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How people in government are making their research more inclusive

Design researchers are responsible for advocating for people using government services. One of the biggest challenges we face is doing research that we feel represents the needs of all users - not just those who we think might fit neatly in the mainstream. Factors like race, ability, age, physical location, gender or digital literacy can put people at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to accessing government services.

For example, in 2019 researchers at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) partnered with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to look at how people with limited mobility file their taxes. In one instance, they found that having several paper touchpoints to access the service can create a barrier to access the benefits that people are entitled to. Information printed on paper is not readily readable for someone who is blind or has low-vision and uses a screen reader, or who has a physical disability and uses a computer to manage documents and information. If a touchpoint is available only via paper documents, this can put someone in the position of needing to rely on the assistance of another person, for a task that they would otherwise be able to complete by themself.

The goal of user experience (UX) teams across government is to improve situations like this for the people we’re meant to serve. Design research plays an important role in standing up for these people and their needs. But how can we do this work effectively?

Bringing a community together

In the CDS research community, we think about this so much that we decided to make it the topic of our last Design Research community of practice meetup. On November 4th, we ran a two-hour virtual event for 220 public servants across various levels of government in Canada about advocating for underrepresented users through UX and design research.

We heard from nine different speakers who helped us learn about the work that different government departments and agencies are doing to build inclusion into their research practices. Through this, our event’s goal was to inspire researchers across Canada to build or improve their own inclusivity.

Since it’s such an important topic, we decided to open this particular event up to public servants at all levels of governments.

What we learned

No, you’re not doing it wrong. This is difficult work.

There are so many challenges around running inclusive research - from finding and recruiting participants, to talking about difficult subjects, to doing the work to uncover your own biases that may be affecting the research. Bilan Hashi from the Ontario Workplace Safety & Insurance Board had a few tips around how to tackle this:

  • Focus on active listening and stay present during research sessions.
  • Be mindful if someone doesn’t want to talk to you or is unable to open up about their experiences.
  • Know your own limitations and protect your energy - it’s okay to pause if you need a break.

It takes a lot of grit and creativity to do truly inclusive work, but it’s also some of the most meaningful and rewarding work design researchers can do.

Find ways to communicate with many people

It can seem difficult to research or communicate with people when they have different backgrounds, experiences, or abilities from us.

For example, language barriers can affect a person’s full ability to participate in research. Jordana Globerman, who works on delivery modernization at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) told us about her experience using techniques such as graphic recording, infographics, and storyboards to overcome these potential barriers and foster inclusion and understanding beyond language.

Recognize bias, privilege and power dynamics

As researchers, we are here to learn from others, not draw from our own experiences. So it’s important that we’re aware of our own biases when recruiting and facilitating research, and that we actively reflect on and work against these biases.

We must also be aware that our position as researcher can have unintended consequences on our interactions with participants. A research session can feel intimidating to people. Nourhan Hegazy, a designer at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS), emphasized the importance of creating safe and open environments (both literally and figuratively) for people to share their stories and experiences.

Be inclusive from the beginning

It’s easy to cut corners when you’re working under tight deadlines and limited resources, but failing to think of inclusion early on can have serious consequences. Robust journey maps, outlining who can and might not be able to access a service, can help identify places where vulnerable or underrepresented people may start to fall through the cracks.

As researchers, we need to champion accessibility in our product teams from the start, and it helps if we can create a standard for this across teams. We also need to understand the difference between equality (giving all people the same opportunities) and equity (recognizing imbalances and distributing resources where they’re needed the most).

Connect and share with other teams

Government traditionally works in silos, which makes it difficult to effectively collaborate with other people involved in the same service. Or even to know if other people are doing similar work. It’s so important to create a shared experience across teams. Share widely and often, even if it’s not perfect. When others see the approach you’re taking, as imperfect or unfinished as it may be, it can inspire them to rise to the challenge.

Think no one is interested in hearing about your work? Think again. In organizing this event, we discovered that there is an appetite for this kind of sharing among public servants in Canada. Over 200 of you signed up for this event, and the response has really encouraged us to continue sharing and learning from all levels of government.

Want to organize your own meetup?

Since the appetite is there, if you’re thinking of organizing your own community meetup, here are some tips we learned about the logistics of holding a virtual event:

  • Just do it! Expect to make mistakes and ask for feedback. See this as a learning experience that’s part of your journey to becoming a better community organizer.
  • Start finding speakers early. Finding people who were willing and able to talk about this subject was tough, and we only finalized the agenda shortly before the event. It was stressful.
  • Leave lots of time for discussion. We learned that nine speakers was too many for our two-hour event. We received a lot of feedback from attendees who wished we had more time to talk about all the speakers’ amazing work.
  • Take some time to think about the experience of your attendees. For example, we tried to make this event as bilingual as possible but we made some mistakes. Not having french captioning, and not giving speakers enough time to present in both official languages were two things we would change for next time. Also: did you know that Zoom, unlike Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts, doesn’t offer built in captioning? Neither did we when we were organizing the virtual event, until one of our attendees who was hard of hearing asked us to provide captioning for the event.

Join us next time

We’d like to give a huge thank you and virtual round of applause to all of our brave and brilliant speakers who volunteered their time to share their work - you make these events and this community what it is. The full list of speakers is available on our event page.

Want to stay informed about the next CDS next Design Research community event? Sign up to receive emails about when we’re meeting next!