How to Present an Experience Lab

Note: This page provides details about the interactive teaching lab conducted at the Trace Center, which may be replicated in its entirety or in part.  

Banner image which has the Trace logo and reads the words, "Experience the Difference design can make."


Introduction (5 min.)

Rotation through 8 pairs of activity stations (25-30 minutes, accommodating 15-16 participants)

At each station, participants are given a functional limitation and then asked to perform a simple task using an everyday device or non-technology item. In the first station of the pair, the task is difficult or impossible to complete. In the second station, the limitation and task are the same, but something about the design of the item or device is different. In the second activity, the participant should be able to succeed. A design lesson is provided to explain what was different and why that matters. Each station takes 1.5 to 2 minutes to complete.

Read more about individual activities (below).

Lecture and group activities (25-30 minutes)

  • "Disability as a Function of Age" (presentation with activity to show the increased prevalence of disability as a generation ages)
  • Screen reader demonstration (slides with audio)
  • Unfair hearing test (activity using audio)
  • Keyboard landmarks activity (using slides, individual flip books)
  • TV control exercise (handout)
  • Design lessons Q&A (handout)

Read more about group activities (below).

Additional Resources

Jordan, J.B., & Vanderheiden, G.C. (2010). Accessibility Experience Lab: Discovering the Impact of Design on Disabilities. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 54th Annual Meeting.

Individual Activities

Each activity is categorized as relating to either vision, hearing, physical, or cognitive/language/learning disability. We stress, however, that these activities are ​not simulations of disability​. Instead, as the banner in our lab indicates, participants will "experience the difference design can make." 

Vision Activities

Reading the Small Print - Photograph of Experience Lab students using goggles to try to read small print and colored text.The participant wears goggles with film and Styrofoam inserts to allow only blurred "tunnel" vision. The task is to read the print on a charger "brick." In the first activity of this pair, the print on the charger is very small and black on black. In the second activity, the print is a bit larger and is white on black. Magnifiers are provided.

​Design Lessons:

  1. ​Critical information for the user to read should be made available in the largest font possible, with lettering in good contrast to the background;
  2. ​Good lighting is also critical to being able to read smaller print, so place the information in a position or situation where good lighting is provided or possible;
  3. ​If the above are not possible, provide an alternative way to obtain the information.

Operating a Device Without Vision​ - The participant must reach into a dark-colored pillowcase to handle a small, unknown device. The task is to count the buttons on the device inside the pillowcase. In the first activity of this pair, the device is an old pager with buttons that are flush with the casing and have no discernable features. In the second activity, the device is an armband radio with raised rubber buttons.

Design Lesson:  ​Buttons should be raised or rubberized, so that they have a different traction than the surface. This facilitates use by individuals who are blind or have low vision, as well as people who are driving or anyone whose eyes are busy or who are in a dark environment.

​Viewing Color Text with Limited Color Vision​ - The participant wears goggles with green film inserts to approximate protanopia. The task is to view printed web pages (mounted on foam core) and locate specified information. In the first page, the information is shown in red or green and is not discernable. In the second, the information is in yellow on a dark blue background and is easily seen.

​Design Lessons:  Note that approximately 20% of males have some sort of color vision deficiency. This does not mean you should avoid using color. Color is a very important and powerful tool for displaying information. However,

  1. ​When using two colors next to each other, be sure that one is light and the other is dark, so that the two will not blend together for someone who is color blind;
  2. When coding information with color, be sure that there is another type of coding accompanying it. For example, negative figures can be red and also shown in parentheses.

​Physical Activities

Laptop Opening (Need for Simultaneous Actions) - Experience lab students attempting to open laptop latches with thick gloves.The participant must use only one hand for this activity and must wear a specially-adapted work glove on that hand. The task is to open a laptop computer using only the gloved hand. In the first activity, the laptop has two latches that must be operated simultaneously to open the computer. In the second activity there is only one latch.

​Design Lessons:  Any time an action requires the simultaneous operation of two latches, two keys, etc., it is difficult or impossible for people using mouthsticks, headsticks, or even a single hand to use the product. This can also include someone holding a bag or baby, or someone with only one useable arm.

  1. ​Eliminate the need for simultaneous operation of two controls, or
  2. ​Provide an alternative means of operation that does not require simultaneous actions.

