Remote user research utilizing participants with disabilities

WFH is also resulting in RFH (Research From Home). This requires adaptations for participants with disabilities

Simulated chalkboard which says “We want your feedback” in yellow coming out of a bullhorn
Simulated chalkboard which says “We want your feedback” in yellow coming out of a bullhorn

Many of us are still under lockdown orders for weeks, or even longer. Second waves of COVID are well documented in states and countries where shelter in place orders have been lifted (probably) too early. Many participants with disabilities will be safest in isolation until a vaccine is available. However, you might not want to wait until COVID is over to receive product feedback from participants with disabilities.

The only way to accomplish this during the current constraints is to shift your user research strategy to RFH — Research From Home.

Here is how RFH with participants with disabilities is different than user research pre-COVID:

Recruiting participants — In-person recruiting at shopping malls and conferences is now out of the question. Questionnaires will have to be completed by phone or electronically using accessible HTML, PDF, Microsoft Forms, or an accessible survey system. Questions about:

  • The nature of the candidate’s disability

are still essential to get the broadest group of participants possible. While you are at it, make sure your consent forms are accessible also.

Format — People with disabilities have always mostly preferred individual, one-on-one user interviews over focus groups. Assistive technology issues tend to be very individualized, so helping one person does not benefit all participants. Also, it can be awkward to discuss one’s disabilities (especially the health aspects) in a group setting. Hence, individual interviews are much easier to accomplish, and the benefits far outweigh the increased costs and time involved. So no real change here, except the setting — the one-on-one user interviews now need to occur in a teleconference setting over a business space.

Transportation issues are no longer a concern, and AT experts can’t be available in-person — Pre-COVID, user researchers had to worry about the fact that many people with disabilities didn’t drive. Public transportation and paratransit introduced timing issues for arrival and departure. Rideshare credits were a good option, but expensive. Now everyone is in their own homes since no one can go anywhere. Pre-COVID, it was desirable to have an AT expert at the research sessions, but that is no longer possible.

Participant’s hardware — Users with disabilities, especially those who have been disabled for a long time, prefer to use their hardware and assistive technology. Usually, they have highly personalized setups, and requiring them to use other hardware would present a barrier to those participants and invalidate your results.

  • Pre-COVID this wasn’t that big of an issue — the participant would attend in person, bring their HW, and you would install whatever software you were testing, do the session, then delete the software.

Don’t even THINK about using an inaccessible teleconference system — Here are the accessibility pages for some of the most popular:

Interviews will take a LOT longer — I previously recommended adding 50 % to regular research time when performing research with participants with disabilities. That might be unchanged if your participants have successfully installed any necessary software ahead of time. However, you should add more time if you are installing the software as part of the research session.

Ask about recording conditions and the need for interpreters — Lighting and recording conditions aren’t always the best at the homes of people who live alone and can’t see or hear well. It just isn’t important to them. If you need an interpreter to communicate with a participant with hearing loss, you will no longer be able to rely on in-person interpreters. Use one of the following options in its place:

  • Custom captioning in a zoom/MS Teams/Google Meets session (with the participant typing their replies)

Research utilizing participants with disabilities has many benefits:

  1. Finding issues earlier makes them cheaper and easier to fix.

UX research is an essential part of the design process. You can’t know with 100% certainty that you’re giving your users what you want unless you ask them. Not including users with disabilities in this research is not only discriminatory and exclusionary, but it’s also short-sighted. Why would you ignore the needs of 18% of your potential audience? Understanding the specific needs of users with disabilities concerning their participation in focus groups will go along way towards making sure that their input is validated and recognized.

Make a few small alterations to your process so that you can continue research utilizing users with disabilities from their homes.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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