Improving the in-theater experience for moderate-to-severe visually impaired* moviegoers.


Imagine listening to the iconic Rocky theme song but not associating it with Sylvester Stallone’s training montage. Audio and video work together to create an immersive cinematic experience. When one piece is missing, you risk degrading the integrity of the whole movie. Unfortunately, this is the reality for people with moderate to severe visual impairments.

In January 2017 a law was enacted that forces movie theaters to provide video description. However, the technology required is the bare minimum. In an age when IMAX, Real 3D, CGI, VFX and other new technologies in movie theaters are prospering, and theaters are focusing on providing experiences beyond the movie itself (such as dine-in and bar services) users with visual impairments are often being forgotten.


  • The challenge of finding movies with video description discourages users from attending movies in-theatres
  • The process of acquiring, using and returning video assistive devices is time consuming, intrusive and results in a negative experience for the user.
  • Improving the user experience of moviegoers with visual impairments will improve overall movie theater ticket sales.

* For the purposes of our research we define the visually impaired  as those users who have moderate to severe visual impairment (Snellen visual acuity:  20/70 to 20/400 range)1 , possibly extending to profoundly visually impaired users that fall  into the 20/500 - 20/1000 range. More precisely, this user group is defined as  moviegoers or potential moviegoers who prefer to use a descriptive video devices when visiting a  movie theater. 


First, we conducted 3 semi-structured interviews, as well as a physical walkthrough where one of our team members went to a theater and watched a movie using a descriptive video (DV) device. We also conducted literature review and dived into the online blind community by visiting government websites,  existing solutions and user reviews of them, and online message boards such as The following themes emerged:

Renting a DV can be an intrusive experience for the users

Staff is poorly trained on the difference between different assistive devices

ADA requires most movies to be DV compliant, yet that's not always the case

It can be hard to find DV information on theater's websites

Users had to arrive earlier & leave later compared to other patrons

Users arrived to movie therater's only to find no DV devices available

Many DV devices don't function properly even within their designated range

Devices are often dirty, incompatible with personal headsets, or simply don’t work

We then created user Journey​ ​Maps​ to describe the process users go through  while obtaining and using DV devices. Our goal was to see if we could identify any  additional pain points and visualize which parts of the process the users had the  most trouble with.

Following the journey maps, we gathered our notes from all of the above research  and conducted an Affinity​ ​Mapping​ ​Session​ to code our findings and see if any patterns emerged.

The problems below were identified:


We sat down in an informed brainstorming​ session to think of potential  solutions to address these problems. Collectively, we came up with over 60 ideas  ranging from simple and easily implementable to outlandishly complex.   The goal behind this was to tap into our most creative ideas by exhausting as many  options as we could, spanning the entire design space. We then decided to narrow down our scope by breaking down our ideas and design  criteria into a visual representation using a Feasibility​ ​vs.​ ​Impact​ ​Chart​. We wanted a  way where we could maximize the benefits for the user but also keep costs relatively  low for the providers to encourage them to adopt the solution 


The ideas we decided to pursue fell mostly in the ‘big bets’ category. While the ones  under ‘no brainer’ seem to be inexpensive and extremely feasible, we recognize that  those could and should already be implemented easily by the existing parties in the  industry. The ones under ‘big ideas’ could prove to be more disruptive  to the status quo. 

We narrowed down our design ideas to the three following design​ ​alternative ideas: 

Design Idea #1: Smart Kisoks

One the major problems identified had to do with staff training. Theater associates struggle handing out the correct type of assisted device (such as handing out amplification headphones instead of DV devices), as well as with assisting customers setting them up. Why not cut them out of the equation? Our proposed CinemALL Smart Kiosk will take advantage of smartly placed sensors, virtual assistance technology, and traditional vending machine functionality to replace this human-human interaction. By taking advantage of ubiquitous data we can create a seamless experience for our users, basically a kiosk that knows them in any theater they go. Users can opt-in to having their information stored in the database.

Design Idea #2: Mobile App Leveraging Existing Descriptive Devices

Here we aim to leverage the existing infrastructure and technology that theater’s already possess, but experimenting with a new method of communicating with the staff. This app will allow users to request an assistive device in addition to purchasing tickets. When users request a device, an associate will have the appropriate one waiting for them at the theater before they even arrive. This will allow theater staff to easier process which devices they need to have ready, and give them appropriate amount of time to test beforehand.

Design Idea #3: In-theater Audio Streaming App

All of our research uncovered a lot of user pain points surrounding devices, from receiving them to using them to returning them. This arduous process complicates the user’s movie theater experience. So what if we eliminate these expensive, bulky, problem-prone devices?

Our proposed CinemALL In-Theater Audio Streaming App solution aims to eliminate the need for movie theaters to purchase individual devices for users to borrow. This will address several problems that were brought up in our research such as the sanitation concern with shared devices, the RF range issue that makes it so not every seat has the same quality of audio, the need to pick up and carry bulky devices, having to interact with theater associates, and receiving malfunctioning or wrong equipment. Instead it utilizes the user’s own phone and headphones (which according to our research, most visually impaired always have with them for use with other assistive technology such as ATMs and Post Office boxes). This will streamline the movie theater experience for the visually impaired and make it closer to the regular patron experience. This app will work by utilizing the movie theater’s secured wifi to stream the DV. Users will sync the DV file with their movie simply by pressing a button. The app will then listen to the movie and match it to the appropriate part of the file.

Choosing a Design

We decided to move forward with the Design Idea #3, the in-theater audio streaming app, but keeping features from Design Idea #2, as we felt this would make our overall application more robust and flexible. We created a user flow diagram to layout how we invisioned users would navigate our application.



First we had to choose the fidelity of the prototype. We needed the fidelity to be high enough, that users could get feedback from the interactive elements. We also had to constantly keep in mind that we were designing for a special population. This would come to affect eveything from the colors we used, to the font size, and everyting in between.

Choosing Colors & Contrast:

Because our users are visually impaired, we did some preliminary testing to confirm that our colors and contrasts meet widely-accepted guidelines. We used the WebAIM web app to check our contrast ratios. We considered a 4.5:1 contrast ratio as passing based off of the w3 recommendations for accessibility. Red was used because it has the longest wavelength, and provides the least stress on the eye when switching between it and dark contexts. Additionally, we made sure to add patterned backgrounds to all clickable elements to double-encode the information so that users with poor color perception can easily distinguish different elements on the screens. Lastly, we made the text and buttons large to allow for user error when aiming, which might be more common among our users.


Key Design Decisions:
Storyboards Before CinemAll:
Storyboard After CinemAll:



We had to think 'outside-the-box' for some of our user testing. We had users with otherwise normal vision use our prototype while wearing vision impairing glasses.

Expert Testing:
User Testing:
User Flow Feedback:


Takeaways & Lessons Learned

  • When we embarked on this project, we were excited to design for a population we were unfamiliar with. We saw it as a challenge and knew we had to rigorously follow the design process in order to make sure we kept the best interests of these users in mind. However, designing for this population proved to be a challenge on multiple occasions.
  • Design proved difficult and tedious because we had to be meticulous along every step of the way that our system met accessibility standards for various types of visual impairments.
  • There aren't many prototyping tools that take accessability into account
  • We should have leveraged more participatory design methods allowing the users to have been part of the process during every step of the way, not just in the interview and evaluation phases. It might take more time to design this way, but would be a better way to approach this particular situation.

Final Design