Seven mistakes we make running inclusive research

By UserTesting | June 15, 2023
A sight-impaired person uses a screen reader device to access the internet

In this article, we’ll take a look at seven inclusive research mistakes we often come across, and give you some tips and tricks to steer you down the right path. We know that there are many things to consider, as with any research project. But mistakes like these can be especially detrimental in an inclusive research context.

What is inclusive research?

There are many variables that make us up as humans. Sex, gender, race, religion, ability status, and employment status, to mention just a few. Inclusive research focuses on minority groups or situations such as those with impairments, those of a specific market, or a niche location. Using this technique, we uncover their worlds, goals, needs, and wants to inform our design decisions.

How does inclusive research differ from accessibility?

Accessibility is one part of the larger conversation of inclusive design, with inclusive research expanding to encompass as many people as possible. Inclusive design incorporates strategies or non-functional requirements like localization, internationalization, or situational.

Accessibility focuses on impairments. Localization and internationalization focus on the impacts of culture, while situational research focuses on problems specific to circumstances and environments (think of someone trying to use an app when shopping while one hand holds a basket and the other is occupied putting products into the basket).

7 common mistakes in inclusive research

1. Being unprepared for user needs

Being inclusive during inclusive research starts before the user steps foot into your office or joins your online call. Being prepared for any research gets us off on the right foot for building rapport with users.

It's on researchers to ensure that the study is on track for success, which means setting up users for success. What does a lack of preparation look like? It's not asking users what needs they have to take part in the study. It's not understanding cultural context and knowing your accent may be too strong for non-natives. It can be as basic as not screening what languages users can speak. This issue usually arises when we’re too afraid to directly ask users about any impairments or reasons they would need support. 

Ask users for what assistance they may need during recruitment

The key is to focus on the needs, not the problems. Most of the time, we don’t need to know what impairment someone has. What do they need to be best supported in our study? This question accommodates everyone and doesn’t just focus on impairments. Now, you'll know if someone needs guidance from reception, whether they need a translator or to bring their child along to the session. 

2. Researching without appropriate expertise

Researchers and designers are often the experts in such niche areas, and it's unfortunate how often experts aren't consulted for projects. This problem usually stems from a department's budget restraints or teams wanting to learn how to do studies themselves.

Understanding a new set of laws in any country is another huge task that can be overlooked. Teams often try to operate without knowledge of all the applicable laws surrounding the locations of the company and its users. 

Another problem occurs when when teams approach research topics that are completely new to them: They lose sight of their priorities. It's too easy to end up exploring something trivial—rather than valuable—because it sounded interesting.

Work with those with context and understanding, whether external or internal

The ideal situation is to collaborate with others who understand context, as they can predict what users will need and communicate with participants.

Budget permitting, using external consultants is the best choice. They should be local to a culture, or an expert in the niche you’re studying. They should have an understanding of working in that country or have the necessary environments for participants to successfully take part. 

If your budget or time doesn’t allow for you to hire externals, ask around within your company to see if anyone can help with the study. Ask colleagues if anyone has experience with the people group you’re interviewing.

If possible, write a discussion guide for them to use in the sessions, train them to conduct the study, debrief with them after sessions, and/or include them during the analysis and presenting findings to keep things on track. At the very least they may be able to help you prepare for user needs and help make the project a success.

3. Prototypes unfit for testing

This problem stems from the prototyping tools in our industry. Their ease of use from uploading screenshots and adding hotspots over the images leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to inclusive testing. Especially with people who rely on assistive technologies. 

Some prototyping tools offer these features but they have to be manually switched on. You either have to know where they are or do research to find them. Tools such as Figma, one of the most popular tools, only offers screenreader-compatible flows. Inclusive design is bigger than that.

Demand accessible features from big tools

As consumers of these tools, it's our job to put pressure on these organizations to prioritize accessibility. Laws demanding accessibility are decades old. America’s Section 508 was introduced in 1973 and the UK’s first Disability Act in 1995. The benefits of inclusive design have been both discussed and proven time again. So, why is it still a low priority to build inclusive solutions?

Prototype in code

Meanwhile, prototyping in code is the best option. The use of design systems is making this easier for those of us who may not have coding knowledge. Ideally, we can piece together our interfaces using pre-defined components to create prototypes that are easier, quicker, and more suitable for inclusive research studies. 

4. Not exploring user’s environments

Most of the time, designers find themselves in  "typical" user’s situations and environments (shopping, traveling, banking). They've have either been there themselves or have seen user situations through media like TV and movies. However, many times, what we’ve come across, particularly in mainstream media is an ableist and western point of view. Researching online produces results that are personalized and show us what we expect to see. When researching other cultures it's especially important to remember that we can't always always depend on desk research alone to answer our questions.

