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Is inclusive usability testing possible?

A tale from our recent experience #intersectionality #inclusivedesign #designjustice

In the summer of 2023, People Street supported usability testing on 2 different Research Challenges. Challenge 1 could only be completed online using Teams and had a very narrow participant brief due to the nature of the prototype. Challenge 2 offered both face to face and online testing using Zoom and had a more forgiving participant brief. Both Challenges came to People Street because we offer recruitment, screening and support for participants who don't traditionally participate in research.


In this blog I'm going to talk through how we were able to run both Challenges inclusively whilst drawing out the steps you can take to do the same for your projects.


I'm assuming you're familiar with our approach to inclusive research, so I'm not going to tell you the story of my 2 favourite words (hint- Proportionate universalism). We approached developing the briefs through an intersectional lens; for Challenge 1 that meant community languages, migration status, gender, age, health condition, digital literacy; In Challenge 2 the focus was ethnicity, confidence writing in English, digital skills, gender, age and experience accessing their GP online.


In both Challenges, the task was to reach communities most at risk of being excluded or experience the poorest outcomes due to the tech that was being tested. For People Street, that is the foundation of inclusive research.


When the ask came our way we knew it was going to be trickier than usual because of the requirement for the participant to access Teams or Zoom. We started by exploring how we'd navigate this requirement. In our case, we have over 20 years experience of working at the grassroots. We are also representative of the communities we serve so come with lived and living experience of barriers to accessing public services. We carry with us a tapestry of understanding, This means we get straight into tackling inequity by creating a barriers map. But if you aren't as lucky as us, you don't have this working and living experience you need to take step 1.


Step 1. Educate yourself

Understanding barriers to exclusion, and in this case digital exclusion will support you to think and act inclusively. There's a plethora of work highlighting common barriers. Use this as a starting point then look for papers which specifically included people with protected characteristics (gender, age, ethnicity, disability, religion) as well as under-heard communities such as migrants, refugees, homeless, unemployed, low income households.


If you work in an organisation with a policy team, break out of your digital or research silo and ask your policy colleagues to help you better understand the landscape. If you don't have anyone in your network, reach out through LinkedIn or Twitter and make new connections with people who could help you deepen your understanding.


After creating a barriers map, we turn our attention to ways we can mitigate each barrier. We review the long list of Outreach Leaders. Each one is a magnet, a community development practitioner, and just like any team, each has a strength. We match the ask with the skill set needed to overcome the challenges we have identified in the mapping exercise. If you've never taken part in an exercise designed to surface barriers, you need to go to step 2.


Step 2

In order to facilitate the participation of at risk communities, you need to consider the ways the thing you are testing creates harm. Harm here means the unintended impacts such as lack of access. If you are open to learning more, why don't you borrow from health inequalities reviews? It's often a matrix approach which will help you to think through potential negative impacts. Once you highlight these impacts you can begin the fun task of overcoming them like a superhero!


From the barriers map we set out a list of questions to work through with each participant during outreach and screening. Here's are 3 questions from the above Challenges.

  1. Will the participants need a translator during screening, consent process and/or research interview?

  2. What level of support is being offered to get participants to their online usability testing?

  3. Do the participants have a device or do they need to borrow one for testing?

By translating the mitigations into questions, you move from inclusion as an intellectual exercise and into practice development. As you can see with the list above, we identified language barriers as a challenge to engagement throughout the recruitment and research process. Therefore, having that question as part of the outreach questionnaire enabled us to address the barrier as early as possible.


Look at creating a list of questions and consider at what stage you need to ask yourself or your team the question. But questions aren't enough! You need to act on what you hear.


At this juncture, the nicest of superhero's run out of steam or out of time. The pressure to deliver gets in the way and the questions drop off, or the mitigations feel too hard to overcome. Sometimes the wider team questions the approach, there's a lack of support or the organisational culture isn't supportive of inclusive research. If this is you, if you're struggling, consider step 3.


Step 3

Inclusive research, especially usability testing cannot be achieved on our own. You need allies. I'm hoping more and more of you find them in your organisations. But if that's not the case, reach out to organisations who can help you. I implore you not to give up. The good fight is worth having and perhaps you need a few more allies internally before you can put on your superhero pants on again. Organisations like People Street can help you with recruitment or by sharing practice to build yours and your team's inclusive research muscles, so don't despair.


Getting back to the Research Challenges! We run the outreach for recruitment as sprints. We keep going back to the questions and add to the list when needed and iterate as we go. At the end of the sprint we are as confident as can be that the interviews will go ahead. But we aren't fortune tellers and we know we are working with communities facing intersecting challenges and juggling multiple complexities, so we don't rest on our laurels just because the interview has been booked.


The wrap around support we offer includes doing test calls on Teams and Zoom especially for people who have never used the platform. I know most of you are pros since the pandemic, but there are a whole host of people who have never had an inclination to sit for endless hours on back to back Zoom calls. Can you even imagine? We run one-to-one sessions helping people download the Zoom or Teams app and we send reminder texts/call the day before and on the day of the interview.


For Challenge 2, we met one of the participants so he could borrow our laptop to take part in the usability testing (see photo above). We also met another participant at the bus stop to take him to the testing centre as he was elderly and wasn't confident navigating to a new place. For Challenge 1 we ran group sessions teaching participants how to respond to a Teams invite, how to get into a call and share their screen. These sessions created space to share anxieties about using Teams. Importantly, we built trust between us and the participant. We approached this as an opportunity to increase people's skills and increase confidence with using new technology.


This is the heart of inclusive research. Opportunities for reciprocity when it arises organically. We aren't manufacturing inclusion. We live it and breathe it!


As you can see, we strive to make it possible for every participant to take part, yet sometimes, even the above approaches aren't enough!


Let's head back to Challenge 1. There's no face to face interviews and the participant is a match for this narrowest of briefs. Twice he tried getting on the Teams meeting and twice it failed. We had even met him prior to the interview to download the Teams app. We didn't know what else to do then the clients Senior Researcher suggested a work around that illustrated how much she not only understood inclusive research, she practiced it (really wish I could name her here because she is definitely wearing superhero pants!). Here's what we did in the end:


The participant had an old device which meant Teams was not working on his phone. The Outreach Leader joined the Teams call and then she called the participant on a Whats app video call holding the camera to the laptop screen so he could take part in the research. The session was also translated.


And there you have it, inclusive usability testing in action. For me, it doesn't get better than this!


Lots of good things emerge when you're striving for best practice and it doesn't matter how many Research Challenges we take on, the learning keeps on coming. And the inclusive approach, keeps on giving. We will have the playbacks of both Challenges in September and we will share the impact with you so you can see for yourself why an inclusive approach is worth the investment.


We hope that sharing our practice gives you the confidence to dive into this space. If you're still feeling daunted by the prospect, get in touch and maybe we can help.

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