Learning by involving people with disabilities in user research

Posted on Monday, 12 December 2016 by David Sloan
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One of the most exciting things about 2016 has been the growth in number of user-research projects that we’ve worked on with our clients. User research is about discovering and defining problems as early as possible, and figuring out how best to address them through design and development. In contrast, an accessibility audit involves us using a set of standards to look for existing, pre-defined problems in a live or nearly complete site or app.

We’ve designed and run several user-research studies this year where we spent time gathering information from people with disabilities to inform a design and development project. For example, we’ve led projects that focused on:

  • Gathering details of how people with disabilities experience physical and digital learning environments, and involving them in reviewing the current version of an online learning environment that will be redesigned.
  • Informing research and development of a virtual-reality product, which alters users’ field of vision, by talking to people with visual impairments about their approach to mobility and navigation.
  • Collecting perspectives from people who use screen readers about a new accessibility feature in a mobile app.
  • Evaluating prototype webpage designs with people with disabilities as part of an iterative development process.

We’ll always have a purpose in mind for our work, especially when we conduct usability evaluations with a focus on task completion, and require a standard protocol to follow. But for more exploratory research, our approach usually encourages loosely defined discussions rather than rigid interviews, conversations led by participants rather than us, and face-to-face interactions rather than remote conversations whenever possible.

What might you learn?

What can you expect when conducting user research with people with disabilities? Based on our experience, you might gain:

  • A richer understanding of a problem space from a different perspective. Potential users with disabilities contribute as active participants, rather than being considered by the design team only as abstract beneficiaries of accessibility guidelines. This helps organisations build practical empathy that can positively influence design and help spark innovation.
  • Feedback on what works and what doesn’t. You’ll learn about features that are valued by people with disabilities and examples of good practices to follow (or not to abandon!). This helps isolate the high-priority design problems that you should focus on solving.
  • First-hand experience of people with disabilities talking about and using technology, and the enabling impact it can have on their lives. This helps demystify and humanise accessibility, and provides valuable stories that can be recorded and reused to educate and motivate.

Inclusive design thinking

In this work, we’re partnering with organisations to extend thinking about disability and accessibility to what Dan Nessler identified as the “diverging” phases of the design-thinking process. These are the discover/research and develop/ideation phases, which involve opening up rather than condensing ideas and discoveries. (Nessler’s Medium article: How to apply a design thinking, HCD, UX or any creative process from scratch provides a helpful overview of these phases and how they fit into a wider design thinking approach). Approaching accessibility in this way is a strong sign of an organisation making progress towards accessible design maturity.

In turn, one of the most valuable outcomes—and why we love doing this kind of work—is the change in the dynamic between the people who are producing the technology and the people who are using it. We’re involving people with disabilities as partners in research and design—rather than as test pilots sent out to find flaws and barriers after a product has already been created. And when organisations integrate design thinking and inclusive design, that makes better products and services for everyone.

About David Sloan

David Sloan is User Experience Research Lead with The Paciello Group. He joined TPG in May 2013, after nearly 14 years researching, teaching and providing consultancy on accessibility and inclusive design at the University of Dundee in Scotland. He is an active participant in a number of W3C accessibility-focused groups, and is a Steering Committee member of the annual W4A Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility.

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