Doing user research with deaf people or people with hearing loss

October 31, 2021

Designing content, products and services starts with understanding the people who will use them. At the Royal National Institue for Deaf People (RNID), we do regular user research with deaf people and people with hearing loss.

We’re not the only ones who need to do research with deaf people or people with hearing loss – and other organisations often ask how we approach this.

In this post, I’ll share some tips and experiences.

1. Learn more about the people who will take part

People experience varying levels of hearing loss and in different ways. This can shape their identities, experiences and needs when taking part in research.

For example, a person who has grown up deaf might use British Sign Language (BSL) as a first language. Another person with age-related hearing loss may wear hearing aids and use English. Their needs and preferences for how they communicate with others will be different.

To approach this, I often ask, “What are your language and communication preferences? For example, would you prefer to communicate using British Sign Language, English, or another way.”

This means we can use preference and need as a guide, instead of assuming one-size-fits-all.

We can also ensure that we learn from people who have different experiences by including or recruiting people of varying levels of hearing loss. As a general rule of thumb, we include at least 1 deaf BSL user in each study, with 5 participants in total.

2. Consider how you provide materials

Consent isn’t given unless it’s informed

For people to take part in research we need to ask for their consent. To do this, it’s common to send or hand someone a form to complete.

But, for someone whose first language is BSL, reading and giving their consent in English – a language they don’t prefer and may not feel comfortable with – isn’t accessible.

I worked with our content and interaction designers to create a consent form that is easy to read and access online. We also decided to ask for BSL users’ consent using an interpreter, which we make clear in the information sheet we give everyone before they take part.

Share prototypes or materials before you meet

Depending on the type of research, you may need to share materials with someone during a session. For example, if we’re testing a new digital product, we might share an early version with someone on a video call and observe them using it.

However, a deaf BSL user’s interpreter becomes smaller or is hidden as they navigate a product on a video call. So, while researchers might be used to offering ‘prompts’ as someone uses a product, I can’t communicate with a BSL user while they’re occupied with testing.

To help with this, I share materials ahead of time and ask people to review them before we meet. If they have time to familiarise themselves, then during the session we can spend more time discussing. I also structure the session differently, offering things to consider before I share a prototype, then pausing while people have a look and coming back together to discuss.

3. Work closely with support

Make room in your budget

Hiring communication support professionals, such as BSL interpreters, is key to doing research with deaf people. Once you know someone’s preferences and needs, you can plan ahead and book support. Booking in advance is important because interpreter services tend to be oversubscribed.

Of course, this comes with a cost. We plan our user research budget by factoring in the costs of communication support. This is tricky as budgets can be planned far in advance. But, if you can make a case for the need to do user research with deaf people, then you can probably make a case for the budget you will need to support it.

You’re not the only one facilitating

Working with an interpreter adds another element to a research session. While researchers often ask indirect questions to uncover hidden insights or unspoken needs, how this happens will change when you’re not the only one asking the questions. In addition to this, British Sign Language is a very direct language, so your questions need to be such that an interpreter can deliver them clearly.

I prepare a guide for interpreters ahead of each study which helps myself and the interpreters feel confident before we go into a session. In the guide, I share the objectives of the research, or what we’d like to learn in the session, and the questions I plan to ask. This helps interpreters prepare and they have time to give me feedback before we start.

4. Set up and maintain the space

Whether you’re on a video call or meeting someone in person, everyone should be able to see each other before you start a research session. This is particularly important when you’re doing research with deaf people and people with hearing loss.

People with hearing loss, for example, might rely on lipreading. If your space isn’t well-lit or there’s a light behind you, it makes it harder to lipread. On top of setting up the space, I also have to make a conscious effort to not cover my mouth or use hand gestures while I speak.

The same goes when you’re meeting deaf BSL users. BSL is a visual language, which means that maintaining eye contact is respectful and it shows you’re listening.

When I’m working with an interpreter, I start the call by making sure the deaf person can see their interpreter and that they are ‘pinned.’ Throughout the session, I check-in to make sure the person taking part can still see their interpreter.


There are simple things you can do to make user research more accessible for deaf people and people with hearing loss.

I’m continuing to learn as I go and I know there’s more we can do to make research accessible at RNID. One of the things I plan to look at next is how we share findings in a way that’s accessible.

I hope these tips help you improve or get started.

Thanks for reading. This was originally published on Medium.