UX research has what is arguably the most humanizing effect on the design process. UX researchers (or UX designers conducting this research) get in direct contact with users’ needs, goals, pain points, and even the larger context of their lives as that impacts their product experience.
But what happens when we (unintentionally) exclude the needs of particular users? We end up with a product that is less useful (or entirely unusable) to entire groups of people. But the solution is simple: make your UX research inclusive.
In this guide, we’ll give you a brief overview of what UX research is, then dive into what you can do to make your user research more inclusive. Let’s get to it!
- What is UX research?
- Why does inclusion matter in UX research?
- Best practices for making your user research more inclusive
- UX research: Remote vs. in-person
Let’s dive in!
1. What is UX research?
UX research (or user research) is the study of users’ attitudes, behaviors, needs and pain points. It is a core part of the user experience design process.
UX designers and user researchers use qualitative and quantitative UX research methods during the discovery and testing phase of a project to understand target groups, define the problem space, and validate solutions.
At the beginning of a project, it’s usually generative research methods like user interviews that allow us to answer research questions like “who are our users?”, “what do they need?”, and “ what problems do they experience?”
Once we’ve generated ideas and prototyped solutions, we then use evaluative research methods (like usability testing) to verify if what we designed allows users to achieve their goals with ease.
Another popular user research tool are surveys, which can give insights on the attitudes of people towards a certain topic at a large scale.
Analytics, which is what we get when we track what people do when they visit a website or use an app, allow us to observe the current users’ behavior and spot opportunities for design improvement.
2. Why does inclusion matter in UX research?
User research is fundamental to UX design. It allows us to empathize with users, thus making our design work human-centered. In a certain sense, you could say that UX design has, by nature, a drive towards inclusion.
But to design experiences that truly make the world more inclusive for everyone, we must start by confronting our own unconscious bias. According the University of California at San Francisco:
“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.”
In other words, because our brains tend to automatically categorize and operate on varying degrees of assumption, we have a predisposition to favor some people over others, and to evaluate facts in an arbitrary way based on our own lived experience and preconceived opinions. And these unconscious biases affect the way we conduct research and design products. This means that we must involve the communities that we specifically want to design for, as well as those who are at greater risk of exclusion. If we fail to do so, we risk our research leading to the design of products that unfairly serve some groups of people better than others.
So many aspects of human identity and expression—including gender, ability, ethnicity, social class, body, relationship status, neurotype, accent, and so much more—can be impacted by bias. Let’s consider some examples.
The same diseases, treatments, and chemicals impact people’s bodies differently depending on, among other things, their sex and age. Yet many clinical studies are not based on a broad enough spectrum of humanity to generate useful data where this is concerned—resulting in a medical research gender gap. The solution? More clinical studies that include more female subjects and a wider age range.
In other words, more inclusive research would result in a more solid foundation of knowledge and actual medical treatments that work for more people.
Despite the fact that more than half of design roles are filled by women, 89% of design leadership roles are filled by men; and the gender gap in the tech industry as a whole is common knowledge. This means that men are often in charge of designing products for everyone else. So it’s not surprising that those products will end up showing it.
Aside from addressing the gender gap and the inherent bias in hiring and promotion that this reflects (a necessary and critical consideration, but beyond the scope of this article), there are many product design examples that highlight the urgent need for more inclusive research practices.
One example of this: When Fitbit launched a menstrual cycle tracking feature, it set a 10 day period limit that angered users and revealed the lack of basic research on the subject. The solution: More inclusive user research that involves a broader spectrum of the people the product is designed to serve.
Another example in the world of technology is how the data used to train AI has been shown to result in algorithmic injustice—where the algorithms are built (based on unconscious bias) to favor some types of people over others. The data we collect, and the efforts put into making that data inclusive, will determine how inclusive or not the solutions we develop will be. And there is no quick, easy fix, later on in the process.
The design of social platforms like Facebook or Instagram may result in the unjust shadowbanning of content created by some users, and it can have an impact on the posts and ads that are shown to them. And this problem could have been prevented in the first place if:
- Better, less biased data had been used from the beginning of the design process
- And if more research had been done on the impact of the platform’s design when the product was at a less mature state, perhaps dedicating resources to tackling racial bias in its algorithms would not be necessary now.
And this is just one example of how racism manifests itself in design.
Inclusion in user research matters because it lays a strong foundation for designing experiences that are accessible, welcoming, and safe for everyone. And this is not only a clear ethical and empathetic stance to take, it’s also one that makes good business sense. According to a report from the Centre for Inclusive Design in partnership with Adobe and Microsoft, products and services designed with the needs of people experiencing poverty, disability or the effects of ageing in mind can reach four times the number of intended consumers. There are also business benefits that come along with designing for everyone!
3. Best practices for making your user research more inclusive
We’ll outline six best practices here—ranging from the diversity of your research team to how you (continue to) educate yourself and your team.
Consider who is designing the product
Let’s say that you want to design an app. It can be anything, but to make it easier to imagine, you can think of an app that helps users with something you are familiar with, and that’s commonly needed by the majority of the population—such as healthcare or transportation.
If you want to create a product that is accessible and effective for everyone, start by looking around you. Start by asking:
- What kinds of people are going to design this app?
- Do they represent the variety of people that could benefit from what you are building?
This may feel counterintuitive at first. What does this have to do with whatever kind of app you’re working on? Consider this:
A team primarily made up of white, cisgender, able-bodied men is the perfect recipe for biased research because human beings create and change the world around them based on their own experiences of the world. It’s what we do. And that can be a beautiful thing in other contexts. But in user research, a team like this—even a well-intentioned one—is bound to craft research that’s in the orbit of their worldview and life experiences.
