Skip to main content

User research: accessibility guidance

What user researchers need to do to make digital services accessible.

Identify target groups and accessibility challenges

For: User research

In the discovery part of the project, you need to understand how it will affect people with access needs. Consider:

  • whether it will cause particular accessibility challenges, for example for people who can't read text
  • whether it will affect disabled people differently
  • how it might affect people with complex needs
Resources to help you

GOV.UK has a set of user profiles to help you understand disabilities and impairments.

Your organisation may have an internal network of people who have access needs. (NHS Digital has an Ability Network, for example.) Colleagues with access needs may be willing to help with initial research and establishing the requirements for a project. But you must also test your product with your target audience.


Involve people with access needs at every stage

For: User research

In the UK, almost 1 in 5 people have a disability of some kind. Many more have a temporary impairment like an illness or injury. Try to include 1 person with access needs in every 5 people you research with.

Involving people with access needs in user research doesn't just help identify accessibility issues. It shows up general issues that affect everyone.

Involving people with different abilities at different stages
  • Interviews: include people with access needs from the start.
  • Paper or low-fidelity mock-ups: you can include people with hearing, communication, and dyslexia access needs. You may be able to include people with other needs too if you adapt the scenario, for example, by using the wizard-behind-a-curtain method to explore screenreader interactions. (This is where users think that they are using a real system but in fact the researcher is controlling it.)
  • Working HTML prototypes: you can test them with people with mobility, cognitive and vision (magnification) issues.
  • Live services or sites: include people who use speech output, speech input, and colour-changing plugins.

A Home Office blog on Working together to achieve accessibility explains how they test accessibility at different stages in the development lifecycle.


Recruit people with access needs

For: User research

Recruitment agencies

Ask your agency to include people with access needs. If they say it's too hard or want to charge extra for this, get quotes from other recruiters. You should be able to find an agency that will recruit people with different needs at no extra cost.

Charities and voluntary organisations

Build relationships with organisations that represent or work with people who have access needs. They may be able to help find participants. Do not forget to tell them afterwards how their feedback and time has changed your product or service. Or offer them something in return, like training or advice.

More about recruiting a mix of participants

The mix of participants will vary depending on the type of research or interface you're testing. During the project, try to include people with:

  • learning and cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, or a learning or intellectual disability
  • limited mobility, for example, someone who uses voice or another alternative input or who has a disability which makes it difficult to use a mouse
  • low vision, for example, someone who adjusts their computer with a screen magnifier or zoom controls
  • no vision, for example, someone who uses a screen reader
  • no hearing - you may need a sign language interpreter at the same time

For small or specialist user groups, focus on testing the interface

For: User research

It can be difficult to find people in small or specialist target audiences who also have access needs. In that case, focus on testing the interface with people with access needs.

Example of testing with a specialist user group

For example, if your service is for staff in GP surgeries who book appointments, you could recruit someone with access needs and give them a short introduction to appointment booking at the start of a session. Then focus on any issues they have with the interface.


Run technical tests for accessibility beforehand

For: User research

Check that the thing you're testing is technically accessible - for example, that it works for people who use screen readers or voice input.

This applies to your survey software too. If you're using Qualtrics, as many user researchers do, be aware that it's not fully accessible.

More about surveys and assistive technologies

For basic surveys, asking users to write something in a text box or to select from a few options, your software should be OK. But people who use assistive technologies may have problems with matrix tables, rank order or slider questions.

Test your survey with assistive technologies, including a screen reader, keyboard, in high contrast mode, and by zooming in to 400% at least.


Understand participants' needs before you test

For: User research

Make it easy for people with access needs to take part in the research by planning the venue, the tech and the "paperwork" around their needs.

Helping people with access needs take part - examples
  • Be prepared to go to people's homes. Some users can't get to a research lab or bring their tech with them. It can also help to see users in their natural environment. Go with a colleague (not on your own) and take any equipment you need. Get the user's permission to record in their home. Arrange a start and finish time and stick to it.
  • Check that the venue is accessible. Can someone with a wheelchair get to the room? What about the toilets?
  • Invite people to bring their own devices and plan any recording around that. It takes less time to adapt the recording than for someone to adapt to a device they haven't used before. Make sure that the thing you're testing is hosted somewhere where the user can access it and that there is free wifi for them. Consider making a short URL using Bitly, for example.
  • Send forms (such as data protection forms) in an accessible Word document well before the session. Participants should not have to read a paper copy in order to take part. It's OK to ask them to sign the paper copy so long as it's identical to the version you sent them.
  • Ask users if they need you to arrange transport for them. If so, use a taxi company with accessible vehicles and give the participant plenty of notice about pick up and drop off times.

If you're new to user research with people with access needs, pair up with another researcher who has done accessibility testing before. Or do a session with an external provider to get experience of this type of testing.

Read about researching emotionally sensitive subjects in the GOV.UK service manual.


Make your research more accessible on the day

For: User research

  • Meet people at the front door of the building and escort them to the room.
  • Give them plenty of time to settle in. Tell them that they can end the session at any time or take a break during it if they need to. Leave enough time between sessions.
  • Make sure there's a seat for a helper or interpreter.
  • Reassure people that there are no right or wrong answers and that if something isn't working, it's not their fault.
  • Make sure that any colleagues who are attending know how to be a considerate observer. Give them a copy of the GDS user researcher tips (PDF, 161KB).

Look after your team

For: User research

It's important that the team supports one another. User research in health can be tiring and emotional. Sometimes users might tell you stories that are hard to hear or you might see them struggle.

It's OK to take some time out during a day of research or, as a user researcher, to ask for someone to stand in for you.

Check in with your team mates during and after research and take time to reflect together.


Share your research

For: User research

Share your research findings with colleagues, taking out any personal information.

Feedback about NHS components and help us improve this guidance.


Get in touch

Join us on the NHS digital service manual Slack workspace or email the standards team at service-manual@nhs.net.

Updated: July 2019