Far too often technology-delivered services and products are designed without input from the very people who will be using them.
At least according to IncluCity Calgary, a non-profit startup that aims to provide better and more diverse real-world feedback to technology companies, non-profits, and the government.
They aim to do this by recruiting diverse groups of Calgarians, including those with disabilities and from marginalized communities, to provide end-user inclusive usability testing.
“There’s a booming tech industry here in Calgary, and as we create more solutions that directly affect Calgarians. We want to be involved in the process of making these technologies,” said Uriel Karerwa, project coordinator at IncluCity.
The feedback would then be used by organizations to make their technology easier to use, and more accessible to a greater number of people. Karerwa said that this was about making technologies made in Calgary more user-friendly.
“Because if it doesn’t work for you, it’s not gonna work for your neighbour,” he said.
The idea for the non-profit began in 2019 at Civic Tech YYC, and became more formalized in 2021 during a Mount Royal University civic innovation course. IncluCity became a registered non-profit in the fall of that year.
Karerwa, who has a background in neuroscience and experience working with neurodiverse groups in Lethbridge, was hired as the testing project coordinator this year.
Usability testing is about making technology usable
Geoff Zakaib, president of IncluCity, said that while user testing isn’t new, it has largely been done in a cursory way. Often performed with small focus groups that limits the type of feedback received.
“As those services or solutions are developed, they can create it without getting the input from a wide spectrum of people who actually use those services or solutions,” he said.
When traditional user testing has been performed, it is often in a business or laboratory setting, during business hours by seasoned or professional usability testers that have, as IncluCity puts it, a “traditional relationship” with companies and organizations.
The feedback from these types of sessions is, in their opinion, less authentic and less representative of how a wider and more diverse set of users may use a particular technology.
“They’re doing the best job they can in terms of the limited time and the limited access sometimes to types of services,” Zakaib said.
“So what we provide is this inclusive usability testing. It isn’t readily available, and so we can’t necessarily blame folks that are focused on providing the best code and providing the best software that they can in their niche,” he said.
IncluCity will perform user testing in public spaces like libraries, and online. They want to provide testing outside of regular business hours, including a greater cross-section of Calgarians including those with no experience in usability testing previously.
They said that this would provide more authentic feedback that represents communities using products and services. It would increase access by identifying and removing barriers that make technology difficult to use, they said.
“The diverse group is huge, and there’s many other types of needs that that should be recognized in that process,” Zakaib said.
Non-profit model for enhancing social good
Zakaib said that his organization differs in many ways from traditional usability testing groups. And that starts with being formed as a non-profit instead of for-profit company.
“We’re not a tech company, we are a social impact organization,” he said.
He said that this model allows IncluCity to work with organizations of varying sizes. That could be the city’s largest employers right down to community associations employing technology for their communities. The largest for-profit companies would pay a commercial going rate for the testing. Non-profits would pay a discounted rate, and small community groups would receive testing for free.
This non-profit model also allows them to share their findings with other non-profits, community groups, and with academic researchers.
They are also aiming to incorporate digital literacy programs into their work. It further enhances access to technology in communities like those made up of newcomers to Canada.
“Everybody is an individual that has certain needs, and we can’t include everybody, but we can do a much better job of including diversity and including those that are underrepresented into this inclusive usability testing,” he said.
Inclusive values good for democracy, business
IncluCity also considers it very important to pay their testers for their time.
“We want to honour their time and their commitment to this,” said Zakaib.
The core set of values is also something that could pay dividends for businesses looking to gain a competitive advantage. Karerwa said that making any technology product more accessible opens up new people to serve.
“It makes it much more user friendly, and much more likely that your user group will participate in the use of that set technology,” he said.
Karerwa said that with governments providing more services using technology, that inclusivity also meant greater civic engagement.
“There are many ripples outside of what you can possibly conceive or think about in terms of improving the democratic process or making the city more accessible,” he said.
“I think it has very powerful effects in terms of what good could come as of initiatives like these.”
City of Calgary funding IncluCity to improve police complaint access
And already IncluCity is working to make concrete improvements for citizen access to essential services.
The City of Calgary has provided a grant to the Complete Complaints Foundation, which in turn is working with IncluCity to provide usability testing for making complaints regarding police conduct.
Currently, said Karerwa, the legalese surrounding making a complaint and the difficulty of online forms makes it inaccessible. Especially to those who are not familiar with policing in Canada like newcomers.
He said that they were working to make the process more culturally, and trauma informed.
“So we’d invite people to come in and to see, does this portal work for them? How does it make them feel?” he said.
“And if doesn’t work for you, or if it’s traumatizing, then we might want to think about changing the structure of the portal.”
To see other projects the organization is working on, or to become involved as a tester see www.inclucitycalgary.ca.