Creating more diverse teams requires leadership to commit to and dedicate resources to dismantling the structures that produced the lack of diversity and maintain inequalities in their hiring practices and organizational structure. HR managers are usually in charge of making hiring processes and employee experiences inclusive, but it’s really up to the whole team to do their part and to demand a working environment that is actually diverse and that empowers everyone to bring their unique contribution to the table.
The reality is that inclusive teams make better and faster decisions. As much as possible, make sure that the identities you want to research are also represented within the team that will conduct the research.
Don’t skip the desk research
Desk research is a quick way to get some initial understanding to guide any standard research process. Desk research starts with the question: What knowledge or information do I need that’s already available?
Even when it comes to inclusion, you might find that other UX researchers, companies, or institutions have already done some research and shared it with the world. If you’re lucky, their research was conducted in a context that’s relevant for your app, and you can utilize that knowledge to make your own project better.
There are also resources out there to speed your learning up and help you avoid huge mistakes. If you want to design accessible websites or apps, there are plenty of guidelines, articles, and software that can help you with that. Google also has its own guide to accessibility research for designers that is tremendously helpful across a variety of applications.
There’s also already information out there about how to write inclusive UX copy and tools that you can use to help you achieve this—such as Grammarly’s inclusive language feature (in its premium plan), an important consideration as you’re crafting research questions and interacting with users in testing sessions.
Intentionally recruit users that belong to the communities you want to include
Now you may have already learned something in your desk research, but now it’s time to plan some primary research—to collect data directly from users. At this stage, it’s important to understand who the right people to talk to actually are. We need to get the right data from the right people.
Recruiting the wrong people wastes time and money. Recruiting that is not intentionally inclusive can leave us unaware of the design and business opportunities we are missing out on because of our implicit or unconscious bias.
Give yourself a clear plan for the diversity that you need to have represented in your research. Then go recruit users beyond your usual circle. Revising survey screeners can help you verify that you are recruiting in an inclusive way.
If you’d like to learn more about how to conduct inclusive user interviews, check out this recording of a webinar we recently held on the topic:
Finally, it’s time to meet the people who will use your app. Any good UX researcher would not compromise on this; they treat the people they’re interviewing with respect—respect for their comfort, their time, and the effort they’re giving.
If you’re interviewing someone about a personal topic or experience that could be sensitive in nature (anything related to their race, gender identity, sexuality, disability, finances, etc.), give them a trigger/content warning as well as the option to skip any question they are not comfortable answering.
If you are testing a prototype with people who have a disability, a mental health concern, particularly harsh living conditions (such as homelessness or addiction), or a history with some kind of trauma, remember that the tasks you are asking them to complete might require them more effort than they are able to exercise during the testing session. If that happens, be prepared to compassionately finish the session early.
Involve all stakeholders
At this point, you should have gathered a good variety of inclusive data. Now it’s time to communicate your insights to anyone and everyone in the organization with the ability to influence the development of the app.
Allowing the broader product development team (product managers, engineers, etc.) to observe the research work you do and sharing your research insights with them should leave them in no doubt about the necessity of dedicating efforts and budget to inclusive research and design.
It will also increase the chances that this kind of inclusive approach is applied to other activities and milestones on product roadmaps, not just performative marketing actions.
Inclusion is not a one time effort. Continue expanding your knowledge, react quickly if you realize you have made a mistake, and invite others to join you.
Here are a few resources to start or continue your self-education:
- Inclusive Design Podcast | Sabrina Meherally
- Design Justice Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need | Sasha Costanza-Chock
- Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design | Shawn Henry
4. UX research: Remote vs. in-person
While some user research methods are intrinsically “remote” (such as A/B testing and true intent studies), ethnographic research, which relies on direct observation of the subject, has been traditionally conducted in person. Today, technology enables more remote research, and sometimes events such as a global pandemic may even leave it as the only viable option.
Remote and in-person research each have their pros and cons.
The opportunity for research participants to join a study from the comfort of their own home means that researchers have an easier time connecting with those who find traveling to the research lab difficult (or impossible!). At the same time, there are multiple reasons why some people are not able to participate remotely. This can be due to anything from an unstable internet connection to low digital literacy or other socioeconomic barriers.
If there are no outside factors to determine your choice, here are a few things to consider as you decide whether to conduct your research in person or remotely:
- Is there something that I could not observe by sitting at my desk? Am I willing to sacrifice the opportunity to observe it?
- Do the people that I want to learn about have convenient access to a computer and a stable internet connection? If so, would the environment they are in during the session be a safe and comfortable one?
- Can they come visit us? Can they do so without unreasonable effort?
Regardless of how you end up conducting your research, don’t let any situational limitations stop you from conducting the best and most inclusive research possible.
Does conducting inclusive user research mean that you’re guaranteed to have a perfect product? No. There are so many factors at play—among them our own learning processes. But knowing that your product won’t be “perfect” shouldn’t stop you from working towards making it more accessible and inclusive. One iteration after another. As UX professionals, that’s what we do.
As a UXer (or really, anyone working in a product or service development team), remember that good intentions alone are likely to translate into clumsy attempts to include. Awareness of unconscious bias is what allows you to understand that there’s a lot we can overlook; inclusive user research is your chance to get it right.
If you want to learn more about UX research and inclusive design, check out these other articles: