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A Comprehensive Guide to Accessible User Research: Part 1 – Project Planning

Researchers often want to include people with access needs in their studies but don’t know where to begin. This three-part series covers the various considerations for adapting your practice to include people with disabilities.

Words by Brian Grellmann, Visuals by Allison Corr

It is our collective responsibility as people who work in technology to ensure that our products will be usable and accessible to people with disabilities. Many of us will have heard or thought about accessibility before. Perhaps you’ve been asked by stakeholders about the accessibility of your product, or you and your team are spearheading the initiative to create more inclusive products.

Either way, the only way to truly know if your products will be accessible to people with disabilities is by involving people with various access needs in your user research.

This article is the first of three:

Note: in this article, the author is using person-first language, which puts the person before a diagnosis (ie. ‘person with a disability’ instead of ‘the disabled’). In this way, the person is the subject, and the disability is a secondary attribute. The author recognizes that this can differ regionally, and depending on the disability being described, and that there are varying opinions and critics regarding this language.

Before you begin:

It’s important to recognize that accessibility isn’t a one-time activity. Every time content is updated or the structure of your designs change, you risk breaking the accessibility of your product. So before you put the time and effort in to planning your research, make sure that there is buy-in across teams to address the accessibility issues that may arise, and that teams are committed to incorporating inclusive design practices in their workflow.

This might require some campaigning with senior leadership teams, securing budget for training, and adapting your internal policies, guidelines, and ways of working. What this looks like will be different between companies and the maturity of your accessibility practice. Indeed, the research can be the catalyst for change, but accessibility requires ongoing investment, so it’s good to have a long-term and continuous plan in place, rather than relying on a single research activity.

Another consideration before you plan your research, is to understand what accessibility evaluations have already taken place. If your product is in its inception stage, great—you have the opportunity to really influence the innovation of your product by including people with disabilities in your generative research activities.

But if you’re conducting evaluative accessibility research on a live website or on a website right before going live (as is most often the case), make sure that an accessibility audit has been conducted first.

An accessibility audit is an evaluation method that doesn’t include users. You can uncover and fix a good portion of the problems that might exist by having an accessibility audit conducted against universal accessibility guidelines, like the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1 Level AA).

By doing so, you ensure that you get the most value out of your research session. The last thing you want is for your participants to get stuck on the first interaction of your product. Instead, you want to use these research sessions to understand and uncover the real-world accessibility issues that exist in your product.

Consider the goals of the project

Planning and preparing for research with people who have access needs is a lot like conducting research with people who don’t have a disability, but with some tweaks and considerations along the way.

Like any research project, you want to understand the questions that your research project sets out to answer. Broadly speaking, accessibility research takes shape in two ways: 1) at each stage of your usual research plan, you include participants with access needs (i.e. 2 of your 8 participants have an access need), or 2) at select stages of your research, all your participants have access needs. Both are suited to generative and evaluative research, and you’ll decide what is most appropriate depending on the needs of your project and other constraints.

If you do have the option, I recommend the former approach and ensure voices of people with disabilities are considered at every stage of the product development cycle. This way people with disabilities will impact the propositional aspects of your product and drive its innovation as well as its accessibility.

If you’re about to ship your product, and the accessibility of your product is a concern for legal and compliance reasons, then you’ll want to follow the latter approach and conduct dedicated research where all participants have access needs.

Consider the timeline

Accessibility research can take longer to run, so give yourself extra time before research, during research, and after research. For example, if you work with a recruitment agency that typically asks for two weeks to find participants, they may ask for three weeks to find participants with disabilities.

You may also need to adapt your test materials, like consent forms and information sheets. During research, it may take longer for some participants to complete a task, so if you typically conduct six hour-long research sessions in a day, you may need to change that to three 90 minute session. If you typically give yourself 15 minutes between sessions, you may want to change that to 30 minutes so you have time to reset the room, and prepare for the next participant and their access needs.

