A call to action for inclusive research


  • Picture of Aliyah Winfrey FRSA
    Aliyah Winfrey FRSA
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The lives and stories of individuals can be critical to research. Aliyah Winfrey FRSA argues that it is essential for researchers across industries to embrace an inclusive approach to serve all clients and users.

Research does not occur within a vacuum and the lives and stories of individuals, particularly from historically marginalized communities, informs participant orientation as subjects rather than objects. As vital as it is to define a research problem and understand the context of your participants, it is important to choose the best method to answer your question.

By centering inclusivity to respond to the needs of the most marginalized, business leaders have the potential to anticipate and answer the needs of all. This means emphasizing humility and empathy to consider all people's inclusion based upon race, gender expression, orientation, ability, and socioeconomic condition.

Research methods come in a variety of forms and approaches, however studies mainly fall into two prime categories: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative research is interpretive and generally experiential data to add narrative depth to quantitative findings. Quantitative research tends to be statistical to measure demographics or identify outcomes to best obtain a breadth of data. Choosing the appropriate research methodology is as important as choosing the research topics as different research approaches can net drastically different results.

In social sciences and humanities, qualitative research is often heralded as the gold standard and methods vary across disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, English, women’s gender studies, and African American studies to name a few. Research methods can include (semi-)structured interviews, participant observation and focus groups. Methodologies for qualitative research involve ethnography, case studies and phenomenological research. Qualitative studies generally have limited sample amounts from specific populations or limited participants, which makes data non-generalizable. Due to the variable nature of qualitative findings, it is critical to support the rigor of the research design by establishing the reliability and validity of the data. While qualitative research can be time-consuming, its explorative nature tends to capture the contextual details for a specific population.

Quantitative research seeks to recognize the breadth of a phenomenon by having a significant sample of target participants, users, or populations through numeric patterns; research design can either be non-experimental to assess the prevalence of attitudes or behaviors. Experimental research, which uses a quantitative approach, includes an intervention to measure a change or the dependent variable. Methodologies for quantitative research includes questionnaires, experiments and surveys. Quantitative research methods are also present across a variety of social science disciplines, often paired in mixed-methods design to further inform qualitative data.

While researchers weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each methodological approach, both methods prove equally useful depending on research objectives. Regardless of research design preference, for products to be accessible and inclusive of all people, we must examine the root of research structure as well as have a grounded belief in humanity and humility. Research should be contextualized in the historical conditions and relationships amongst researchers and underrepresented communities.

For example, in past experimental studies, marginalized people received treatments as research objects rather than humans, as seen in the lives of Sarah Baartman and the participants of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. While research has evolved, these same human biases are reflected in algorithms, sampling strategies and research methodologies today; from cultural/social dialectical speech patterns informed by racial biases to facial recognition software disproportionally misidentifying people of color.

My positionality as a Black woman characterizes my ethics and communal responsibility to lead research with inclusion, humility and empathy. My training in African-American studies innately teaches me to center the participant as a subject rather than object as I learn of their lives and experiences. In order to understand researchers' positionality to the user and product from an interdisciplinary approach, they must account for our own biases and assumptions.

To give users or clients ownership over their experiences with companies product or services, researchers should strive to be co-participants in their research with their users or clients. In this process, accessible informed consent documentation is necessary to collaborate on an equal footing and understanding of the project. Moreover, you must include a diverse perspective at all stages of the research process and product/software/talent life cycle evaluation by incorporating inclusive testing parameters to ensure results are reflective of all users.

Large consulting firms have shown the financial benefits of focusing on diversity and inclusion. Emerging studies show companies with diverse employees generate 19% higher revenue rather than homogeneous companies. Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives also promote innovations in approach to better meet the needs of clients and consumers.

However, commitment to DEI workplace and research should not be limited to face value. Inclusion and buy-in from stakeholders must include entry-level workers to c-suite executives that listen to the voices of workers and the communities they impact. Expanding companies' commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in research on client or user data to assess impact in the communities in which they affect, presents opportunities to revolutionize the way everyday people interact with products.

Companies interested in inclusive experience research need to embrace this as an ongoing process and commitment to change in methods, growth through empathy, and clarity in practices. To mitigate inclusion challenges, it is necessary to reinforce amongst teams the quality of data, context and reflexivity of our orientation as researchers and the communities' role as participants/users. By adopting inclusive research strategies and examining the barriers confronted by historically marginalized communities, we will improve the accessibility of human-centered products and processes to the benefit of every consumer.

Aliyah Winfrey FRSA (she/her/hers) recently served as a Community Operations intern with RSA US, supporting strategic programmatic efforts and directions, specifically for projects involving participatory democracy. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Aliyah is a scholar of black girlhood, organizer, and writer interested in the intersection of technology, community and critical theory.

Recommended readings on Inclusive Research

  • Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
  • What is Inclusive Research by Melanie Nind
  • Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples by Linda Smith
  • Researcher Positionality - A Consideration of Its Influence and Place in Qualitative Research by Andrew Gary Darwin Holmes
  • How to Conduct Inclusive UX Research by Vale Querini
  • Workplace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs: Inclusive Environments and Diversity Promotion Programs by Zachary McCoy
  • Designing a better future with inclusive user research by Evie Cheng
  • Inclusive and Accessible UX: A Starter Syllabus by Tony Ho Tran

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