This extended abstract is a contribution to the Accessible E-Learning Online Symposium of 16 December 2013. The contents of this paper was not developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and does not necessarily represent the consensus view of its membership.

Personas design method to represent visually impaired students in an e-learning university: a case study

1. Problem Description

Most of the difficulties that visually impaired students at the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, UOC), and e-learning university, encounter when they interact with the e-learning environment arise from the lack of awareness of what means and involves having visual impairment and the lack of knowledge about universal design solutions [1] by web developers, designers and teachers [2]. In response to this, here two Personas [3] representing the UOC visually impaired students are presented aimed at UOC developers, designers and teachers to gain insight into knowing the characteristics of these students. These two Personas, one for a student using a screen magnifier (software that enlarges the screen content), and the other for a student using a screen reader (software that “reads” what is displayed on the screen), describe UOC visually impaired students carrying out e-learning studies, the tools they use, the problems encountered, and how they solve them.

2. Background

The Personas presented here are based on a previous study in which contextual interviews and observations [4] were conducted at the home of 17 visually impaired students in order to discover their difficulties when carrying out their e-learning studies [2]. As mentioned before, one of the main difficulties encountered in these interviews were the lack of awareness regarding accessibility and the reality of visually impaired students by UOC web developers, designers and teachers.

3. Strategy

Personas is an User-Centered Design methodology [5], and are made up of archetypes that express the behaviors, goals and difficulties of a particular user Group [3]. Thus, this method is useful to approach a reality, so that it is easier to imagine, think and take into account this reality [3, 6]. However, little work has been found on which Personas method are used to describe non-mainstream users, such as those people with visual impairments [7, 8, 9].

4. Major Difficulties

Convert the information gathered on the interviews into brief descriptions of two Personas is an exercise of synthesis that requires several reviews and versions in order to find the most proper description of the main characteristics of the users interviewed.

5. Outcomes

Below are the two Personas, one for a student using a screen magnifier and the other for a student using a screen reader:

Persona 1: Carles, a screen magnifier user
  • Carles is 35 years old. Married with a son
  • he sells ONCE (Spain’s national organisation for the blind) lottery products for a living.
  • He studies Psychology at the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, UOC).

He tries to devote a few hours to the UOC every day. His computer is equipped with a screen magnifier that enlarges everything it displays, thus enabling him to browse the internet and use the Virtual Campus. Additionally, his screen colors are inverted (i.e. white text on a black background) as he suffers mild photophobia. When working with the subject content, he alternates between the PDF (Portable Document Format) files, (which he uses his magnifier to read) and the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) audio files posted in classrooms. On the one hand, he does so because he finds sitting in front of the computer reading for a long time without a break very tiring, and the audio files allow him to make headway with the content. On the other hand, the audio files also enable him to take advantage of the time he spends travelling to work. However, he has sometimes problems with the accessibility of subject content. For example, the quality of some of the PDF file images (illustrations of the anatomy of the brain, for instance) is very poor, meaning that he struggles to make them out even when enlarged and has to ask his wife to describe them to him. Furthermore, it has also been the case that the corresponding audio files have not been available in classrooms thus leaving him no option but to read the content via his screen, despite being unable to spend as much time doing that as he would like.

Persona 2: Anna, a screen reader user
  • Anna is 25 years old and lives with her parents.
  • She is a part-time receptionist in a local authority building in Terrassa.
  • She has begun studying humanities this year at the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, UOC).

Anna uses her screen reader to browse the Internet, access the Virtual Campus and read subject content. When reading content in a PDF (Portable Document Format) file, she usually makes a summary by copying sections into a Word document, which she then uses to do the evaluation activities. The computer she uses at work has also a screen reader, so she takes advantage of quiet spells to prepare forum messages. Sometimes, however, she comes across inaccessible PDF files, which she herself has to convert to Word documents by means of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to be able to read them. If there are any shortcomings in terms of page layout though, the files do not convert properly, in which case she has to ask her parents to read the content aloud and record it so she can listen to it later. When that happens, despite the fact that she would like to be able to participate more in forums, she opts not to, because she feels at a disadvantage in relation to the other students, as they will have been able to read the content straight away while it takes her a long time to access and read it. On one occasion, she was presented with an evaluation activity that involved watching and commenting on a video. She asked the tutor if she could carry out a different type of activity, but a lack of time meant that the tutor was unable to prepare an alternative. As a result, she was unable to take the evaluation activities.

6. Open Research Avenues

The information provided from a Persona can be used as a first step to reach awareness and to value the importance of accessibility, and consequently, be the start to providing accessible solutions. This knowledge is necessary within an institution where several departments are responsible for providing services to students when some of them can be visually impaired. The UOC has started to hand out these two Persona internally, with the expectation to gather feedback on the acceptation and value of these two Personas from the different departments. Similar research should be carried out with students having other disabilities.


We thank eduWAI project: Platform for the creation of educational contents and job placement for disabled people, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce, Programa Avanza I+D (AETSI Avanza I+D 2009) TSI-020312-2009-27; and UNIDISCAT grant: Transcript of mathematical formulas: text, audio and braille, funded by Agency for University and Research Grants (AGAUR, Generalitat of Catalonia), Dossier number 11.


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