How accessible is your research?

A recent project on the topic of accessibility got me thinking about what this means in the context of online research, and the many benefits if we are all more aware of this.

You’ve probably heard of accessibility in both physical and digital contexts. Accessibility can impact someone permanently (for example, being deaf), temporarily (someone with an ear infection), or situationally (when in a loud environment). And beyond this audio example, it exists in a myriad of ways we often can’t see.

Rather than ignoring the issue and potentially excluding 25%* of the country, we should consider how to ensure that what we do is understandable for all. The benefit? Research that more people can get involved in, and that can be widely socialized to deliver real impact.

Qualitative moderating

We’ve all experienced the drop in your stomach when you realize your focus group or interview participant is actually answering a different question to the one you asked. Rather than thinking “they’ve misunderstood me”, instead think; “I haven’t been clear.”

Don’t just repeat your question (especially not louder or slower). Reconsider your choice of words, the order you use them in, and the overall length of the sentence. A shorter question requires less cognitive effort to remember how it started. Ask a question in two parts if necessary. And while you have a beautifully crafted guide in front of you, always consider how to probe in different ways and how to articulate different versions of a question to find one that connects:

  • How did that make you feel?
  • What was the impact of that?
  • Earlier you said you _______. How did that change?
  • You sound ______. What lead to that?

Quantitative surveys

At least with live participants (on a screen these days) you can course correct. But with quantitative surveys, you cannot be 100% sure how your questions are being interpreted.

Make sure your survey is tested by someone outside the project team, who isn’t invested in the questionnaire and hasn’t spent weeks immersed in the topic. They’ll be able to tell you any points of confusion or questions that were too much effort to answer. For particularly strategic or high-profile surveys, such as segmentations, run a pilot with real participants.

Consider areas such as the following:

  • Can this audience answer all the questions? Do you need different routing, or more ‘don’t know’ options?
  • Are any of the questions ambiguous? Could they be understood a different way?

Is the stimulus still readable on a mobile device?


After deep and painstaking analysis, you emerge with the ‘answer’, the evidence structured in line with the Pyramid Principle, and a storyboard of impactful slides. Then the client provides feedback and wants to completely reorder the report. This is the life of a researcher.

One way to head this off is with stakeholder interviews upfront. Time spent getting to know the end-users personally can help you keep them in mind throughout the project and especially when shaping deliverables.

But ultimately your client knows their stakeholders best: what evidence they will find most convincing, what findings they will want to discuss first, what emotional response we should elicit. Thinking about the audience in this much detail is how we ensure our insights are accessible.

This shows up in two places. Firstly, in the detail:

  • Have we labelled the axis of every graph?
  • Are we using consistent colors for a subgroup throughout? And will those colors show up on any screen?
  • Is it obvious what is a quote, and what is commentary?

Secondly, in the big picture:

  • What context should we include about the research participants?
  • Can the central insight be summarized in a sentence? If not, is the report memorable enough?
  • What is the call to action we want to end with?

And one final way we’re seeking to make our outputs more accessible is by using video. A 3-5 minute ‘digital executive summary’ (with closed captions throughout) might be more likely to get the attention of those higher up who cannot spend 60 minutes in a debrief.

Researching with empathy

This may seem like obvious stuff. But adding an accessibility lens over our online research will ensure more of our intended audience can participate or benefit from the work we do. Being more understanding of the many different needs that exist should be one of our guiding principles.

We are at the beginning of our journey to Designing with Empathy; we’d love to hear your thoughts, get in touch.