Finally, analysis can take longer because you may have participants who have very different access needs. It would be a disservice to your project and your participants if you had to rush through the analysis because of inadequate timing plans.

Another consideration for planning the timeline of your research is participant fatigue. If your participant has to travel to the lab, plus use a computer for more than an hour, it could be physically and cognitively taxing. For example, in a previous project, I had a participant who spoke less and less as they fatigued. Participants becoming tired is quite a common phenomenon, so you want to ensure you have time for extra breaks during the session, so that the quality of the data being collected doesn’t deteriorate.

Accessibility isn't a one-time activity. Every time content is updated or the structure of your designs change, you risk breaking the accessibility of your product.

Brian Grellmann

Consider the recruitment

Like other research projects you may have run, the more criteria you add to your recruitment screener, the harder and longer it can take to find participants. In order to get enough people with access needs in your study, you may need to relax other criteria.

For example, if you work for a bank and are looking for people who use a screen reader and opened a bank account in the last three months, you may need to search wider and include people who opened a bank account in the last six months or year.

If you have time to do the recruitment yourself, this can be quite a rewarding experience. You can look into different disability charities/organizations, disability forums, care homes, and community groups to generate interest in the work you’re carrying out. You may also have customers who are disabled and have previously been in touch with questions about the accessibility of your website.

By taking a resourceful approach, you’ll introduce a lot of new people to the wonderful world of accessibility user research, and build a rapport for a continuous working relationship. This can save you time and money finding participants in the long run. Just be aware of your local or federal laws that may preclude you from asking someone what their disability is. This needs to be done tactfully, and it often helps to be upfront in your recruitment material that you are looking for people to come forward and participate in accessibility research.

Consider the budget

If you compare the cost of accessibility user research, to a similar study that doesn’t include people with disabilities, it’s likely that the accessibility user research study will require more budget.

If you’re working with a recruitment agency, the fee per participant is usually higher, and the incentive will also be higher. The incentive is higher because the research sessions are longer, but also because the incentives for hard-to-find participants are also higher.

The cost of travel is another consideration. If the research is contextual and in the participants’ home, the cost of travel is the same as other projects which don’t include people with disabilities.

However, if you require the participant to come to a lab, it’s common to cover the participant’s travel cost in their preferred way of travel, including taxis. To ensure the participant has the best possible experience, spend the time to make sure the process to claim expenses is as easy and seamless as possible.

If you’re asking participants to come to a lab, you may need to purchase licenses for assistive technology. This can be a significant cost to your project. If possible, find a lab that has already purchased licenses to use various assistive technologies.

Consider the location

This leads nicely to planning the location of your research. The location of your research plays an important role in determining the type of data you are able to gather, and whether you are able to meet the objectives of the research.

Visiting the participant at their home will often yield better results. This is for a number of reasons: the participant will feel more relaxed in their own environment, they’ll use their own devices including assistive technologies, and any preferences or settings to adapt the assistive technology will already be in place. Finally, you’ll get a better understanding of the real world accessibility requirements your participant has beyond the screen or your product.

Lab-based or remote testing is also an option. Perhaps the biggest barrier to lab-based testing is the physical accessibility of the lab, and the lab’s access to assistive technologies.

With remote testing, the biggest challenge can often be finding a tool that is accessible to your participant. You need to be confident that the participant is going to be able to use all of the required features, for example screen sharing. You may also need to provide instructions to participants so that those who are using screen readers will be able to set their audio preferences in a way that the screen reader announcements are picked up by the microphone and the recording software.

In summary

This article covered some of the broader project considerations for planning accessibility user research. Researchers should follow their usual project planning processes and frameworks, but allow for extra time to ensure that adequate consideration is given to budgets, locations, recruitment, and timing plans.

The next two articles in this series will go into more practical guidance for preparing the research, conducting the research, and reporting the research:

Brian Grellmann is a user researcher and accessibility consultant at a financial services company in London, UK. He helps businesses understand the importance of user-centered and inclusive design processes.

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