How to create an inclusive user research environment

Close your eyes, and imagine that you cannot see this page to read it. Perhaps it’s not such a stretch to imagine it being read to you. But what then?

How will you navigate to the next blog post, or learn more about the government programs Ad Hoc works on? While the majority of users traverse web services visually, there is a large range of ways people access online tools. We consider it a fundamental part of our work to build tools that don’t exclude people with different abilities and needs.

As researchers, we’re on the front lines of understanding the people who use our services, and that means we need to be inclusive in how we conduct our research and who we conduct it with — we can’t design and build products that work for people who use assistive technology or have cognitive impairments unless we understand their experiences.

This means that we need to go beyond simply recruiting people with a variety of abilities to participate in research sessions. We need to be ready to step outside our comfort zone, our known assumptions, and even our usual modes of conducting research in order to build a research environment that is inclusive for folks of all abilities.

Building an inclusive research environment is not only the respectful thing to do for people who are taking the time to help us with our work, it’s also the best way to get useful information that enables us to make meaningful improvements to our products. Inclusivity is about enabling all users to successfully accomplish their goals, and people who feel comfortable and listened to are more likely to share their expertise. Our goal is to empower our research participants so we are researching with them instead of conducting research on them.

Here are some of the techniques we use to create those environments for both in-person and remote research. While these techniques apply for any participants, we have highlighted specific considerations for those who use assistive technologies such as screen readers, keyboard navigation, and magnifiers.

Inclusive in-person research

We want to observe as much of our participants’ lived experience as we can, so where possible, we prefer to conduct research in-person. This way, we get a richer, more detailed idea of how people interact with services, including the context and equipment they use to interact with them. We consider it our job to make it as easy as possible for people to participate in our research sessions; otherwise, we may be adding an emotional, cognitive, or physical burden. These burdens can range from being a hassle (figuring out a new device) to a barrier (arranging transportation to a new location) for participants. Either way, it doesn’t respect their time and can have a negative effect on the quality of the research.

We also schedule more time than we think we need to go through research questions and activities. For many people, this is likely the first time they’ve had the opportunity to talk to someone who actually cares about their experience, and they often want to share quite a lot. Part of our obligation is giving people that agency, making them feel comfortable, and making them feel heard. When we truly have nowhere else to be except in the room listening to them, researchers and participants can both relax and approach the conversation with patience and openness.

When we can’t meet people in their own context and must invite them to a testing facility, we invest time in clear, simple instructions for how people can get to and from the facility, and allow participants to bring their own device if possible. If they’re using the facility’s devices, we make sure there is time for them to adjust device settings — screen reader pace, magnification level, etc. — to what works best for them. This helps build and maintain comfort and provides a better sense of the context in which they’d use our site.

Inclusive remote research

While we value the context provided by in-person research, remote studies are a core part of our research practice. When we conduct remote research sessions, inclusivity means we lean towards facilitating sessions via remote tools that our participants have used before, rather than asking them to learn a new tool that we may use in other sessions. For instance, while WebEx is a standard for many organizations, it’s not necessarily the easiest tool for participants, particularly those that use additional tools such as screen readers and magnifiers.

Before starting research, we familiarize ourselves with how the remote tools behave with common assistive technologies, such as screen readers on different operating systems, and write thorough instructions for our participants on how to connect to video conferencing and screen sharing. We send these instructions in advance, along with expectations about what the research session will be like, so participants have time to familiarize themselves with the instructions and prepare themselves for the session. When possible, we ask what additional assistive devices or tools our participants will be using. For instance, the commands to navigate through websites vary slightly for different screen reader tools, and our familiarity with those distinctions can make the session easier for our participants.

As anyone who has worked remotely before knows, video conferencing seems especially prone to technical difficulties. While something unforeseen can arise, we also prepare for troubleshooting common issues and have back up plans in case our research participants are not able to use the tools as expected.

Look for where design turns abilities into disabilities

When we conduct research, we aren’t just testing the usability of a site or whether it has been configured to work properly with common screen readers. We seek to understand the goals people are trying to accomplish, and how they would like to go about accomplishing those goals. In the early stages of a project, this provides us with insights to design and build tools that are enabling.

As we move deeper into projects, and seek to improve and iterate on the tools we‘ve built, we look for design gaps across a range of abilities. For instance, visually most people’s eyes are drawn to larger or highlighted text, so often designers use techniques for influencing what users will notice first based on these principles. By contrast, however, a screen reader user will hear elements of a webpage in the order in which they’re read and may navigate by page structure instead. Likewise, while some users may be able to make their way through visually busy web pages, users with cognitive impairments or sensory issues may find these same pages challenging to parse and understand.

Inclusive environments are better for participants and better for research

Designing digital services inclusively enables us to aim for accessibility beyond compliance and make these services usable for all users. It also requires investing time in user research with a range of people, including those who use assistive technology or have cognitive impairments. Part of this investment is ensuring we’re creating research environments that are respectful of people’s time and needs. More than being the right thing to do, it’s the best way to get actionable, context-rich data from our research sessions.