What to consider when planning a usability test that includes people with special needs
Lately, web accessibility has become a really important and trendy subject and with the new European Union directive and our government’s task force for accessibility, we are working harder than ever to find opportunities to make the online world accessible for all. It is great news for both the disabled as well as our ageing society.
When evaluating the accessibility of an online environment, it is important to incorporate an expert’s review in addition to the automatic checks. But apart from meeting the WCAG standard, there are additional aspects to the website that can make or break the user’s experience. If we want to test both accessibility and user experience in one go, testing with real users is key.
When conducting usability tests for a website that is meant to be used by a wide audience, it may be a good idea to include some people with special needs. Though there is a rainbow of different special needs, we need to create a sample of tester profiles based on the website and the purpose of the testing. For example, of a total of 10 testers, one could be blind, one with motoric disabilities and one with cognitive disabilities.
Taking part in the government’s task force for accessibility and creating the practical tool accessibility.twn.ee (in Estonian) I’ve done quite a bit of usability testing with people with special needs. In this article, I am sharing some tips and tricks for smoother testing.
How to find users with special needs for testing?
In most cases, we find participants for usability testing through social media, but to find someone with a specific disability, it is a good idea to contact the Estonian Chamber of Disabled People or more specifically the Estonian Federation of the Blind.
It is important to note that the participants should still be so-called regular level users. Meaning it is not a good idea to only incorporate people who are known as accessibility experts and assistive technology superusers.
Definitely find out what kind of assistive technologies the participant will use and take it into account when planning the testing.
Place of testing
When planning the testing, find out where the participant would prefer it to be held. For example, a user with motoric disabilities may feel more comfortable in their own home or some public area they often use, like a school or a cafe.
If the participant is coming over to your office, you may need to make sure that the office itself is accessible – that it is not necessary to take any stairs, that the elevator’s door is wide enough, that there’s an accessible toilet, that the desk is at least 70cm high so the wheelchair can fit under etc. Also consider meeting the participant in front of the house.
If the person is blind, you can offer them to take your shoulder or elbow for guidance. When arriving at the testing room, describe where the desk is and place their arm on the back of their chair. Don’t be alarmed when a participant with motoric disabilities asks you for help, for example taking their coat off. As usual, don’t forget to offer the participant some coffee, tea or water.
After the testing, take the person back outside and ask if you can offer any further help, for example calling a taxi.
Be ready for the participant to use their own device
When it might be relatively easy for a regular user to switch from using one computer to another or even from one OS to another, for a disabled person it may be harder or even impossible. Therefore, it is better if the participant is allowed to use their own computer or smartphone for the testing. Besides, it gives you the opportunity to see exactly how the person has configured their device and which assistive technologies they are using.
For example, blind users usually use a screenreader – a special program that reads out everything happening on the screen – and that is already installed, configured and ready to go on their devices. A person with low vision may have changed their device’s settings such as text size and colour profile. Someone with motoric disabilities may need to use a special mouse or keyboard, speech input or even an eye tracking device.
To conveniently review the testing results later and take notes, it is always recommended to record the testing. When the participant is using their own device, it is possible to record their screen with an external camera if they don’t have a screen recording program. Don’t forget to ask for the user’s permission before starting the recording and explain that the recordings are explicitly used for analysis and not shared with third parties.
Make sure that the website is accessible enough to be tested
Prior to inviting the disabled participants to the testing, it is a good idea to see if the website is even accessible enough to be tested.
First, try navigating the website with the keyboard by clicking the Tab key. If nothing on screen becomes focused, it is not possible to use the website without a mouse (think: motoric disabilities). If you are using Safari, make sure you have enabled navigating with Tab under Preferences > Advanced > Press Tab to highlight each item on a web page.
You can also try reading out the website with a screenreader – built-in VoiceOver for Mac or free NVDA for Windows – to see if anything is read out at all. If you have only just started using a screenreader, it is a good idea to review some basic commands for Voiceover or NVDA.
Duration of testing
It may take a little bit longer for people with certain disabilities to finish the test tasks, especially when they’re using their own devices which may take some extra time to be set up. I usually leave about 1,5 times the usual testing time for people with disabilities. If you’ve planned to do multiple usability tests on one day, leave some extra time between the tests because packing up the devices and leading the participants out of the building may take some time as well.
Presenting the tasks
As with any test, it is good to read the tasks out as well as present them in written (printed) form. For blind users, you could send the task on their e-mail before the testing starts.
If you’re testing with a user who has intellectual disabilities, be ready to explain the task a bit further and ask if they understand what they need to do. Usually, we should prevent helping the user as much as possible, but with disabled users, we may need to make some exceptions. Overall, we want to see how the user would handle the task independently so we should keep any hints to a minimum.
Don’t forget to explain the overall purpose of the testing and remind the user that it is the website that is being put to a test, not the user’s skills or abilities. You want to know if the website is easy to use not if “the user can make it”. It is better to also communicate that you are conducting a “usability testing” not “user testing”. It can help reduce the fears that many people can get when invited to a test, especially the elderly and novice tech users.
I hope this article helps you plan and run usability tests with disabled people. Testing with real users not only helps us discover usability issues but also “see the real person” behind the accessibility guidelines.