‘Tokenistic’ inclusion: why you should run dedicated usability testing with disabled people

Posted by Ken Groom on Dec 20, 2022 12:13:23 PM
Ken Groom

Often, we receive requests from clients to include one or two people with disabilities in a round of usability testing. This may be either because they are genuinely interested in improving the accessibility of their website or they want to tick the ‘equality’ box. While one motivation is more noble than the other, neither will produce useful or effective results. Here’s why…

Your website may not be technically usable

Many websites are very difficult for people with disabilities to use. This is because of basic issues with how the website has been built, the design that has been used and the way content has been written.

Unless accessibility has been a priority during website development or work has been done subsequently to improve things, the website is unlikely to be very accessible.

This means that many disabled users will struggle to explore the site. For example, the navigation may not be keyboard operable, so screen reader users and sighted keyboard users can’t move around the site; or the focus order is incorrect, so screen reader users can’t understand the structure of page content; or the colour palette has insufficient contrast, so colour blind and visually impaired users can’t read the links, and so on!

These are mostly easy problems to fix and work should be done to ensure the experience is technically as good as it can be before asking users with disabilities to test your site. Forcing a disabled person through a bad user experience is not going to help anyone!

It won’t be a good assessment of accessibility

Even if your testers can move around the site, you will likely only gain a snapshot of how accessible the website is. This is because:

  • By only including one or two disabled people in your sample, you are only able to represent one or two types of disability. This is not inclusive as the needs of one person will differ vastly to another. For example, a blind screen reader user will not identify any colour contrast issues while a sighted users will not pick up the technical issues with how a screen reader announces content.
  • Testing sessions typically last no longer than an hour. In this time, you are unlikely to be able to complete many tasks with your testers. If you are only running sessions with one or two disabled people, you are only going to be able to test a very small part of the website.
  • Usability testing sessions are generally focused on understanding users’ needs and how effectively the website meets these. This leaves little time to focus specifically on accessibility so the testing will not be comprehensive

The best way to improve accessibility of your website

The best way to make your digital service genuinely accessible is to carry out a dedicated process of improvement focused specifically on accessibility, not to tack it on to a usability project as an after thought. This would typically include the following stages:

  1. An accessibility audit to identify and fix technical accessibility issues that impact how assistive technologies interact with website. This will remove immediate barriers to use for many disabled people and allow them to at least access the website (even if the experience is especially enjoyable)
  2. A dedicated programme of testing with people with a comprehensive range of disabilities to assess and improve the practical accessibility of the website. By focusing specifically on testing with disabled people, you are able to be inclusive of more disabilities and dedicate the time necessary to undertake a detailed assessment of the website.

Prioritising accessibility means prioritising people with disabilities. Accessibility testing should not be an afterthought or a box ticking exercise as improving the online experience for this group will make things better for all your users.

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Topics: Accessibility, Usability Testing

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