User testing with First Nations – a design guide

User testing with First Nations – a design guide

By Raylene Hassall and Manisha Amin

When we think of inclusion in Australia, the sad truth is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to face significant systemic exclusion. As the first people of Australia they deserve to be considered in the design of any product or service – not only those specifically targeted for them.  We’ve found working with and including First Nations people in design transforms products, services and policies for everyone. We’ve included some of our key insights below.

Strength not deficit

It’s important to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have strong and vibrant communities. Across the country, many individuals and communities maintain strong connections to their culture, language and traditional lands, while also contributing to the environmental management, economic development and the cultural identity of our nation. 

There are significant misconceptions about these communities. For example, if you are testing with people who speak languages other than English, did you know that in 2011, 11 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people spoke an Indigenous language at home? One third (34.8 percent) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in major cities; and, in fact, when looking at sign language, there are 18 different Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander sign systems. Where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have innovated themselves and removed social disability the results can actually be better than in the mainstream community

I versus We

We’ve found Gert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory (1965) really useful in terms of designing out bias from our testing systems when working with different communities. This is one of the first quantifiable theories that could be used to explain observed differences between cultures. For the purposes of this post, the Individualist society refers to the dominant culture – white Australia – and the collective society refers to Aboriginal culture, while acknowledging there are other individual and collective societies across the world. Like any theory, generalisations can be problematic, however, they have helped us to think about some of our own biases. It’s important to note neither is better, they are just different.

The individual worldview is about ‘I’ consciousness. People who align to an individualist mindset can feel: 

  • a strong right to privacy 
  • justified to have an opinion and share that opinion with those around them. 
  • the individual and their immediate family come first both personally and professionally. 

The collective worldview is about the ‘We’ consciousness. People who align to a collective mindset can feel: 

  • a sense of responsibility to extended family members and the wider Aboriginal community
  • knows one’s place in life is determined socially
  • deep connection and structure within a broader community

The dichotomy for Aboriginal people living in two worlds, means we often have to switch intentionally to the individual society’s way of thinking and acting.  

Not every person has all these characteristics but thinking about how these different characteristics may impact on research and user testing is a good way to design a more inclusive testing process and to challenge our standard assumptions. An example of this is our standard question and answer model.

My response may not relate to your question

Our western testing methodology is based on the assumption questions bring answers and those answers provide information that, in turn, leads to accessible and usable digital products. The amphitheatre of the question and answer format can be described as a white noise effect, where Aboriginal people can be misrepresented or discredited at times when having to communicate in the direct approach. 

Aboriginal people operate more to the belief the answers will come and that trust is paramount. If trust isn’t gained then a relationship doesn’t exist, and then the response you get may be just a way of avoiding the question.

Aboriginal cultural practices and beliefs are intimately connected to stories of the Dreamtime and the continuation of additional stories through the Dreaming. They are taught from a young age to listen, watch and observe. They are schooled on the principles of waiting on time, waiting on knowledge to be revealed rather than planning or making things fit in. 

This can lead to Aboriginal people becoming lost within a process that doesn’t fit their world view. Descriptions such as ‘poor engagement’ in the process, ‘provided conflicting or inconsistent information’ or simply ‘unable to assess’ are sometimes not a function of the actual assessment of the digital asset, but of the testing process and environment. 

  • Like people with disabilities, First Nations are not a target group. So get the right people in the room.
  • Ensure culture first, with facilitators, testers and recruitment processes.
  • Create trauma safe spaces. For example, test in locations like community centres rather than in your office. Don’t expect to go into someone’s home unless specifically invited.
  • Relationships. In focus groups, our indiegnous facilitator always takes the lead and will use jokes or banter to defuse any perceived power imbalance, so it is understood everyone in the room, including facilitators, are equal and their opinion valued. 
  • We spent at least 30 mins of a 2 hour session building relationships and trust before starting the work.
  • Our test plan becomes a guide and we focus on the outcome we want to assess rather than looking for yes/no responses. We look at conversations, talk out loud, and ask ‘why’ even if we think we know the answer.

Learning from each other

Our different worldviews affect every aspect of our lives and everything we do. Our worldviews shape how we perceive, interpret information and understand our realities. It shapes all things we consider to be normal or abnormal, acceptable or unacceptable. Our worldviews do not just affect our perception of the world around us; it also determines the nature of our relationship, how we relate to each other and how we make sense of each other.

Stepping outside of our own worldview is challenging and raising it into our conscious mind is a key strategy in understanding ourselves better in order to understand and relate to others better.  This requires commitment and personal integrity. A pathway to building on personal commitment is the promotion of open conversations between one another to allow us to understand each other and challenge our understanding of ourselves while re-imagining an Australia for all of us. 

Further Information

In 2009, Australia gave its formal support to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a ground-breaking document seeking to reset relationships between Indigenous peoples and governments around the globe.

The National Agreement on Closing the Gap outlines the need for codesign as well as the key priority areas.

  1. We use the terms Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and First Nations in this paper to refer to Australian Aboirginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples.
  2. Please note that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have diverse experiences. As a non-Aboriginal person Manisha can only speak from her experience working and testing with communities. Likewise, Raylene as a proud Yiman woman, speaks from her experience and not from the experience of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In the article we have used “we” when speaking about our collective experience, though recognising our differences.