Responsible Research & Fundamentals
Getting started with Accessibility Research
Written by: Phil Hesketh
Accessibility research is a growing topic, and the importance and benefits need to be taken into account when you’re running any kind of UX studies. But if you’re just starting out, it can be hard to know how to approach this kind of research and incorporate it into your existing processes.
In this article, we’ll walk you through why you need to pay attention to accessibility as part of overall usability when you’re undertaking research initiatives.
What is accessibility research?
Accessibility UX research helps organizations understand how people with disabilities use their products. It uncovers any potential barriers to success that customers with disabilities might experience.
Researchers often recruit individuals with disabilities, together with accessibility and industry professionals, in order to identify any existing or potential problems with their product. They might also run usability tests and other experiments focused on accessibility—so that strategies and technology can be put in place to ensure users with disabilities have an enjoyable, successful journey.
What is the importance of accessibility research?
If you’re developing a new product, or refining your existing ones, accessibility research should be a non-negotiable part of your roadmap, and be included in your UX sessions and product iterations. This will ensure you can uncover and fix any real-world accessibility issues that might exist in your product.
Web accessibility research - this can help ensure all of your digital content (e.g. web pages, apps, and content) provides an accessible user journey for those with hearing, cognitive, visual, or motor disabilities
Designing for accessibility - this focuses on inclusive design principles, tools, and methods (such as using alt text) that make sure your products and environments can be viewed and used by anyone, regardless of any disabilities they might have.
Accessibility compliance - researchers need to ensure that relevant regulations and web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.1 and FYI 2.1, for example) are complied with. They will also need to keep up to date with any upcoming policies and legal frameworks, and advocate for product updates and improvements on this basis.
It’s worth keeping in mind that your users don’t have to have permanent disabilities for accessibility to become a problem.
A website visitor might not have speakers or sound enabled on their work computer, meaning they won’t be able to hear any audio such as live streams, explainer videos, or app walkthroughs. Subtitling audio can improve their experience too.
One of your product users might have broken their favorite arm, and with a cast in place it could be difficult for them to use a mouse and navigate their keyboard. A solution like keyboard shortcuts would mean they could avoid using a mouse, and make it easier for them to use fewer keystrokes as they move around.
Making your website and product accessible makes things better for everyone, not just people with disabilities. It can also foster more inclusive, accessible practices across your wider organization.
Things to keep in mind when you’re running accessible research
If you’re just getting started with accessibility research in your organization, there are a few things to think about before you get started.
As with every UX research study, it’s important to clarify your goals first. Why do you need to undertake accessibility research, and why now? What are you hoping to solve, and how will you go about this?
Getting clear on these objectives will help keep your researchers focused, ensure they’re talking to the best possible research participants, and asking the right questions.
If you’re unsure how your product stacks up in terms of overall accessibility, it’s a good idea to run an accessibility audit before you start recruiting research participants. This can avoid wasting a lot of time if you suspect your product has some glaring accessibility issues.
This audit doesn’t include your research participants. It’s a preliminary process that helps you understand and fix any major accessibility problems first, so you can get more detailed feedback on the finer points of accessibility when you talk to your users.
You can get started by checking off common accessibility issues such as:
Checking what your unformatted website looks like
Checking contrast levels of button copy and text overlay on images
Increasing font sizes to see how it affects site content
Using a free tool to see how people with different types of colorblindness might experience your product
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a global standard to help companies determine where they’re at in terms of accessibility. WCAG has several accessibility compliance levels, but it’s generally easy enough for organizations to meet the basic level (A compliance) without too much effort.
The next step up, AA compliance, is the acceptable industry standard that you should aim for. Once you’re up to speed at A level, getting participant research input can help you reach the next level of accessibility remediation and validation.
If your product meets the industry standard, it means you don’t have any major accessibility issues, and you’re likely ready to launch into accessibility research studies.
TIP: You can print a copy of the WCAG accessibility checklist here to get started.
The most challenging part of running accessibility research can be finding the right participants, and ensuring you’re recruiting them in an inclusive and accessible way.
What will your criteria be for ensuring you talk to the people who can give you the best insights and responses around accessibility? And where will you find them? How can you ensure you screen for the right people, without accidentally creating exclusion in the process?
Inclusive recruiting can be tricky, but here are a few steps that can help:
Screeners - make sure that your UX screener surveys don’t exclude people who may have disabilities. And make sure that the screeners themselves are accessible! You could include general questions that screen for people with disabilities, or get more specific about the type of accessibility you’re researching (e.g. if you want to improve visual accessibility, you might include questions to find people who use assistive technology, screen reader users, or large text to help them navigate online).
Research agencies - **some research recruitment agencies either specialize in accessibility, or have pools of participants with accessibility needs. While sourcing participants from agencies may cost you a lot more than other recruitment methods, it can also save a lot of time and ensure you’re recruiting people that match your criteria.
Research panels - creating an internal research hub can help you recruit, manage, and build long-term relationships with accessibility research participants, as well as saving time and reducing spend on participant recruitment.
Non-profits and community groups - disability charities, organizations, and clinics can put you in touch with people who might be willing to contribute to accessibility research.
Read our new whitepaper to learn more: Diversity And Inclusion In Research Recruitment
Treat participants with respect
Accessibility research needs to begin with effective, responsible communication and the use of appropriate language at all touchpoints of your research study.
To build trust and motivate your research participants, and in order to understand each individual better, it’s recommended to use the language each person prefers when describing their own disabilities.
Build in introductory research questions such as:
How would you like me to address you?
