Accessibility Research: How to get started

7 min read

Typeform's journey into accessibility research and ways you can get started, too.

7 min read
  • ChallengeHow did a user researcher new to accessibility set up research to support Typeform's accessibility journey?
  • Solution: Closely collaborating with members across the organization, setting up interviews and user tests with people living with disabilities, and nurturing internal knowledge sharing.
  • ResultTypeform treating accessibility as a continuous development, rather than a one-off project.

It's been almost a  year since I started to ponder the question of what user research could do to inform the ongoing accessibility initiatives at Typeform. I had just joined Typeform and was extremely impressed by our commitment to make the respondent experience accessible to everyone. I later learned this was a long-time request by our customers and the accessibility community. 

As I think about our journey almost a year later, there are a few lessons that come to mind. Things I wish I knew when I started this journey to accessibility, and things I wish I’d done differently.  

Key to success: Understanding how user research can bring unique value

It took some time for me to understand how user research could bring value to our ongoing accessibility efforts. Our team was already running accessibility testing. Usually, during development and in final reviews, with the support of a third party. By getting deeper into the topic— talking to a previous user research colleague and listening to Typeform users living with disabilities— I understood something important.

“An experience can be accessible, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's usable.”

Olga Hörding, Principal User Researcher, Typeform

The most effective way to understand if an experience is usable is to involve people with disabilities throughout the product development process. This doesn't mean we shouldn't continue with our accessibility testing. However, it can be limiting as the testers are unfamiliar with disabilities. By working with people with disabilities who have specific needs, we can better understand their challenges.

So, I had a thought: let's involve users with disabilities all of the time, and as early as possible. In an ideal world, of course! But, I soon realized that if an experience is not developed with accessibility in mind, a user testing session will be futile. That’s because someone using assistive technology won't be able to get through the experience if the technology isn't supported.

To get the buy-in to focus on accessibility you might need to take your current experience, show it to users and go through the painful exercise of not being able to get through the experience at all. However, to save both your time, and your research participant's time, I would argue it best to use other strategies to create user empathy and get the buy-in needed. A few examples that we've found useful are: 

  • Setting up calls with users who reached out to Typeform on our social platforms about the poor accessibility experience.

  • Creating business cases about why we should focus on accessibility.

  • Pointing to the numbers behind the accessibility challenge and the potential impact the business could have. 

Avenues to getting started with accessibility user research

When I understood what user research could bring to the table, the time had come to actually get started. We had the opportunity to partner up with Fable - an online platform where digital teams can engage people with disabilities in research and on-demand testing. I was pleased we were able to get this platform to support us as I knew very little about the topic. However, I'm aware that this is not the case for all user researchers. Therefore, I'll focus on the general avenues user researchers can take to get started. 

Engage in interviews

One of my first learnings is to set up interviews with users of different assistive technologies as early in the design process as possible. We first focused on setting up unmoderated user tests to make sure our experience was compliant and usable. However, it was hard for me to contextualize the feedback we received. I realized later, this was because I hadn't seen anyone using assistive technology e.g. a screen reader (a screen reader empowers users to hear content and navigate with the keyboard by converting digital text into speech), or a switch (a switch is an assistive technology device that replaces the need to use a computer keyboard or a mouse). After those first interviews, I felt much more comfortable engaging in the discussions with my team members from different departments. 

Testing makes perfect

Now that we understood as a team how people use assistive technology, we were able to run an unmoderated user test with 5 users using different assistive technologies. We determined from here which technologies we had the most opportunity with and set up follow-up interviews to get a deeper understanding of the issues. If we had the opportunity to talk to the same users who went through the unmoderated test, we made sure to summarize their previous feedback and share it in the session. This has shown to be a useful way to make sure we don't miss out on feedback or interpret it incorrectly. Additionally, we got the impression from our research participants that they appreciated the ability to get deeper into an issue, rather than having to repeat their feedback. 


The value of empathy in accessibility

I want to go deeper into why it took us some time to set up those initial interviews. To be honest, I think I was a bit worried that I would do something wrong or offend someone by using words like "what do you see on this screen?" to someone who can't see. Reading the article "The top 5 things you should know when working with people with a disability" by Fable made me become more comfortable. Additionally, in the first rounds of interviews, I was very open with this being my first session - setting the expectations of my knowledge and encouraging the research participants to explain their experience on a very basic level. 

Looking ahead, we seek to find a sustainable way to collect and incorporate accessibility user research findings early into the product development. A couple of things we are focusing on right now is to document all findings and split them into "issues" that are acted on directly, and "improvements" for later prioritization. When a product manager or designer looks to refine a feature or create a new one, they can review the list of "improvements". This gives an initial understanding of the needs and challenges people with disabilities have when interacting with our product.  

Scaling knowledge through others

“What would be a possible reason for failure when it comes to incorporating accessibility over 2021?”

Yuri Martins, Principal Product Designer, Typeform

“The biggest thing that I think causes risk is centralizing the subject matter expertise. Turnover is normal, and losing an accessibility lead can really hurt the progress that an organization is making. The more distributed the responsibilities related to accessibility and the more champions across the teams, the higher likelihood for success.”

Abid Virani, COO at Fable

Scaling our knowledge about accessibility to others in the team has been vital for us. Being new to accessibility, I realized early on that I had to lean on others to speed up my knowledge in order to make an impact. Research is only one part of the puzzle, and for me to successfully provide the user's perspective, I had to learn more about accessibility when it comes to different fields: e.g. design, engineering, and even legal. To increase our shared knowledge about accessibility, we nurture internal knowledge sharing and learn from external sources. Hopefully, with this initiative, we can also start to give back to the community and share our learnings. Here’s a key takeaway our product designer shared from a webinar: 

“In order to be successful with accessibility, the concept needs to be integrated across the organization. ”

Yuri Martins, Principal Product Designer, Typeform

Not giving up on the journey

We are still at the beginning of a journey to bring everyone on board. But here are a couple of initiatives that we've kicked-off: 

  1. Started an accessibility guild with representatives across departments to learn from each other and become experts within our fields.

  2. A quarterly accessibility report shared company-wide to keep everyone up to date on the latest learnings and project progress. 

  3. Presenting accessibility in our company-wide All Hands, heavily emphasizing on the people using assistive technology to increase awareness of accessibility. 

This is our journey to make Typeform accessible to everyone. And we’ve only just begun. Stay tuned for more insights as we learn! 

Helpful resources you can use to get started on accessibility research: 

Olga is a Principal User Researcher at Typeform who is all about fueling business and product decisions with the help of its users. Being a Swede, she enjoys spending her free time in the Swedish archipelago and enjoying nature with friends and family.

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