Doing User Experience Research with Diverse/Global Populations


Take 2: Diversifying

Users and Makers

How can tech tailor user experience research to reach more women, minorities, and global populations?

UX Research and Tech's "New Normal"

As user experience research and design becomes a site for unparalleled innovation in tech, the field is revisiting the question of who participates in these studies, and how. We have figured out how to get into the mechanics of what makes our users tick; the challenge now is to reimagine the role of user to include those whose experience falls off the radar: users with disabilities and elders; young people in the inner city; pioneering entrepreneurs in Latin America or in regions using mobile connectivity differently; new parents with little time to manage the online journals UX Researchers ask them to keep. 

In order to serve global markets, and to move toward a more "universal design," as design thinking values, UX is beginning to imagine partnering with minoritized and global users. By minoritized, I mean those who belong to groups who, as a result of historical patterns and social policy have less access to tech resources (including those that make up a majority or plurality of the populations, such as women or people of color). Brilliant UX researchers now specialize in understanding the experience of aging users, children, and disabled users. At CultureEncode, we have conducted over a decade of research with precisely these kinds of users and makers to make space for them in the global digital landscape-and to amplify their unique potential for collaboration and innovation.


One of the trickiest steps in expanding the UX research population is recruiting diverse participants; focus groups, home visits, online journaling, and even accessing gift cards and other incentives are more difficult for some users. 

One concrete step users can take involves asking members of groups underrepresented in UX research what kinds of incentives work for them. Where digital payments may be less accessible to seniors or users with certain disabilities and/or language barriers, physical incentives like jump drives, headphones, or portable chargers are more tangible rewards that do not require much experience with online banking. For younger populations, access to online training and apps may be more useful. For global populations, credit with mobile service providers is a universal premium.  

Another step is to locate cultural interlocutors--a term borrowed form anthropology that means: "one who speaks in between." Interlocutors can help UX recruiters find unconventional ways to plug into a population: something like a sub-recruiter with nuanced knowledge of the user community. These could be anthropologists or nonprofit workers with an investment in plugging the communities they work with into the digital landscape, or leaders in local communities who can help find the right kind of participants for the study at hand. Their experience is invaluable--Interlocutors are also excellent partners in understanding data and custom-tailoring research design. At CultureEncode, we maintain a database of professionals with engaged expertise who are willing to get involved.

Ethnography: Collecting Richer Data through Cultural Research

At CultureEncode, we have designed a number of ways to collect, analyze and apply richer data to the problems tech is trying to solve. Key methods include:

  • Identify tastemakers and pioneers by getting to know a community: visiting in person, asking around, and finding out who is making the media, coding the websites, and self-teaching the technology is invaluable. 

  • Build long-term relationships with participants who understand the rhythms of UX research and need little persuasion to actively participate in studies, and who can help recruit new participants.
  • Invent new ways to collect data that allow participants to easily access UX methods (in-person home and site visits are an exciting, data-rich wellspring for UX research); retain their privacy if using platforms relating to their health/finances/personal communication, or finding ways to account for and value the "soft" data that comes from open-ended or even user-guided communication with and observation of users (anthropologists have been doing this for centuries!).

Accounting for "Off-Label" Uses 

One of the most exciting possibilities in working with marginalized UX populations is the emergence of what I call "off-label" uses of the technology--platforms, hardware and software used in "unconventional and mispurposeful ways" in order to work for people with digital needs outside the mainstream. At CultureEncode, we recognize these kinds of uses as valuable sparks of innovation that are key to both universal/accessible design, and to imagining new design possibilities. Contact us for a consultation on how global design thinking can help your project to grow!


AliColleen Neff