Assistive Technology to visit your site or app does not mean they should have a second-rate experience. 


Just because your content is accessible to a screen reader (ALT tagging an image) does not mean it is sensible or easily understood by a user using a screen reader or magnifying it to 300%, for example. The “horror movie” imagery of a 400% magnified fast-moving video is a favorite example. Slowing the video down would probably improve the experience for all users (since it was decorative) but would also allow it to be meaningful.

An image description tag (ALT tag) that also described the significance of an image taking up half a page would provide access plus meaning, offering a better quality and more equitable experience. 


Conduct Ethnographic interviews as part of your accessibility efforts so you can go beyond a guidelines-only mentality and instead can dig deeper into the accessibility user experience that offers users a more empowering accessibility experience. Focus on the goals of quality and equity and find ways to make your access efforts better for people with disabilities. 

Want to learn more? Check out our Accessibility course.

Also, see this FREE 30 minute webinar: Accessibility testing: How to correctly evaluate Section 508

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