Supporting neurodiversity in marketing research and insights 

Editor’s note: Mariann Lowery is product research lead, Stack Overflow for Teams. 

As a user experience researcher for Stack Overflow, a big part of my job is to uncover user behaviors, motivations and needs to make our product more usable and enjoyable. I do this by conducting surveys, focus groups, virtual interviews and usability tests. Some time ago, during a virtual research session focused on understanding how we may improve the user interface of our search feature, I spoke to a user who disclosed that she was autistic. She explained how her reactions to the mock-ups may be different from those of neurotypical individuals. 

This eye-opening research session provided insight into how neurodiverse individuals may process information – including designs shown and language used in mock-ups – differently from neurotypical people, and how we, researchers, need to pay attention to designing research with neurodiversity in mind.

Regardless of position or level of experience, we all can do something to make our products and processes more inclusive and accessible. Stack Overflow has several diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) initiatives that I support as much as I can. I have made it my passion project to research and establish best practices around conducting user research with neurodiverse users, with the goal of making user research at Stack Overflow more inclusive and accessible to neurodivergent users, focusing on addressing the needs of neurodiverse individuals in research sessions.

We all have different characteristics, abilities and limitations, and my version and experiences of normal differ from your version and experiences of normal. We all have biases based on what we consider “typical,” and sometimes these mismatches can create barriers to inclusion – the feeling of not belonging, that our contributions are restricted or that we have limited or different access to information or information processing. These feelings may exclude people from research participation. My goal is to remove these barriers and intentionally include people who may feel or be excluded.

Background on neurodiversity

The term neurodiversity was coined in 1997 by sociologist Judy Singer, a respected leader in the neurodiversity movement. Judy Singer identified as being “somewhere on the autistic spectrum." The term has broadened significantly over the years. Neurodiversity can be broken down into two categories of people: those who are neurotypical and those who are neurodivergent.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines neurodiversity as individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations within the human population. 

Neurodivergence manifests in many ways, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome, synesthesia, Down syndrome, epilepsy and chronic mental health illnesses such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety and depression.

It’s difficult to know the exact number of neurodivergent people in the world. The division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics of the National Cancer Institute estimates that 15-20% of the world's population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. The following stats on conditions linked to neurodiversity can also give us an idea about its prevalence: 

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in every 44 eight-year-olds in the United States is believed to have autism spectrum disorder, or 2.3% of children in that age group.
  • The CDC suggests that around 9.4% of all children are diagnosed with ADHD at some point before the age of 18.
  • According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, dyslexia affects 20% of the population.

Researching neurodiversity 

While there are numerous training classes and workshops out there about accessibility and inclusion in general, I only found a couple that focused on neurodiversity. I wanted to dig deeper into the topic and get actionable advice and recommendations. My research on neurodiversity inclusion incorporated interviews with subject matter experts, including psychologists and other professions. I also spoke to neurodiverse individuals about their experiences, strengths and challenges, in addition to synthesizing user feedback on neurodiversity accessibility on one of Stack Overflow’s Q&A sites. Various UXR communities and Slack channels have been incredibly helpful for sharing and discussing experiences and inclusion/accessibility initiatives – another benefit of networking with other researchers! I feel lucky that my company takes this topic seriously, and our own Mental Illness + Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group (MIND) provided additional support.

What to keep in mind when conducting user research with neurodiverse individuals

During my research, I learned that most cognitive differences relate to the following types of brain function: memory, attention, focus, literacy, reading, visual comprehension, verbal comprehension and problem solving. Often, these invisible differences are misunderstood because they are taken out of context. 

During user research sessions, we need to keep in mind that the user’s processing style can affect their experience in research participation, including interactions with and reactions to product/software user interfaces. When conducting user testing, it’s important to remember that task completion may look different for people with cognitive differences, and not all research tools are accessible to people with cognitive differences. For example, certain online card sorting tools may automatically exclude people with cognitive differences or disabilities.

Researchers also need to be mindful of managing social impressions and interactions. Neurodiverse users may need a greater sense of stability and predictability, as well as more time to process questions and think through the answer. They may understand social cues in a different way, and the levels of energy and passion may be different with neurodiverse research participants. We need to check our social expectations, be aware of our own biases and not judge mannerisms, repetitive movements or lack of interest in small talk.

