Using proxy users for accessibility research

As user researchers, we are the champions of the people who use the products and services our organisations deliver. We need to make sure we champion all of those users, including those with accessibility needs. So that means we need to research with them but in reality, they often get missed out because of the challenge of recruitment.

The challenge is trying to find the people who match the target user group AND have accessibility needs. They are by definition a subset of the people in the target user group, and depending on the group you are looking at the subset might be quite small.

In a recent project, my co-researcher and I were working with a recruitment agency. The agency struggled to find people with accessibility needs within our target user group so they offered us proxy accessibility users, that is, people with accessibility needs who were outside our target user group.

In this article I will share what we learned about including them in our research and how it helped the team.

We started out looking for advice

We looked for advice about doing research with proxy users. There’s a lot out there but we found the term “proxy users” usually relates to people who are related to or one step away from the target user group you’re interested in. For example, people who’d previously done the same role and would have the domain knowledge and understand the context.

We also looked for advice from researchers in the accessibility field. There’s a lot of information about recruiting people through charities and organisations that support people with accessibility needs, and there’s information about setting up for and running research sessions with people with accessibility needs. But it seemed there was an implicit assumption the people you found would also be in your target user group.

What we could not find was advice or case studies of researching with people who have accessibility needs but are outside the target user group for your product or service.

This is a gap in advice much needed by researchers and I hope this article will go some way to fill the gap for others.

A bit about our project

We were working in a team designing a service for a niche group of users. We’d reached the prototype phase. We were testing out some designs for a form with some logic, the kind of logic that means how you answer earlier questions shapes which questions you see later in the form.

Our main design research questions were about which form questions should be upfront to drive the logic? And which journey flow would best match the users’ mental model?

We knew that as our proxy accessibility users were outside the target user group they would not have the domain knowledge or the mental model of context to help us answer these design research questions. This worried us because the team needed robust answers to help them make decisions on the road map ahead but we were limited in time and who we could talk to. As we were unable to find direct advice, we decided to make some adaptions to our research and try them out to see how they worked.

What we did

Before the sessions, we gave the proxy accessibility users a crib sheet that explained the context of the service. And at the start of the session, we explored anything they might have from their life experience that might help them understand the context and form better.

We also talked to the team about what we’d learn from the proxy accessibility users. We explained they would not be familiar with the context of the service so the aim of these research sessions would be to learn about how their accessibility needs and how they affected their use of the form.

What we learned

We learned that including people with accessibility needs in the research helped the team learn more and improve the form, even though the participants were not in our target user group.

It helped the team because:

  • It exposed accessibility needs to team members and helped build empathy
  • It helped us generate hypotheses of how accessibility needs would affect people in our target user groups
  • It helped us meet the GDS service manual standards to make sure the service works for everyone

We know that including people with accessibility needs in your research does take time and more work than researching with others. For example, you need to think about the tech used for sessions, allowing more time for sessions, and analysing data separately.

We found that using proxy accessibility users brought additional challenges to delivering the research we had planned:

  • We had a lower sample size than planned of people in the target user group so
    • our insights were not as robust as we had planned
    • the team had less confidence to make decisions
  • We had hypotheses for how accessibility needs would affect how our target user group would use the service so
    • further research was needed for direct evidence

Next time – some suggestions for researching with people with accessibility needs outside of your target user group

There are two main things we’d suggest:

  1. Plan to talk to more people overall to meet the sample size you need for your target user group
  2. Set expectations with the team of what they will learn from these research sessions

It’s oft-quoted that you need to talk to 5 people to get enough evidence for robust findings. It’s also quoted that you should aim for 1-in-5 people to have accessibility needs. But if that one person is not in your target user group then you have missed the 5 you need for robust findings.

So, if you are using people with accessibility needs who are outside your target user group then you need to review the overall numbers in your sample sizes for robust findings.

Then, thinking about your team, the designers are likely very focused on research questions about their designs and may feel let down in research sessions that don’t directly address these.

If you’re researching with people with accessibility needs outside your target user group, work with the team to develop research questions specifically about accessibility needs. This means you and the design team can work together with shared expectations of what you will learn from their sessions.


If you can’t find people with accessibility needs in your target user group, you can include people in your research who have accessibility needs but are outside the target user group. This will help your team learn about accessibility needs, develop empathy and, if you’re in the public sector, help you pass GDS assessments.

To ensure you still meet the team’s needs to learn about your target user group you might need to increase the overall number of people you speak to in any phase, develop separate research questions for accessibility and work with your team to ensure they have the right expectations of what you will learn from using proxy accessibility users.

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