Recruiting Users in the Disabled Community

A Lesson in Adaptability and Accessibility

We recently had the privilege to head up a user testing session that involved a wide range of participants, most of which had one or more disabilities. As it turned out, it was one of the best user recruitment and testing experiences we’ve ever had.

While we learned many things from the excellent users we met, we also learned a lesson that’s central to any effective user testing effort: While forging ahead, it’s important to pay attention to the details. Doing so helps you adapt your processes where needed, helping you find – and proceed along – the path that’s genuinely right for your testing effort.

Study Requirements

One of our clients approached us to perform a guerilla usability study made up of users with and without disabilities. Our client was required by the federal government to perform the product testing to obtain certification. The four segments required for certification included:

  • Users who were blind
  • Users with low vision
  • Users with low dexterity
  • Non-disabled users

To satisfy the certification requirements, each segment needed to have a minimum of eight participants.

Recruiting Approach

The first – and most daunting – step in the process was recruiting enough users to successfully perform the study. Frankly, we had little knowledge about these users, and we weren’t sure how we were going to find them. Fortunately, we were referred to the Atlantis Community Independent Living Center in Denver. Atlantis Community has supported the area’s disabled community for more than 40 years. Central to their mission is assisting their community’s efforts to live independently. Our client’s study fell right in line with that mission.

Atlantis Community’s staff helped our recruiting effort immensely. They passed along our fliers to prospective test users, sent out an inquiry to their email list, and even helped us craft and distribute a braille flier. These efforts ended up yielding us 50 to 60% of the users required for the study.

The Transportation Problem

We went into the study with the intention to pay a taxi service to transport users to testing sessions. It turned out that users preferred to get there another way: Denver has a program managed by the Regional Transportation District (RTD) called Access-a-Ride which provides free transportation to individuals with disabilities. Users preferred it to taxis because Access-a-Ride drivers are trained to accommodate them in ways taxi drivers aren’t.

While this service was very useful to the users, it was a bit of a hindrance to getting the participants we needed. The main problem with Access-a-Ride is that, in order for users to request rides, they have to plan a one-hour window to and another one-hour window from the testing session. Doing the math isn’t difficult: Potentially two hours spent waiting for transportation, an hour or more spent getting the actual rides to and from the testing session, and more than an hour spent doing the testing. That comes out to four to five hours of effort required from users just to get $20 (the cash incentive cleared by the client) and help people like them be more independent. Clearly, that’s a huge ask, and a usability problem in and of itself.

The Right Location

Even though we didn’t have enough participants for the study, we forged ahead. Atlantis Community was gracious enough to host us for four days of testing in their center’s lobby. The location was in an old public school. The environment gave us the perfect context for the products we were testing. The test conditions (e.g., noise, light levels, ambience) allowed us to test the users properly.

When we arrived, we met up with Jim, our main contact at the Independent Living Center. We let him know exactly where we were with recruiting. He put the word out with the staff that we were looking for people – and we were paying.

The Walk-In Game

For the next four days, we maintained our scheduled appointments while also pulling in walk-in participants with the prospect of $20 and a good time. The Atlantis Community staff jumped in to help, too, volunteering themselves and directing the people they had appointments with. Even Access-a-Ride’s initially troublesome latency helped us. Folks waiting for rides in the lobby happily took the test while they were waiting to get picked up. We ended up getting a full docket of users, with time to spare.

Success and Satisfaction

The testing proved very successful for our client. In fact, they came back to us six months later and asked us to do it again. The next time, we brought their newly hired UX guy along for the ride to show him how we rolled. The intent was to show him how to take our approach and bring it in-house. (Believe it or not, this is what Lousy does. We would rather teach our clients to fish… especially if we are learning to fish, too.)

Building on Our Success

When we went into the second round of testing, we were able to build upon our existing relationships while also developing some new ones. This time, in addition to the Atlantis Community, we added another testing location. In the first session, we tested two instructors from the Colorado Center for the Blind. After the session, they extended an invitation to us to consider them if we ever did any additional user testing. (Of course, we took them up on that.)

We also reached out to the people we’d tested in the first round, pulling some of them for additional testing. It was good to catch up with them, and rewarding to show them some of the improvements that our client had implemented based on their prior feedback.

Interestingly, although our recruiting numbers were better this time, we still had to depend on walk-in traffic. Fortunately, the community centers we worked with were more than willing to pitch in and help.

Results

  • Led a dynamic user testing effort that achieved the client’s goals, adapting our approach as needed to clear challenges and capitalize on opportunities
  • Met client’s government-dictated needs for four very specific user testing segments
  • Developed a user testing process customized to the unique needs of the required user groups
  • Built strong relationships with local user organizations aligned with client’s mission – relationships the client can continue to benefit from in future user testing efforts
  • Included client’s newly hired UX designer in second round of testing, training him in the user testing techniques we’d employed and introducing him to our user organization contacts
  • Strengthened our mutually beneficial client/Lousy relationship, positioning us to support future user testing and UX efforts as needed