Running usability sessions with assistive technology users: a guide for beginners

You don’t know what you don’t know rings especially true when it comes to assistive technology (AT) and even more so when running AT research as a beginner in the field.

The Assistive Technology Industry Association defines AT as “any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.” Some examples include screen readers, voice recognition, and screen magnification.

At Ad Hoc, we’re lucky to have team members who specialize in these technologies, including advanced screen reader users like accessibility specialist Angela Fowler (who is also the co-author of this blog post). These specialists are always ready to jump in and help our research participants and session moderators navigate complex scenarios and smooth things out if challenges arise.

These challenges, while learning opportunities, demonstrate something important: even with accessibility specialists at our side, there are additional ways accessibility newcomers can and should prepare to run research with AT users. In doing so, you can make it easier for the specialists to work their magic and help research run smoothly for everyone involved. Here are our suggestions.

Ask questions ahead of time

Meet with accessibility specialists and talk through what to expect, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with any AT your participants will be using. Ask both general and specific questions – anything that could help you gain a better understanding of participants’ experiences using these technologies. And remember: If you’ve met one AT user, you’ve met one AT user.

Start with these overarching questions: How does this technology work? What should I expect in this session? What can I do to make sure everything runs smoothly?

A few things the specialists will likely tell you:

Inclusive language

  • Be mindful of how you might be using non-inclusive language in your sessions, and do your best to correct that. It helps to stick with general language, which is more likely to work for everyone. If participants require additional help, think through what might be most applicable and useful for each individual.
  • Focus on the what and where rather than the how. Use phrases like “navigate to this section,” “locate the link,” or “select the Edit button,” instead of action-specific words like “see” or “click” that may not be helpful for everyone. What is useful terminology for a screen magnification user might be confusing or frustrating for someone using voice recognition.
  • Practice using inclusive language once you’ve become aware of these nuances, and when in doubt, just ask. While prepping for a session, a specialist can give you examples of how best to phrase questions or instructions. If you’re unsure what wording to use while the session is in progress, politely ask your participant how they prefer to discuss certain items or actions. All AT users are different, so assume they’ll have diverse views and preferences.

Timing and patience

  • Consider if a participant’s AT requires them to listen along as they navigate, and be sure to allow for plenty of pauses. Wait to speak until you’re sure they’re done listening so as not to interrupt the same technology that’s there to assist them. For example, if a participant is using a screen reader, be mindful not to interrupt the screen reader as it reads out important information about the page or feature.
  • Allow for extra time in your session. AT sessions generally take twice as long as non-AT sessions and can easily go longer than expected. Allow your participant to set the pace and resist the urge to fill the silence. Though it can be difficult not to comment during pauses, make sure anything you say is helpful or affirming and a good use of your limited time.
  • Avoid commenting in the Zoom chat. The chat can cause disruptions in any research session, but it’s especially important to limit comments in Zoom when moderating sessions with AT users. Some AT users will hear each item comment read out to them in addition to the information from their AT device, generating many layers of information to sift through simultaneously.

Involve the specialists

Work with accessibility specialists to determine if they should be actively involved in the session, attend as an observer, or advise asynchronously.

  • Aim to recruit a specialist who can run tech support if the participant gets stuck. It’s always ideal to have an AT specialist in the passenger’s seat. This is particularly important for screen reader sessions or other technologies that require an advanced understanding to assist the participant directly. This not only helps the session run smoothly, but also offers specialists more experience through which to grow and improve in their own work. Each session is a unique learning opportunity.
  • Whenever possible, try to schedule a practice run-through beforehand. This way, everyone involved will have a better idea of what to expect and how to approach the session.
  • If these steps aren’t feasible (or even if they are), see what other accessibility resources might be available. Check if your team or organization has points of contact, guidelines, or office hours. Though not every team at Ad Hoc has an accessibility specialist, our specialists hold accessibility office hours that many teams find helpful. It’s always worth asking around at your organization to see what’s available.

For a comprehensive guide on how to approach accessible and inclusive design and research, check out the Ad Hoc Accessibility Beyond Compliance Playbook by Ad Hoc’s team of accessibility specialists.

Gather additional information

Do the prep for your specialists. Once you’ve recruited an accessibility specialist – or if you’re running the session on your own – gather any additional information that might be useful in assisting your participants.

  • Confirm participants will be using AT during sessions. Folks who don’t consider themselves AT users commonly use AT in daily activities. A few examples are voice recognition hubs that control household technology, voice-to-text features for sending messages, or keyboard shortcuts used instead of a computer mouse. As a result, it’s entirely possible that participants who report using AT might do so in their daily lives without planning to use AT during the research session.
  • Clarify technical details. Though troubleshooting during sessions is expected, the specialists shouldn’t be bogged down by technical difficulties. Do your best to anticipate what they might need to know. Are they familiar with the operating system the participant will be using? Are they prepared to assist someone logging in on a Samsung mobile phone when they’re used to a Mac computer?

You can address all of this with follow-up questions. For example, try asking participants the following ahead of a screen reader session:

  • “What device will you use to join the session? Mobile, computer, or tablet? Mac or PC?”
  • “What type of screen reader software will you be using?”
  • “How long have you been using a screen reader? Would you consider yourself a beginner or an advanced user?”
  • “Are there any additional accommodations we can provide to assist you during this session?”

Pro tip: You can’t always count on self-reporting to know if folks are beginning or advanced users. Take their answers with a grain of salt. People tend to over-report their abilities and aren’t always the best judges of their own expertise.

Observe sessions

If you have the opportunity, observe other AT sessions prior to running your own research. Spending time as an observer can help you achieve the right mindset going into your study and gain a better sense of what is required of the moderator.

As you follow along, be sure to note the wins and challenges and feel out the overall tone of each session. Record any details that stick out as important to replicate or avoid in your own approach.

Anticipate challenges

Based on the information you’ve gathered, consider how to tailor your sessions should challenges arise. Beginner AT users could require more time to complete tasks, while PC users might need guidance from a specialist used to working on a similar device and keyboard setup. The specialists themselves may need time to brush up on certain software, so be sure to collect this information well before your sessions are scheduled to begin. You’ll also want to keep the following in mind:

  • Be ready to pivot in the moment if your plan isn’t working out. Consider alternative solutions if participants can’t locate or access a link to your prototype or product, have difficulty signing in, or aren’t able to screen share. If you’re worried about a sign-in process, it can be helpful to let them know ahead of time that they’ll need to access their account.

  • Be (extra) aware of time. Even if you’ve planned ahead, AT research sessions can still require more time than expected. Decide ahead of time how long you’ll be able to extend the session if needed and plan what tasks you can afford to skip if time runs out.

Provide an understanding atmosphere

After all of this preparation, it’s entirely possible that things still might not go as planned during a session, and that’s ok. Do your best to assist and ensure both your participant and accessibility specialist aren’t feeling any unneeded frustration or pressure.

Above all, make sure everyone knows it’s ok if a task – or even an entire session – doesn’t work out. It’s hard not to show frustration when things aren’t going right; after all, we’re working with technology, and things won’t always go as planned! But sessions can always be rescheduled and shouldn’t be a source of unneeded stress.

Be ready for the unknown

AT research, like all research, can be full of surprises and challenges, but with these approaches, the challenges you face will be expected – dare we say welcomed. While you should absolutely rely on the specialists for guidance, beginners still have the agency and ability to contribute to the success of AT sessions.

Do your research. Ask questions. Anticipate challenges. Prepare for fallbacks. Take care of your participants. Support your specialists. Most of all, keep striving to “learn more about what you don’t know,” and you’ll be ready to tackle your study.