Workplace Accommodations R&D Digest - July/Sept 2006

Volume 4, Number 3


This e-newsletter from the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Workplace Accommodations is an update on our research, project activities, and resources of interest. The Work RERC is a NIDRR-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center that identifies, develops and promotes new assistive and universally designed technologies that maximize independence and participation of people with disabilities in the workplace. More information about the Work RERC can be found at our website,


A common question among advocates of Universal Design is how to encourage designers to consider the needs of varied users, and how to help them understand these needs. One tool that is occasionally used is personas. Personas are fictional but representative characters based on the behaviors, attitudes, and goals of target consumers and/or end users. Names, personalities, backgrounds, families, and images are often key components of these profiles. They are not intended to be an average of all users, but rather individual characters that embody key characteristics of a specific target group. They were originally introduced in the software industry but quickly crossed over into other disciplines including product design.

Recently, Karen Williams, a graduate research assistant with the Work RERC, completed her Masters thesis research on personas in the design process and their impact on the understanding of user needs and desires. Her research focused on the use of personas and how they enable members of a design team to: gain a better understanding of the needs of the target market; enhance communication; humanize statistics; and, facilitate an emotional connection with the user.

First, to learn about the current use of personas, Ms. Williams conducted 17 semi-structured interviews with industrial designers, interaction designers, user researchers, and project managers. While most of these interviews validated the benefits associated with personas (enhanced project focus, increased understanding of the user, enhanced stakeholder communication), respondents also identified frustrations with the tool. One of the primary concerns voiced by participants was the idea of oversimplifying the data collected during user research when creating a persona. For instance, a team might use the information from 10 people to create a single persona character. In combining this information, many of the idiosyncratic details of the individual research participants are lost, which many designers felt were important to know in order to create a successful design. One of the strategies researchers use to counteract this problem is to link the details of the persona to a database of user characteristics obtained during the studies and video interviews. This makes the persona seem more realistic and gives designers the opportunity to learn more about the actual people that the persona was based on.

Next, Ms. Williams examined the creation and use of personas in projects developed by industrial design undergraduate students, particularly those projects incorporating the principles of universal design and accessibility for persons with disabilities.. Methods for this student project included interviews with student groups and instructors, a review of project presentations and final deliverables, and a pre/post test to measure increased learning with regard to disability.

Instructor emphasis on the use of personas throughout the project and the time that student groups were given to create their personas had a significant impact on the amount that the tool was used and the overall perception of its benefits. This research method has applications in industry where the project manager’s enthusiasm about the use of personas may have a direct impact upon the team’s effective utilization of the tool. Additionally, this study shows that it is important to consider how much time teams have to create personas – if time is quite limited, the personas ultimately may not be used. Not all student groups used their personas after they created them. However, they did seem to benefit from the creation exercise. It provided an opportunity for students to identify their target user and focus their design efforts on the needs of that market. Students who used personas with disability characteristics showed an increased understanding of the general needs of users with disabilities and reflected these concerns in their designs. It is difficult, however, to determine how much of this impact was due to the personas themselves or to instructor guidance.

Karen Williams has been a graduate student at CATEA since 2003. She graduated with a Master of Industrial Design degree from Georgia Tech in August, 2006.


In October, the RERC on Workplace Accommodations and Southeast DBTAC are presenting a two-part web course on “Telework and Effective Accommodations.” The web course sessions are:

Session 1 – October 12, 2006; Noon – 1:15 EDT
Course #ARCH-1002P: Teleworking as a Reasonable Accommodation for Employees with Significant Disabilities

Session 2 – October 19, 2006; Noon – 1:15 EDT
Course #ARCH-1003P: Workplace Accommodations for Teleworkers with Disabilities

These web casts will use case studies to discuss telework (telecommuting) as a reasonable accommodation and the types of workplace accommodations used by teleworkers with disabilities. Session topics will include the pros and cons of teleworking, productive teleworking, and reasonable accommodations for teleworking.

CEUs (accepted by RESNA) and CRCC credits are available upon course completion. There is a registration fee of $30 for one or $50 for both sessions. Register at: (Search for “Telework”) For questions regarding registration, contact: Georgia Tech Professional Education at 404-385-3500.


For more information or to participate in any of these focus groups, contact Dory Sabata at 1-800-726-9119 (voice TTY) or


For more information on Work RERC staff presentations, go to the Events page on our web site:



The Work RERC has an on-line, e-mail discussion group on workplace accommodations, policy issues regarding employees with disabilities, and accessible design, called The discussion group serves as a forum to ask our staff questions about specific issues and share resources. In addition, periodically we will moderate discussions on various topics related to workplace policy or accommodation services. To join the group, send a blank e-mail to with "subscribe workaccommodations" in the SUBJECT line.



If you have questions about AT or other issues related to job accommodations, please contact the Work RERC staff at 1-800-726-9119 (voice/TTY) or by e-mail at

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