Planning and conducting research with neurodiverse participants 

After months of researching, I put together a list of recommendations and best practices researchers can apply when planning and conducting research. Because you likely will not know whether a research participant is neurotypical or neurodivergent, it is best practice to apply these recommendations to all research sessions. 

Designing inclusive marketing research sessions: Create accessible stimulus. Reduce presentation animations and flickering. Communicate session details and remove potential barriers. For example, offer audio-only options for virtual sessions. Use plain, clear, concise language. Avoid jargon and metaphors.  Include multiple ways to interact, such as accepting written and verbal responses.

Plan session stimulus 

During the planning phase, make sure that any stimulus (design, mock-ups, concepts, images) you plan to show participants are accessible.

  • Use accessible authoring tools to prepare content to be shared.
  • Use clear, plain language and limit the text on slides, designs and mock-ups.
  • Any content shown should create clear expectations at all levels (including titles, links, labels, instructional text, etc.).
  • Reduce presentation animations and flickering.
  • A written transcript or a pictorial summary can be useful for people with cognitive differences, such as those who may not remember details of content previously presented to them.

Remove participation barriers 

Start removing participation barriers when you send out the research invitation. Write your message in plain language and be clear and concise with instructions.

You can also state that you are happy to discuss any reasonable adjustments required for participating in research. At Stack Overflow, we conduct virtual research sessions. Knowing that being on camera can make some people feel uncomfortable and create a barrier to participation, we have added sentences like this to the research invitation: 

  • "We use Zoom or Google Meet for the virtual research sessions. If you don't have a webcam or don't feel comfortable being on camera, no problem. We can do an audio-only call."

Communicate details of the research process so participants know what to expect from the beginning:

  • Who are the interviewers?
  • How long is the session? 
  • What topics will be discussed?
  • Will participants be compensated for participation?
  • What do participants need to prepare? 
  • How do participants join the session?

Make users feel comfortable 

To help orient and make users feel comfortable, set clear expectations at the beginning, and provide predictability during the research session: 

  • Go over logistics.
  • Provide an overview of what to expect during the discussion. 
  • Allow for additional time so research participants can adjust to the new environment.

You can also find ways to block out distractions. If you conduct a virtual interview or focus group, make sure your pets or family members won’t interrupt you, and there are no distracting noises in the background. For in-person meetings, choose a quiet room and ask everyone to silence their mobile devices. Avoid large groups and sensory overload.

During the session:

  • Use plain, clear, concise language. Active voice is easier to understand than passive voice (Active voice: “The child walked the dog.” Passive voice: “The dog was walked by the child.”).
  • Avoid jargon and metaphors and spell out acronyms.
  • Read instructions out loud – even if written text is provided.
  • Speak in a direct manner, as opposed to hinting or using irony. Keep your questions short, clear and direct.
  • Keep tasks short.
  • Create interactions that allow for multiple methods to achieve the same goal. For example, if users are not comfortable expressing their opinion while talking to you, allow them to write it down instead.
  • If a research participant gets mentally or physically tired, take a break or offer to finish up another day.

In addition to following the steps above, I strongly believe that all researchers should go through anti bias training. It can help raise awareness of unconscious biases and provide strategies for creating more inclusive environments and processes.

Applying the curb-cut effect to marketing research sessions

When discussing accessibility, the curb-cut effect is often mentioned. Curb cuts are ramps graded down on sidewalks to meet the street. While they were first made for wheelchair access in particular places, they also make it easier for parents to push strollers, people to use walkers or travelers to roll bags behind them. It is an example of design that often goes unnoticed.

The curb-cut effect shows us that accessibility accommodations can benefit everyone. 

For example, individuals consuming content in a non-native language find it easier to read and comprehend simple language. Plain language is easier to understand regardless of someone’s native language or education level. And all research participants can answer questions faster if instructions and questions are in plain language.

Planning research with neurodiversity accessibility and inclusion in mind helps everyone.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on the topic of neurodiversity. This article includes learnings, recommendations and best practices on the topic based on my research and training and is not intended to be exhaustive or the only solution to address the needs of neurodiverse users in research sessions. Please keep in mind that accessibility adjustments can sometimes contradict each other.

Recommended reading and resources for researchers: