Lessons Learned from UX Experts: Making UX More Accessible for Everyone

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Feb 28, 2020

This week, we hosted accessibility experts from Wells Fargo and Google in our San Francisco office to talk about all things accessibility-related from research to recruiting to design. We’ve seen a growing interest in accessibility research and design from clients and UX community members alike, so we loved bringing everyone together to keep the conversation going. Here were some of our biggest takeaways and pieces of wisdom from our panelists.

People’s views on accessibility are shifting

Recently, we’ve seen a number of shifts and developments not only in UX research as a whole but also in accessibility more specifically. Our panelists both agreed that there’s been a lot of momentum in this space, so convincing stakeholders of the importance of accessibility research isn’t always the critical component anymore. More often, it’s showing what the next steps are and incorporating accessibility into your everyday practices as an organization.

“People know it’s important, but they don’t know what to do next or how to do it. There are still struggles around prioritizing it, but in general, people are more convinced of its need.”
- Sophie Barness, UX Researcher on Accessibility, Google

“Get a study under your belt, get it socialized, and continue socializing it. This has been really helpful in creating more advocates for [accessibility.]
- Sharon Meaney, Senior User Researcher, Wells Fargo

Think about how you can lay the groundwork for more accessibility research within your company. Try showing the steps you can take to prioritize this and promoting action-oriented dialogue around creating more accessible experiences. 

Remember, accessibility research is still research!

Accessibility research can feel daunting or scary if you’ve never done it before, but remember it’s still the same UX research you know and love! You should be following the same process as a typical research project with a few added steps to take it to the next level.

“You still meet with stakeholders, scope the project, decide on research needs. The biggest difference is in the criteria. Sometimes it takes longer to recruit or you might not have the right tools in your research space. There are some more logistical and methodological constraints that come up, but for the most part, it’s very similar.”
- Sophie Barness, UX Researcher on Accessibility, Google

“It’s not that different! You need to decide what you’re testing and ask what you already know about that topic. Don’t waste your time bringing people in to ask questions you may already have an idea of [what the answer is]. Make sure you have your research goals outlined so you make use of the time that participants spend.”
- Sharon Meaney, Senior User Researcher, Wells Fargo

Just like with any other research, once you figure out what your needs are, you can determine what methodology is going to best meet those needs. With accessibility, you need to then consider what kind of technical constraints you might have. For example, if you’re planning for a remote study, but you discover your remote tools won’t work with screen readers, then you may need to investigate other solutions that will work with assistive technologies. Sometimes it can be hard to recruit people for in-person research, so remote studies wind up being the way to go. It all depends on what you’re testing and who you’re testing with.

Consider all the logistical challenges

While the research is very similar, there are of course more logistical constraints when it comes to accessibility research. You need to make sure you have the right technology set-up with different assistive technologies available. Your space should be accommodating for participants with different mobility issues, and you should have the support and resources in place to help participants get to your space successfully.

“We actually did a physical dry run of our space: everything from answering the door to which elevator bank do you need to use to which elevators go to which floors. How do you enter the room? Are there any plants or trash cans in the doorway? We did a whole physical walk through to make sure it was as convenient as we could make it and learn where we need to adjust or add help day-of.”
- Sharon Meaney, Senior User Researcher, Wells Fargo

Another best practice is to make sure you’re building flexibility into your session schedule. Sometimes it takes participants extra time to arrive or get checked in, so being flexible and not letting schedule changes derail your day is important. Balancing the many changing needs and moving pieces is difficult, but don’t worry if something doesn’t go to plan. Research is all about learning and improving.

“You most definitely will miss something in the beginning, and I think that’s okay! You don’t have to be an expert in everything. Be open about it and show you're willing to work with the participant.”
- Sophie Barness, UX Researcher on Accessibility, Google

Interacting with participants is the same, but different.

As researchers, we are experienced in making participants feel welcome during sessions, but when it comes to participants with disabilities, there are some practices that will help you go the extra mile. We’ve heard many worry they might offend someone or say the wrong thing when interacting with participants with disabilities during a session. Our panelists shared a couple of best practices you can use as a starting point:

Use people-first language

Everyone is going to identify differently, but as researchers, a good rule of thumb is to use “people-first language.” For example, instead of saying “a blind person,” use “a person who is blind.” Put the person ahead of the disability, and if your participant feels strongly in another direction, let them correct you.

Ask before offering help

Always ask a person if they need help or assistance, but don’t assume they need it. For example, don’t move their wheelchair or cane unless they ask you. Let them guide you in terms of how they want to be helped.

A practical takeaway: When working with participants who are blind, they may ask to take your elbow to help guide them. A good rule of thumb is to keep your elbow at a 90-degree angle so they can feel changes in elevation.

Narrate aloud

When working with people who have vision impairments, always narrate what’s going on in the room. Explain who’s in the room with you if someone else is there to take notes or observe, explain where things are, and be clear about what you’re doing during set-up or if you’re taking a break to swap out stimuli. Speaking context aloud isn’t necessarily the most natural way of communicating for us, but it makes a big difference in helping your participant experience the session completely and transparently.

Consider how you communicate understanding

When you’re in sessions, some participants might share details about their disability, how it creates challenges in their day-to-day, or even how they lost their eyesight or became paralyzed, for example. While it can be easy to sympathize with your participants and say things like “Wow, I can’t imagine.” or “I’m so sorry this happened to you,” that isn’t always the most productive reaction.

“As researchers, we tend to want to sympathize. [...] Refrain from that. Say, “Thank you for letting me know,” and move on to the next question, because they’re not looking for sympathy. They’re really just telling you their story so they can provide better feedback. 
- Sophie Barness, UX Researcher on Accessibility, Google

While these points are a great starting point, don’t overthink it! Remember, people tend to assume the best in you. If you’re coming in and trying your best, most people will be receptive even if you make a mistake.

What would you recommend to UX researchers wanting to do more accessibility work?

To wrap up, we asked our panelists for the top pieces of advice they would give to other researchers wanting to prioritize accessibility work.

“Getting people on board and socializing these findings is a big deal! Keeping it top of mind, creating empathy for the customer, watching someone struggle with a particular interaction--all of this was the most helpful to me.”
- Sharon Meaney, Senior User Researcher, Wells Fargo

If you can start by getting one person in your sessions to showcase some accessibility insights, that is a great start. Take those findings and socialize them across your organization to show people the effects and benefits! It often helps you shift your colleagues’ perspectives from this being something we have to do to check a box to something people want to do because they see a real person trying (and struggling) to accomplish something.

“If you’re feeling a little hesitant about doing a full-on accessibility research study, there are other ways to make your current research methodologies more inclusive. One thing I like to tell people is if you’re doing usability research, start recruiting older participants over the age of 65 or 70. Often, this can be a good proxy for other [usability] issues we see with users with disabilities. There are a number of lighter-weight processes like that you can use.” 
- Sophie Barness, UX Researcher on Accessibility, Google

To get started with accessibility testing, try utilizing some lighter-weight options. This can be helpful if you’re struggling to get stakeholder buy-in. For example, if you’re running surveys, you might include questions at the end to see if your users are using any assistive technologies with your product. You can also get a sense of how well your product performs using situational disabilities or impairments. For example, If you can’t recruit low vision users, try taking your phone outside in direct sunlight to test the contrast. While this doesn’t replace the rich insights you’d get with full in-depth research, it can clue you into some of the hurdles.

Looking for more accessibility resources? Download our guide!

We asked our team to share their favorite books, tools, articles, and tips for creating accessible user experiences. Download our go-to accessibility resource guide here.

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AnswerLab Research

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