Developing Accessible User Stories

Published November 22, 2021

A well-developed user story can serve as a powerful tool in the design and development of user-oriented features. As such, they can also be used to help ensure accessibility is considered and accounted for throughout the production process.

Though a user story could be used to guide the creation of any user-oriented product, service, or experience, they are frequently used in the development of software, websites, and other digital products, so they are especially applicable when considering digital accessibility. They can come in many forms, but a user story is essentially a simple description of a user, their motivation, and their goal in using the tool or service being provided.

Why user stories are important

In addition to serving as a framework for identifying requirements and essential features, user stories can provide several benefits to both end-users and the teams that are creating products on their behalf.

User stories clarify goals, purpose, and audience, which can help prevent losing sight of these things throughout the design and development process. They provide a means of looking at problems and solutions from the perspective of a user, which can help keep the focus on users and reduce the risk of making design and development decisions based on one’s own bias.

User stories facilitate communication across teams. Since they tend to be written in plain language they can be more easily and equally understood by members of a team who have different areas of expertise and, therefore, differing levels of fluency in each other’s technical jargon.

Making use of user stories can also help organize an iterative production flow. User stories can help reveal strengths and weaknesses and, as a product evolves, the stories can evolve with it so that there is always a framework for making improvements.

What makes a good user story?

The best user stories will be crafted in a way that is most applicable for the context and environment they’ll be used in, but there are a few characteristics that are crucial to the creation of any strong user story.

Specific and clear

A user story should address the specific goal and motivation of a specific type of user, ideally represented by a persona. Personas are symbolic user profiles created to reflect the groups of users that make up an audience. Keeping user stories specific and clear will help pinpoint what features are required to help a user achieve an objective and, in turn, illuminate what sort of accessibility features can eliminate barriers to achieving that objective.

Realistic and testable

Every website, tool, or service has its limitations, so user stories should take that into consideration and focus on goals that are realistically achievable. Additionally, user stories should present scenarios that can be tested against, which will help facilitate both user testing and quality assurance testing further down the pipeline.

Approaches to making user stories more accessible

Addressing accessibility when writing user stories will make them and the resulting project much stronger. Whether it’s during the planning phases for a new project or to improve an existing one, incorporating accessibility into user stories as a permanent practice is a worthwhile effort.

Research

Start with doing comprehensive research to ensure that user stories are not based on personal assumptions and opinions. Doing competitive analysis can provide some insight into areas where competitors are strong and where they’re lacking, which can help in the creation of scenarios to test against.

User research is the best way to get reliable insight into user needs, so if you already have an audience or user base, get their feedback. You can also recruit people in the case of a site or product that hasn’t launched yet. In either case, aim to get feedback and insight from as diverse a range of people as possible within your target audience, and make sure people with accessibility needs are included.

Strong personas

Use the results of this research to inform the creation of a few strong personas that will be able to represent the majority of existing or prospective users. Though they will not be real people, they should feel realistic. Create a robust enough profile to describe their identity and background, and make them unique. They should be diverse, and people with disabilities should be represented to ensure that their needs are considered when crafting user stories.

Creating the stories

Once research and personas have been prepared, broadly mapping out potential goals and challenges can provide an outline for creating specific user stories.

As touched on earlier, a persona-driven user story will usually state the goal and motivation of that persona. For example, a person with low vision who sometimes uses a screen reader wants to buy a limited item that will only be sold during a certain window of time so they can complete a collection. That specific user story clarifies a number of requirements to test against:

  • Will the user know when the sale of the item begins without having to rely on visual cues?
  • Will the user know how long they have to purchase the item without having to rely on visual cues?
  • Can the user complete the purchase while only using their keyboard for navigation?
  • Is there sufficient contrast to discern between elements throughout the interface?
  • Can the user complete the purchase using a screen reader?

Once all requirements have been compiled, the implementation of accessible features can be planned, and resources such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines can be referenced to ensure that success criteria are met.

As this example illustrates, just a single accessible user story can help reveal potential barriers to equal access, providing the opportunity to prevent and correct accessibility issues throughout the design and development process.

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