Accessible User Experience Design For People With Chronic Illness

This interview about User Experience Design was conducted by Astriid volunteer Ellie Mason

User Experience Design (UX Design) is where a team designs a technological product with the human user specifically in mind. The aim is to understand the user, to make the product accessible and desirable, and to promote brand perception and overall performance.

Astriid’s goal is to connect people with long-term conditions with fulfilling careers. One way this can be done is through well-designed, accessible technology.

Hennie Peel is a User Experience product designer for a home healthcare platform. Here, she chats with Astriid volunteer Ellie Mason about her role, and how UX design can help those with additional healthcare needs.

What is your role as a UX designer?

I started out as a graphic designer and one thing that I found frustrating about it was the subjectivity. I’d communicate something based on what I thought people needed to see or learn, then put it out into the world and never hear from it again. I’d never know if it had worked or helped anyone. Then I discovered the world of UX and realised that I was really passionate about solving problems for people. UX is about listening without bias and using creative skills to find a solution that helps users achieve what they want.

With regards to my role, I currently do everything from the research through to designing the product and testing it. Then I work with developers to get it built.

Do you draw on your own life experiences when you design a product for a user?

Yes, I do, in lots of different ways. It works the other way around too; my work is teaching me to be a more empathetic person. It’s very interesting interviewing people whilst putting your own preconceptions aside and that filters through into my life. It’s how I want to be as a person; open to understanding other people’s point of view and comprehending what people need.

I’ve also learned a lot about accessibility. I am deaf in one ear and a lot of designers talk about accessibility and how it needs to be baked in from the core. But with my ear, we’re not looking at someone who’s fully Deaf. There’s much more to it. I can still hear fairly well, which means a lot of things for fully Deaf people are not useful for me. An example is wireless earphones. Modern hearing aids have Bluetooth connection so that you can connect your phone to your hearing aid, but I only have one. There’s no current technology that will connect two Bluetooth devices together. I can’t push an earphone in my left ear and a hearing aid in my right and hear the music from my phone through both devices. I think that’s a good example of how you can’t assume that people fit under one category for accessibility when you’re designing for them.

Do you find the design process to be an opportunity to learn about more diverse groups? At what stage do you factor in accessibility?

Yes, you must be someone who’s willing to learn. With accessibility I [often] talk about building the foundation of a house. If you build a foundation wrong, anything you do on top is going to fall apart. Considering accessibility and including it into to your process wherever you are and whatever you’re doing can be a really helpful way to ensure that you’re designing the best product possible from the start.

Is the UX Design industry accommodating for workers with chronic or long-term illnesses?

As a whole, I don’t believe any industry does enough. I think I found a company that is doing its best and I’m really grateful for that. I can’t speak as someone with a chronic condition that is impactful enough to affect my employment, but I have PMDD (Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder) and still have moments where I don’t know whether to share. This is the first company I’ve been in where I’ve been able to admit that that is something that I struggle with and I [am able to] explain to my close colleagues why it’s important. I still don’t know if I would have felt fully comfortable sharing that in my interview process though. I think unless you get to know a company, it’s difficult to tell whether bias will impact the hiring process.

In my experience in design, there is a certain amount of understanding. The other designers I work with have a built-in empathy. I think it’s one of the key things about being a good designer. Wealso have flexible hours, which helps me navigate the challenges of my PMDD. Again, not the same for all designers, but certainly in my company; I work on projects with a team of 6 and as long as we’re aligned and I update them if I’m not doing okay, it works. It’s the kind of flexibility that’s really valuable, because you work out the capacity of everyone on your team and you do the best work you can within that.

Do you think the UX field would benefit from having a more diverse workforce, including those with long-term conditions? How would it help?

Yes. I strongly believe that would benefit everyone in many ways. Firstly, more empathy for users. A diverse set of people will inevitably design a better product. If designers can represent the kind of diversity you’re seeing in users, then that’s always a good thing for the design. I think it’s beneficial for company culture too, especially because different life experiences make up different people who add a different value to the environment.

I also believe in creating safe spaces at work due to my experience with PMDD and mental health challenges. Through affinity groups at work and the people I’ve met in them, I’m now used to making space for other people, advocating for a better culture, or standing up for people who don’t get advocated for generally. I think spaces that encourage that mindset are a really valuable asset to a company.

And finally, how do you think UX design in technology can help those with chronic illnesses?

There are so many interesting avenues for technology to support healthcare. Everything from apps that help children through tough experiences in hospital, to tech that helps visually impaired people to navigate challenging environments. If all of these products continue to design with real empathy for the users to understand their experiences, then I believe it can have a huge impact.


Written by Astriid volunteer Ellie Mason

Here at Astriid, we match talented people with long-term conditions with meaningful work. We also help employers to diversify their workforce and harness the skills of our Invisible Talent Pool. To find out more and sign up as a candidate or employer, visit our website!