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Conducting remote research with people with access needs

Woman works on her laptop

While user researchers are adapting to conducting research remotely, there is still a challenge about how to do this with people with access and digital support needs. The user research community at the Government Digital Service (GDS) recently held a cross-government studio workshop to look at how to meet this challenge. The workshop included presentations from an expert panel made up of:

  • Kevin White, Head of Accessibility, Scottish Government 
  • Anika Henke, Senior Accessibility Specialist, GDS
  • Ariana Mihoc, Senior User Researcher, GDS
  • Erica Brown, User Researcher, Home Office

The panel’s talks covered topics including:

  • the importance of research with people with access needs and low digital skills
  • how we can use the accessibility empathy lab remotely
  • the impact of communication platforms on assistive technology
  • tips for running user research remotely

This was followed by a lively and engaged Q&A session, and our community learned and shared lots from the event. This first blog from the event draws out some of the most important tips and lessons we explored for working remotely with people with access and digital support needs.  

Top 10 lessons from the workshop

1. Recruit participants through offline channels

Recruitment was a real issue for many of the researchers present. We heard about contacting third party organisations as a way of recruiting the right mix of people and finding people with access or digital support needs; for example, specific charities working with particular groups.

2. Get to know the participant before the session

Prior to the session make sure you personally get in touch with the participant. Most people prefer a phone call, while others might find an email more suitable. 

The scope of this is to:

  • Introduce yourself
  • Offer the participant some reassurance
  • Learn what device they prefer to use
  • Learn what communication platform they are familiar with, for example what video conferencing software they prefer to use
  • Understand how their disability affects them and the assistive technology they use
  • Determine a reasonable amount of time to spend on the session by understanding how long they usually spend talking on the phone or doing various tasks online to judge how long the session should be 
  • Identify the participant’s availability and preferred time for the session

Allowing for extra time at the beginning of the session for the technical setup is a must.

3. Tailor the session according to each participant

Use the information you learned about the participant to tailor the user research session according to their preferences.

When selecting the communication platform, try to use one the participant is already familiar with. This will avoid additional time and stress for the participant to install or interact with applications that are new to them.

Due to functionality constraints and GDPR compliance you might find that the platforms you can use are restricted. In this case, speak with the participant and offer to assist them over the phone with preparing to join the session, use step by step instructions on how to do this, and install applications. Try to be patient, supportive, and encouraging when you do this. It is best to go through this task ahead of the session. Consider doing this the day before the research session.

4. Be responsive to the participant’s needs

Consider running the session when it is most convenient for the participant. Some people might prefer to do the session at certain times of the day when they can focus better.

 Also, sitting in front of the computer or phone for one hour doing tasks can be physically and mentally demanding. You will need to build in breaks, shorten the session or to split the research over several shorter sessions. 

5. Opt for the participant’s preferred device

People with access needs are more likely to have specific settings and technology installed on their devices to help them complete tasks online. It is therefore even more important to run a usability or content test using the device the participant is likely to use.

The most popular communication platforms allow participants to share their screen both on desktop, tablets or mobile devices, with little or no interference on the assistive technology.

6. Avoid using chat messaging

Chat messaging during the session can interfere with assistive technology like screen readers that people are using.

Also, on some communication platforms the chat messages can be in a hidden window during a video call. When people are not familiar with this functionality they might find it difficult to navigate to, and it might distract them from their task. If there are things that you need to send to the participant, such as a specific page or link to a prototype, try to do this ahead of the session via email or text messages.

7. Encourage people to have their webcam on

As a researcher, try to use your camera so that the participant can see you. By encouraging people to have their camera on, you will be able to see body language and actions that you otherwise might miss. This will also help with creating a better connection and empathy with the participant.

8. Prepare for things to fall over

Chances are, some sort of problem will unfold as you are running the research. The internet connection might crash; your participant might struggle to connect into your session; you might be interrupted by other people around you. Or as it happened to me, the participant’s laptop might be attacked by a virus halfway through the usability session. Try not to panic! It’s all fine! This has happened to many other people before and it’s ok. Just be aware that it could happen, and build in extra time to allow for things to go wrong!    

9. Think about people with low digital skills

You can still rely on phone interviews for reaching out to people with low digital skills or access needs. 

However it will be very challenging to conduct a usability test remotely with participants with low digital skills. One way of addressing this might be to check if there is someone within their network who would be able to give them assistance during the session. To make sure you are not excluding anyone it would be best to prioritise this group of people for future face-to-face sessions.

10. Continue to involve your team 

A powerful way to help your team build empathy for the end users is to facilitate their experience of observing research sessions. Our community has noticed that by hosting the sessions online, team members are finding it easier to join in. It is still good to limit the number of observers so that they do not overwhelm the participants.

At the beginning of the session, introduce the observers to the participant. After that, ask the observers to mute themselves and close their camera.

The workshop also discussed the benefits of running remote accessibility persona testing prior to usability testing with end users, and the capabilities of different communication platforms. These will be discussed in a forthcoming blog.

We hope you’ve found this blog informative and useful for running remote research for people with access needs. Please share your own tips, comments and questions in the comments section!

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  1. Comment by Alison Eakin posted on

    Fantastic. Really valuable insights. The UK really leads the way for research and accessibility!

  2. Comment by Claire Durrant posted on

    Lots of great advice for all remote research sessions here, even if people don't have access needs!