Can you explain your disability to me in your own words?
Which terminologies do you prefer to use?
Allow extra research time
Research can take a lot of time no matter who you’re talking to. Taking into account the limitations and needs of participants with disabilities might mean you’ll need to allow plenty of extra time for them to complete research sessions and tasks at their own pace.
Offer inclusive incentives
Don’t forget that your incentives need to be accessible too! It can be difficult for many people with disabilities to cash in a gift card at the mall, or bank a check in person—so ensure you pay all your participants fairly, and with the method of compensation that works best for them.
What are the 4 areas of accessibility?
The wide variety of disabilities and personal needs of all your users can make it challenging to cover all your bases during accessibility research.
When you’re running research, it can be helpful to refer back to your initial goals and pinpoint the exact areas of accessibility that you’re trying to get insights on.
You’ll also need to ensure that what you’re asking (and how you’re asking it), complies with the laws of your country or state. In many places, disabilities are considered to be personal medical information—so any responses that are given might require special treatment and consent when it comes to privacy and data governance.
It’s estimated that 253 million people have some kind of visual impairment, and 1.1 billion people have near-vision impairment. Visual disabilities come in all shapes and sizes - from long and near-sightedness to things like color blindness, light sensitivity, lack of peripheral vision, and color blindness.
When you’re running visual accessibility research, you’ll need to understand the type of visual limitations each participant has, and how this affects their use of technology and the daily experiences they have with it.
For example, a large-scale Facebook visual accessibility study that sought to find out how blind users interact with the social network. Researchers discovered that these users were just as active as users without visual disabilities—but their key frustration was that they couldn’t interact fully with comments and conversations that discussed photo or video content.
With visual accessibility research, Facebook was able to pinpoint what these users valued most so they could find a solution to give them a richer, more inclusive experience.
Physical accessibility research includes users that have motor impairment, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, and physical stroke disabilities that limit their human computer interaction.
Research in this area ensures that your users with permanent and temporary physical disabilities will be able to easily navigate and interact with your product.
Cognitive accessibility research covers a broad spectrum of disabilities, including people with autism, mental illness, Alzheimer’s disease, intellectual disabilities, and mild cognitive impairment.
When you’re running accessibility research in this area, you’ll be looking at how you can create inclusive practices, apps, and experiences that remove the barriers for people who have varying degrees of disability that can affect how they process information.
Auditory disabilities can range from mild to severe. The findings of your auditory accessibility research can even have a positive impact on your users who aren’t able to listen to their devices with sound, for whatever reason.
Improving usability and integrating accessibility needs for your hearing-impaired users should at the very minimum cover offering captions and subtitles for video content, and transcripts for audio content.
Depending on your specific industry and product, you might even consider providing sign language presentations of your audio information—such as embedding a video of a sign language interpreter in a live video stream. This can help promote inclusivity as a brand, and provide your users with a richer experience when they interact with your digital content.
What are the research methods for accessibility?
Your research methods will depend on which of the four areas of accessibility you’re trying to get insights on, your research goals, target audience, and the budget and time frame you have to work with. For example:
Will you only need to run surveys?
Will usability tests be appropriate for your ideal participants?
Will in-person interviews be too difficult for disabled participants to take part in?
Which tools will you need to run your research sessions, and are those tools inclusive?
Do you only have time for a short study, or would long-term research serve you better?
When you’re conducting research, you might need to use various methods to identify usability barriers, develop more inclusive designs, and evaluate potential solutions to the accessibility issues that you uncover. Once you’ve run a few accessibility research sessions, you’ll be able to refine your process and see which methods give you the best results.
Some common research methods for accessibility include:
User testing - observing how people with disabilities navigate and interact with your product can give you valuable insights into user challenges and frustrations, so you can work towards creating a more enjoyable experience.
Surveys - simple surveys can help your researchers uncover information about barriers to user success or enjoyment, their experiences with your product, and any changes they’d like to see.
Group and 1:1 interviews - if you’re looking for qualitative data to improve your product, meeting in person with participants with disabilities can help you better understand their perspectives on accessibility, and the day-to-day challenges they live with. Interviews can let participants more easily share experiences and insights as opposed to giving written responses.
Participation in product design - involving users with disabilities in your design and iteration process can help you identify accessibility problems on the go. Collaborating in design sprints, workshops, and ideation sessions can enable your participants to voice their needs and preferences right from the development phase.
Convincing stakeholders about the importance of accessibility in research
Getting buy-in for research can be frustrating at the best of times, and advocating for accessibility can make things even more tricky when you’re trying to get a research brief signed off. But it’s essential that your organization understands the importance of technology accessibility—not just for your product, but for the wider society too.
User research teams are in the perfect position in your organization to talk to users and find out exactly what their specific usability challenges are.
This can help researchers drive more awareness around the huge range of accessibility issues that people face in their daily lives, and can have a positive impact when it comes to getting buy-in from stakeholders, partners, and executives to develop more user-centric products.
We hope this article has given you a good understanding of the importance, benefits, and methodologies around research accessibility—so you can plan how your researchers will weave this into your existing UX research process.
Accessibility research isn’t a one-off endeavor. Every time you update your website, app, or product there’s a good chance you’ll reduce accessibility again, so you’ll need to ensure your organization is proactively making an effort to meet, or exceed, the global standards.
If you’re looking to carry out UX research studies for your company, Consent Kit can help you formalize your recruitment process, manage participant data with ease, and ensure your studies are accessible, compliant, and efficient. Try it free for 14 days.