Lens: Type: Complex Level

Competence or skill to complete an activity.

Photo: rf._.studio
person holding crochet

People use products, services, and systems to complete activities. People’s abilities affect the quality of each use scenario. A person with small hands may not be able to pick up a shovel with a thick handle. A person with debilitating arthritis will have a hard time using scissors unless the scissors are designed with the condition in mind. A person whose reading level is below fifth grade will not be able to read content on a screen unless the writing matches the person’s ability to read.

No two people have the same set of abilities. Also, abilities aren’t limited to physical and cognitive capacity. A person can lack the emotional ability to deal with the death of a family pet. Another person may not be able to pay for a new washer and dryer—an example of financial ability.

People’s abilities often drive design decisions. Cooper Hewitt, Pratt Institute, and CaringKind, a nonprofit dedicated to Alzheimer’s caregiving, collaborated on projects in 2017 to assist people affected by Alzheimer’s.

Concepts Related to Abilities

  • Cognitive Ability
  • Financial Ability
  • Physical Ability
  • Skills

Researching Abilities

Examining people’s abilities reveals their capabilities. When designers know what people can do, designers can create outcomes whose features match those abilities.

Questions to Ask About Abilities

  • What is this person able to do?
  • Will this person be able to do the activity I intend when they use my design, even though they may not have the ability right now?
  • Would a person feel frustration if they used my design and discovered they did not have sufficient ability?

Look for These When Researching Abilities

  • How competent a person is at completing an activity
  • A person’s physical makeup
  • A person’s mental state when using the product, service, or system
  • A person’s access to financial resources


References and sources that support the inclusion of this Aspects of Experiences for Design component.

Social Sciences

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211. doi:10.1016/0749-5978(91)90020-T

Ajzen, I. (2011). The theory of planned behaviour: Reactions and reflections. Psychology & Health, 26(9), 1113-1127. doi:10.1080/08870446.2011.613995

Ajzen, I. (2019). Theory of Planned Behavior with Background Factors. Retrieved December 12, 2019 from https://people.umass.edu/aizen/tpb.background.html

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.68

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Autonomy Is No Illusion: Self-Determination Theory and the Empirical Study of Authenticity, Awareness, and Will. In (pp. 449-479). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Self-determination theory and the role of basic psychological needs in personality and the organization of behavior. In Handbook of personality: Theory and research, 3 (pp. 654-678).