As Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s iPhone in January 2007, the world raved about this new touch-screen telephone, and millions rushed to get the first iPhone. Unfortunately, people with disabilities such as vision loss, hearing loss and other disabilities were unable to use the iPhone until 2009 when Apple launched the iPhone 3GS, which incorporated Voiceover, a screen-reading software that not only gave people with certain disabilities greater access to technology but also improved their independence in conducting simple (but yet daunting) tasks for themselves.
When MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini embarked on a project to build a product that relied on facial recognition, she was not expecting the results she got. The A.I. models and algorithms did not recognize her face until she put on a white mask. She talks about her research in the Netflix’s documentary-Coded Bias., and She explains her shocking discovery that commercially available facial recognition programs have a severe algorithmic bias against women and people of colour, and this included facial recognition software by Amazon, IBM and Microsoft.
Why do companies build products and software that do not reflect the diversity of society? To answer this question, let’s imagine or think for a moment about how these products are built and tested. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of diversity within most development teams, and products are tested during work hours by testers employed by the company or a focus group put together by the testing department. The result is a less representative group of testers, less authentic feedback, biased results and less inclusive services and products.
For people with no visible disabilities or who do not belong to minority groups, it is not commonplace to question how accessible the technologies we use in our everyday lives are to others. How are blind people able to shop on Amazon? How do the deaf use Spotify? How are new immigrants able to access city services? How do we ensure that an innocent person is not sent to jail because of a glitch in police facial recognition technology? Thankfully, there is an organization that is not only asking these questions but also providing an avenue for companies to build products that reflect the diversity in our society by ensuring user testing is equitable, inclusive and diverse.
In 2019, inclusive usability testing was discussed at a CivicTechYYC HackathonThe., and the following year, members of the CivicTechYYC and CalgaryUX communities formed a project team called Inclucity Calgary, with a mission to drive usability testing with a model of inclusion. The organization was registered and conducted its first pilot usability test with Buoyancy Works in 2021. Inclucity works by providing opportunities for diverse and often under-represented residents in Calgary to weigh in on the products, services and processes that impact them. Inclucity leverages relationships with community organizations that are working with vulnerable communities that represent the different ethnicities, identities, educational levels, and varying degrees of abilities, among other communities that make up Calgary’s diverse population.
While Inclucity mostly recruits via community partners, registration is open to all citizens on the organization’s website. Inclucity works with client organizations to conduct usability tests at convenient, comfortable and accessible locations or online. Client organizations may be government teams developing digital tools for their constituents, civic tech businesses or innovators developing or improving their products or services. Although there is value in testing at any stage of a product’s lifecycle, Inclucity believes that earlier is better, and works to conduct more tests during the discovery, design and building of the product/service, as this helps to avoid issues that can become barriers, and allows for innovation by uncovering previously unseen alternatives.
Inclucity currently has over 200 testers from diverse backgrounds and provides digital literacy skills to testers from all over the city. The usability test participants not only get paid to give input on products and services but they are also empowered to become digital citizens who use technology in safe, responsible and ethical ways. With over 100 volunteers who help to drive Inclucity’s social impact and gained employable experiences in the process, Inclucity has completed 6 projects since inception, which include 4 full user tests and a recent project that involved helping a university research group recruit diverse testers to ensure their service is developed with a representative sampling of potential users. The organization has also conducted other tests that help to assess the usability of tech-based solutions and tests that determine the Accessibility compliance of a product/service based on WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).
Inclucity rides on the model of inclusive usability in Chicago and Toronto. In 2014, a civic-focused testing method of inclusive usability testing was introduced as part of the Smart City Collaborative (now the City Tech Collaborative) in Chicago under the name CUT group (Civic User Testing). City Tech Collaborative now coordinates the national Civic User Testing Network, whose aim is to bring together CUT groups to share resources, develop best practices and build a framework to make local technology more user-friendly, accessible and relevant. The network now includes CUT groups in cities such as Seattle, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Miami, Oakland, San Jose and Chattanooga and collaborates to tackle socioeconomic inequities and exclusion by engaging with communities and providing organizations with representative feedback.
In 2018, Code for Canada began piloting a civic usability testing program titled GRIT in Toronto. GRIT (Gathering Residents to Improve Technology) has recruited more than 350 testers and has executed about 20 tests, including several tests for the City of Toronto. GRIT enables residents to weigh in on new technology products that impact them and provide non-profits, governments and civic practitioners with access to testing that is more inclusive and reflective of the diversity in Toronto. Inclucity not only opens to work with more client organizations in Calgary, the Founders would love to see more inclusive usability testing in other cities in Canada and hopefully build a network that impacts service and product provisioning on a national scale.
Special thanks to Uriel Karerwa, Project Coordinator at Inclucity, for providing us with resources for this article. Please read more about Inclucity here.
Mervis Elebe is a certified project manager with a background in Communication, and about 7 years’ experience in the IT industry. She is energetic and adept at working in a fast-paced environment and managing multi-cultural and highly functional teams. Mervis has great leadership qualities and often stands as a bridge between technical teams and business users. She is tech-savvy and believes in the power of technology to change the world. She loves to exercise, read memoirs and watch shows on Netflix in her spare time. You can connect with Mervis on LinkedIn here