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Spotify for the Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing: Accessibility in UX

It's far from impossible to make audio streaming accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing.


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Avery Colyer

3 years ago | 3 min read

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

Spotify for the deaf and hard-of-hearing may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s quite the opposite. Not only are there ways to make audio streaming platforms more accessible for the hard-of-hearing, but deaf people can actually feel the vibrations of sounds in music in a similar way to how other people hear music.

Dr. Dean Shibata, an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Washington, stated in regards to his research on the matter, “…the experience deaf people have when ‘feeling’ music is similar to the experience other people have when hearing music.

The perception of the musical vibrations by the deaf is likely every bit as real as the equivalent sounds, since they are ultimately processed in the same part of the brain.”

You can read the full article by Walter Neary about his findings on the University of Washington News site here.

In researching deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s relationship with sound, my colleague who is an American Sign Language (ASL) student at the University of Virginia, Stephanie Morton, and I asked ourselves:

How can Spotify be accessible for a deaf and hard-of-hearing audience?

We identified four main areas of Spotify’s user experience that are barriers to those who are hard-of-hearing:

  1. Adjusting the equalizer requires scrolling deep into the settings.
  2. Lyrics are only available on select songs.
  3. Podcasts and news episodes do not have closed captions.
  4. Many personalized features on Spotify are not suited to a hard-of-hearing person.

In order to break down these barriers for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to enjoy Spotify like everyone else, we designed solutions:

Easy Access to Equalizer Settings

Instead of having to scroll through the settings to adjust the equalizer for audio, there would be an equalizer button on the top right corner to easily access the adjuster.

As well as manual adjustments, we designed a hard-of-hearing button one can click to automatically optimize audio for the most vibrations. This way, deaf and hard-of-hearing users can easily and quickly optimize music to make it easier to feel.

For example, strong, deep sounds such as drums and bass guitar are the easiest for a hard-of-hearing individual to feel. You can read more about music for the deaf here.

Visual Beat

These dancing, graphic equalizer levels serve as a visual aid to the adjusted music for vibration. The ability to see the beat and how the music is moving would allow hard-of-hearing users to strengthen their grasp of what the music sounds like in conjunction with how it feels.

Pop-Up Lyrics & Captions

Spotify currently only displays Genius lyrics for select songs. In order to optimize for hard-of-hearing users, we added a recognizable closed captions button next to the ‘like’ button that would toggle karaoke-style words to cover the album cover.

This is especially important in the case of an audio-streaming platform, because there are no visible lips to potentially read.

The button’s close proximity to an already commonly-used button and the lyrics popping up where other Spotify pop-ups already reside makes this design update easily adoptable by the user.

Also, the karaoke-style of the lyrics and captions allow a hard-of-hearing user to follow along more accurately, and know the exact cadence of the lyrics in order to aid in perceiving the beat and possibly singing/humming along.

Words convey meaning, emotion, and more in music, news, and podcasts. The ability to read the accompanying words from audio is essential to fairly conveying the message to hard-of-hearing users.

Specialized Playlists

In addition to Spotify’s public, curated playlists, all users get an array of customized playlists, such as Discover Weekly and Release Radar, which update every week with new tracks catered to the user’s tastes.

Therefore, in order to partake in the complete Spotify experience, we developed two examples for curated playlists a hard-of-hearing user would see on their account.

The first, “Deaf and HH Picks”, would be a weekly updated playlist of songs that are easiest to “hear” via vibrations and suited to the user’s taste. The second, “Transcripted News/Podcasts”, would be a public Spotify playlist full of the best news segments and podcasts to read along to.

Including hard-of-hearing users in Spotify’s audio curation features would make it easier for deaf and hard-of-hearing users to discover music, news, and podcasts to listen to and use the great features of the application just like any other user.

The Hopes for a Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Inclusive Spotify Experience

In designing Spotify to be inclusive of the hard-of-hearing folks out there, audio streaming would be an entirely different experience, even for those who can hear.

A deaf and hard-of-hearing inclusive Spotify platform communicates the experience in a way that appeals to the other senses besides the ear. It is inclusive of both people and sensations.

Additionally, deaf and hard-of-hearing Spotify users could then be included in discourse surrounding music, news segments, and podcasts that they otherwise would not have been able to experience in this way.

This would add many more people’s perspectives to discussions surrounding such important pieces of culture.

You can view this article on Medium here and connect with me here!

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Avery Colyer

A creative marketer, UX designer, and minimalist. Connect with me @averycolyer on all platforms.


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