For inclusive research, not immersing ourselves in their environments is a huge missed opportunity. It’s a best practice to observe what users do. Asking them what they think they do relies on users being observant of their own behaviors and accurately remembering said behaviors. 

Experience your users’ worlds first-hand

For accessibility research, you want to explore how people adapt their lives to suit their needs. Things that may seem so trivial to them but are eye-opening for us as researchers are often those sparking moments that trigger innovations. What assistive technologies are they using? What else in their environment is set up to help them achieve what they need to?

For cultural research, putting yourself in a completely new environment allows you to challenge what is normal for you. See first-hand what is different, what remains the same, and the ways in which people go about their lives. 

For situational research, get out there and observe how users actually go about their daily tasks. If you’re designing for doctors, go to their workplaces, and see what technology they deal with or the environmental challenges they face. If you’re designing for parents, observe what it’s like to look after children and attempt to use technology. 

5. Conducting inclusive research too late

It’s not uncommon for research or testing to be conducted late into the project life cycle, either just before or even after. This can stem from websites needing to be released and generating revenue as soon as possible due to budget constraints.

The problem is inclusive research and design can be incredibly intricate depending on who you are building for. Depending on your team’s level of knowledge about user backgrounds, it can elongate the time it takes to build inclusive solutions. Understanding an entirely new market, for example, is tricky and takes time. Even if your company has a similar product or service in one country does not mean it will translate well for others.

Ask forgiveness, not permission

Inclusive research, whether flying to another country or interviewing those with specific needs, can be expensive. It is not easy to conduct this type of research without buy-in and budget from stakeholders. So, how do we do the work necessary to drive these requirements? We do as much as we possibly can and carry those insights everywhere, in every relevant team discussion, in every design presented and developed feature built. 

Start by asking participants in your current research sessions whether they have any requirements. Then start to explore those needs in further detail within the interview. Look for any communities near you which involve the users you need to see how you can begin to observe or ask questions. 

6. Tackling every human facet at once

When accessibility or inclusive design is first prioritized on a project, the requirement almost always seems to be “just make it accessible”. People are still unaware of what accessibility or inclusive design means. So, projects tend to push back or ignore the requirement altogether because “just” making things inclusive is not a clear-cut action. 

Many researchers, designers, product owners, and developers don’t know where to start. Companies turn to the legal requirements as a checklist but the WCAG is purposefully vague and non-prescriptive. They can be difficult to read, even for those who are familiar with them. The resources that accompany inclusivity aren’t all that accessible, so it’s easier to continue as before and not address anything.

Break down the problem and prioritize

Whether researcher, designer, or developer, the trick is to break down problems into manageable chunks and inclusive design is no exception. Survey your audience to see which needs or assistive technologies are the most requested. Look at analytics to see where the majority of your users are coming from. Are your users mostly requesting screen-reader compatibility? Are they requesting more keyboard-only support? Use this data as a starting point for research and add focus to deliverables and time periods like sprints. This makes work easier to plan, implement, and estimate, reducing the all-time favorite requirement "just make it accessible". In turn, this makes it easier to request budget for the work.

7. Being non-inclusive ourselves

It is eye-opening in many ways when you first start conducting inclusive research. Not only will you uncover the issues with your interface but also with yourself. If this is your first time around a particular impairment or cultural situation, you often won’t know what to expect or what is acceptable. For example, you may not realize how thick your accent is or how many colloquialisms you use until talking to someone not from your area. You may not realize how inappropriate a question is until you’ve asked. 

Spend as much time as possible with diverse people

Most learning comes from spending time with people who are not like us, whether from another culture or those with different needs. Start by researching what you can before inserting yourself into these communities. Look at cultural norms, expectations, traditions, and etiquette. Research how to behave, learn what will be expected of you, and how to word questions so as not to be offensive. While accessibility and inclusive design in the tech industry have a long way to go, it has still come a long way and has a wealth of resources online to help you get started. 

In Summary

Overall, be as prepared as you possibly can, not only for usability insights or user understandings but to completely challenge the norm, your norm. The problems we’ve mentioned such as being unprepared for users’ needs or not exploring users’ situations are easy to overcome. Take each research project as it comes. You will learn so much about other worlds and yourself in research like this. 

Remain humble and as respectful as possible while studying people in situations you don’t know. Users are still people, whether they have an impairment or are from a different country. There’s a fine line between researching and consuming for benefit. 

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