User Testing in Communities of Colour
by Jai Djwa
In my career, I have found it very fulfilling to conduct user testing in communities of colour. Working in community has been a real privilege. For me, being able to hear stories and listen deeply to people has been rewarding. But understanding how to respectfully work in communities of colour can be tricky and is a methodology that needs more nuance than the work I do in more general populations.
First, what I mean by communities of colour for me is to be working in non-dominant communities, such as Indigenous, Black and brown folks in Canada. While I have worked in the Asian community, as that is my background, I have predominantly worked in Indigenous settings. I certainly appreciate how Indigenous communities are becoming more empowered and winning back the rights stripped from their nations.
Second, I want to make clear that my own biases may emerge in this article, and I share my thoughts with the hopes of sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned and helping people avoid my mistakes. I grew up in a middle-class family with both parents, so my experience is different. I continue to try to check my own privilege and biases. The circumstances I’ve encountered might be very different for others, so this is just my experience and mine alone. I’ll accept responsibility for all of the shortcomings that my own journey reveals.
Here are five things to consider when conducting user research in communities of colour:
Understand the context: It’s essential to have a solid understanding of the historical and cultural context in which your research is taking place. This can help you approach the research with sensitivity and respect, and also ensure that you are not perpetuating harmful stereotypes or assumptions. Many communities have intergenerational trauma that impacts day-to-day life and having a trauma-informed lens is critical.
Build trust: Building trust is key to conducting effective user research in any community, but it is vital in any community of colour, where there is often a history of mistreatment and exploitation. This means taking the time to establish relationships and partnerships and being transparent about your intentions and how the research will be used. I see that many people try to engage communities through 1 or two emails, but this is far from sufficient. Face-to-face meaningful engagement is a hallmark of trust.
Be inclusive: Make sure you actively seek out diverse perspectives and include a range of voices in your research. This can involve reaching out to community organizations, recruiting participants from various backgrounds, and using inclusive language and materials. This includes having multiple ways that people can sign up and making it easy to understand waivers and consent forms.
Consider power dynamics: It’s important to be aware of any power dynamics that may exist between you and your research participants. This can involve being mindful of your own privilege and making an effort to level the playing field as much as possible. Many times I’ve realized my bias in the way I approach people and I try to be aware of this. For me, in an Indigenous context, learning about decolonization and the impact of residential schools is key. Why would people who have had terrible school experiences come to a town hall held… in a school? I’ve learned this lesson myself. And payment for assisting in a research project should be immediate and in cash, to help people avoid unnecessary stress in waiting.
Show respect: Showing respect for your research participants is crucial. This means being punctual, listening actively, and following through on any commitments you make. It also means being open to feedback and taking the time to address any concerns or questions that may arise during the research process. In any user testing experience, things can get derailed, and that is true especially when talking about sensitive subjects that have a cultural dimension, such as the impact of residential schools on Indigenous folks. So being aware that there should be cultural safety protocols or counselling assistance available can be a safety valve.
Ultimately, working in any community of colour can be a rewarding experience. It’s a chance to engage with people from diverse backgrounds and learn about their stories and perspectives. But in order to do so in an ethical and respectful way, it’s essential to understand the context, build trust, be inclusive, consider power dynamics, and show respect.
Conducting successful user research in a community of colour is to be willing to listen and learn from the experiences and perspectives of people with whom you engage.
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