One-Handed Keyboard Use​ - Experience Lab students attempting to use accessibility features on Windows laptops with the use of a mouthstick.The participant must use a mouthstick (holding it beside the mouth rather than between the teeth). The task is to type an email address on a computer keyboard. In the first activity the computer does not have StickyKeys enabled (best if it has been removed from the system; at Trace we use a pre-Windows 95 system). In the second activity, the computer has StickyKeys turned on.

​Design Lessons:

  1. ​Do not require simultaneous actions (e.g., holding down one or two keys while pressing another); or
  2. ​Povide an alternative mode or method for carrying out actions that normally require simultaneous actions (e.g., StickyKeys).

​Using a Touch Screen​ - Image of  student using a tablet computer.  The participant must use a mouthstick (holding it beside the mouth rather than between the teeth). The task is to type a phone number on a touch screen with the mouthstick. (If a keyboard is present, it may not be used.)  In the first task, a capacitive touchscreen is used (e.g., an iPhone or iPad). In the second activity, a resistive touchscreen is used (harder to find; we use an Android tablet or Kindle Fire).

Design Lesson: Devices which require contact with the human body can be very difficult or impossible to use for those who rely on prosthetic hands, headsticks, or splints. Therefore, touch controls should operate by pressure, not heat or electrical contact with the body. (This also makes the device easier to use for those wearing gloves.)

​Opening and Closing Ziplock Bags​ - Image of a student wearing arm splints trying to close a freezer bag.The participant must wear splints that immobilize their wrists and fingers. The task is to open a large ziplock bag. In the first activity the bag must be pressed to seal and pulled apart to unseal. In the second activity, the bag has a plastic knob used as a zipper.

​Design Lesson:  Not everyone has the ability to pinch and grasp. Individuals wearing splints with arthritis, for example, may not have individual finger movement. Devices and packaging which can be operated without requiring the user to be able to use fine movement or pinching are more useable by everyone - particularly people who are older or have problems with fine motor control in their hands.

Turning Pages​ - Photograph of a student attempting to open a bound book with a mouthstick.The participant must use a mouthstick (holding it beside the mouth rather than between the teeth). The task is to turn pages to look through a book. A sheet of Dycem is provided to keep the book from sliding around. In the first activity, the book is a regular paperback. In the second, the book is a similarly-sized spiral-bound book.

Design Lessons:  Not everyone has two hands to hold a book, turn pages, or manipulate other objectives.

  1. ​Make documentation that can be easily handled and operated with one hand; and
  2. ​Don't assume that users have all fingers or manual dexterity (for example, they may be using a headstick or a hand which is like a fist because of arthritis).

Group Activities

​Hearing Activities

​Unfair Hearing Test​ - A recording is played, and participants are asked to listen carefully and write down the ten words as they are spoken. The recording has been specially made to remove the high frequencies, making the words much more difficult to discern, no matter how high the volume. (This approximates the type of hearing loss that often occurs as we age.) During the 8th word, the instructor noisily crumples paper or makes other extraneous noise. A second recording is then played, and participants are able to correct their answers from the first recording. The instructor asks for a show of hands of those who only missed one, two, three, etc. The instructor asks who got it right. 

​Design Lessons:

  1. ​Remove extraneous noise to improve the ability of users to hear auditorally; or
  2. ​Provide an alternative mode for obtaining the information presented in the audio.

Cognitive / Language / Learning Activities

​TV Control Exercise​ - Participants are given a handout with three different drawings of unlabeled TV control panels. The task is to draw a line from each label to the control you think it matches. Participants are invited to share answers with a partner. Discuss why the final set seems easier to identify than the others.

​Design Lessons:

  1. ​Make buttons look like what they do; and
  2. ​Put controls near what they control.

​Keyboard Exercises​ - Participants are given a spiral-bound flip book with drawings of keyboard layouts. As the instructor shows slides of each layout with one of the keys marked in red, the task is to quickly put a finger on the same key on the flipbook keyboard layout. With their finger remaining pointed at the specified key on the page, the participant is instructed to look up. The instructor quizzes participants on their level of confidence that they have pointed to the correct key.  Participants are invited to suggest why some layouts were easier, more efficient, and less error-prone.

​Design Lesson:  Landmarks make it easier to locate keys and controls. This helps everyone, but is particularly important for people who have visual difficulties or mild cognitive difficulties.

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College of Information Studies, University of Maryland
Room 2117 Hornbake Bldg, South Wing
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College Park, MD 20742
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Trace Center