Getting Started with Accessible User Experience (UX) Research

Why to include students with disabilities into UX research


As educators and researchers, we are committed to centering students with disabilities and marginalized identities in our work. However, we recognize that we cannot truly understand the individual or collective experiences of our disabled students, nor of their intersectional identities. However, it is our privilege and responsibility to work toward this understanding, to listen to and to elevate student voices, and to advocate for accessible practices within higher education. 

What is accessible UX research?

Like many library practitioners, we understand the importance of reducing barriers and ensuring the accessibility of our resources, services, and online content. We also recognize that in our work, we are increasingly designing web content for diverse learners, including websites, online research guides, and tutorials, that may provide multimodal learning experiences. While we know that we can (1) design using an inclusive universal design framework, and (2) evaluate the conformance to accessibility standards, there may still be barriers that are unknown to us during the design process.

These considerations led us to discover and conduct accessible user experience (UX) research. The World Wide Web’s Consortium (W3C)’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) defines accessible user experience as “combining accessibility standards and usability processes with real people [to] ensure that web design is technically and functionally usable by people with disabilities.” By involving participants with disabilities, we can gain valuable usability insights from their experience and learn of any potential barriers. 

In our own study, “Centering Students with Disabilities: An Accessible User Experience Study of a Library Research Guide,” we asked six students with various disabilities to evaluate both the accessibility and usability of a library research guide. Recruited in partnership with our campus disability resource center, our study participants represented a diverse range of disabilities including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and visual impairment. Using a combination of common usability testing methods, such as task completion, interviews, observation, and think aloud protocol, we collected data on their experiences and made note of any barriers. 

Screenshot showing guide improvements such as increased font size, color contrast, and embedded video with closed captions.
Screenshot showing guide improvements such as increased font size, color contrast, and embedded video with closed captions.

We found that while the guide was usable for all participants, it was not fully accessible to them. By involving disabled students in our research, we were able to identify and improve design elements that were missed in conformance testing, such as hard-to-read links and confusing navigation. However, we acknowledge that the experiences of these six students do not encompass the experiences of every learner with disabilities, and that accessibility requires continuous assessment and improvement.

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What are the most important things to consider?

While we highly recommend accessible UX research and centering disabled learners, involving students with disabilities requires some important considerations. Keep these suggestions in mind when getting started with your own UX research.

  • Partner with an accessibility expert that can collaborate on the design of the study, assist with the recruitment of participants, and answer any other questions that may arise. This is key!

  • Develop clear, plain-language instructions, task scenarios, and/or interview questions. Include ample time for tasks and breaks as needed. 

  • Prepare for verbal or nonverbal communication, and allow for the use of assistive technologies. Make these technologies available to the participant if possible.

  • Remove physical barriers and ensure the accessibility of the testing environment, such as providing an adjustable height desk and minimizing distractions within the space.

  • Provide opportunities for participants to ask questions and share needs throughout the study. Provide gentle reminders and check in at various stages.

  • Learn and keep informed of accessible design and inclusive research practices. In addition to partnering with an accessibility expert (if you’re not one yourself), check out the links below. 

How can I learn more about accessible UX?

To learn more about accessible user experience, and web accessibility in general, we recommend the following resources:

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✍️ Interested in contributing to LTI? Send an email to Deb V. at Choice with your topic idea.