The federal government is encouraging—and in some cases, mandating—the inclusion of more diverse groups in research for digital projects. That’s for good reason: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the overall racial and ethnic diversity of the country has increased since 2010. This growing diversity, paired with advancements in technologies that allow people with different abilities to access sites they weren’t able to access before, has underlined the need for a more inclusive approach to the research and testing of federal government websites.
As the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) states in its September 2023 guidance, “Delivering a Digital-First Public Experience,” people expect their experiences on those websites to be on par with their favorite consumer websites and mobile applications. The guidance “provides a robust policy framework for the next decade of digital modernization across government so agencies have common standards for delivering online tools and experiences that meet today’s expectations.”
But agencies must also adhere to government mandates to advance racial equity and provide more support for communities who have been traditionally underserved. A February 2023 executive order states that “agencies shall … conduct proactive engagement, as appropriate, with members of underserved communities—for example, through culturally and linguistically appropriate listening sessions, outreach events, or requests for information.”
With the importance of diversity and inclusion in the spotlight, agencies must be more intentional in their research efforts to ensure their digital experiences meet the needs of the population at large. In our work, we have found that it is essential to include multicultural communications experts in the UX process, creating collaborative teams who excel at engaging diverse communities. By taking an audience-first approach to digital design and community engagement, we are able to help our federal agency clients deliver excellent digital experiences.
As you consider your own programs and initiatives, you may not know where to start. How can you create a more intentional research process that focuses on diversity and inclusion? This article walks through our framework and offers tangible suggestions and recommendations you can use to build more inclusive digital experiences.
The significance of including diverse participants in research
People come to federal government websites when they’re looking for important information. If they can’t find what they’re looking for quickly, or don’t feel like the site was made with them in mind, they may go to another source that is disreputable. In our experience with research participants who haven’t used a federal government website before, we’ve found they often learn for the first time about services available through the government that can benefit them.
Including diverse groups in digital research requires a truly human-centered approach that meets the needs of the many, not a limited approach that benefits just one group. Building a digital service, program, or tool that reflects the needs and goals of all the people who may rely on it can help alleviate systemic inequities rather than create new ones.
A framework for recruiting—and retaining—diverse research participants
Based on our experience with several federal and public health agencies, we’ve developed a tactical framework that can help program managers engage more users in their research efforts.
Align on what “diversity” means in the context of your project.
In addition to using data to understand your target audience, engage with your stakeholders to learn more about the audience for your project. This is important to avoid generalizations that are often misleading. Work with audience specialists to employ techniques for rapport building. Understanding a group from an insider’s perspective should be the goal and should guide the development of your diversity criteria. Your criteria may include race, ethnicity, age, gender, education level, literacy level, professional affiliation, socioeconomic status, geographic location, language proficiency and preference, acculturation level, communication abilities, physical capacity, and medical and psychological conditions. Keep in mind that there will likely be intersectionality among these criteria.
Engage strategic partners from the communities from which you want to recruit.
Once you’ve defined your audience or users, cultivate strategic relationships with organizations or individuals who represent or have direct access to people who meet that definition. Remember that for many communities of color, there may be a strong distrust of “government.” Whenever government-funded “research” is involved, it can bring up historical trauma among those who have suffered by that hand before. Remember that relationships are built over time; interactions are dynamic, and you may need to adapt because each group will be different. Work with audience engagement experts to iteratively improve engagement at each encounter. Create time to nurture relationships with trusted community leaders and invite them to play an integral role in the development of your research process. This may require additional planning (e.g., engaging your audience experts to familiarize the team on how to work with an interpreter; an investment in translation services may be instrumental for trust-building).
Co-create your research effort with strategic partners.
These trusted community leaders can improve your research design by helping you understand the nuances, needs, motivations, and challenges specific audiences may have. Bring your subject-matter experts and strategic partners together to assess the specific needs of the community and discuss what communication methods will work best to overcome cultural and language barriers. Ask these partners for feedback on research questions to ensure they’re culturally appropriate. Enlist them to be co-facilitators or interpreters for the research activity; participants may be more honest with a trusted community member asking the questions, or they may be more comfortable answering in their native language rather than English.
Create a detailed outreach and engagement plan.
Together with your strategic partners, create a communication plan with tactics, guidance, templates, and training materials that enable all parts of the team to execute their part of the research. Work with audience specialists to design culturally informed material for outreach. Emphasize incentives, logistical support, and training support for participants and strategic partners. Consider offering gift cards or vouchers as a token of appreciation for participation. Make it easy for participants to attend research sessions by offering childcare and choosing locations that are close to public transportation and fully accessible. Have a plan for sharing research findings with the community so they can clearly see how their participation has made a difference in the final product.
A strategic investment for both immediate and long-term gains
This framework was developed with user experience research in mind, but it can be applied to an array of digital projects that require the input of diverse research participants. And while this framework unearths important knowledge in the near term, it also lays the groundwork for strong relationships with key constituent communities in the long term. That means when a new project arises that requires a diverse participant pool, you’ll already have strategic partners you can reach out to for support.
The bottom line? By creating an intentional process that includes multicultural communications experts in the UX research and design process, agencies can feel confident that their digital tools and initiatives address the needs of an increasingly diverse population—improving mission outcomes and customer satisfaction along the way.