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15 December 2020

User Research with a non-verbal participant

Rachel Abbott

A couple of months ago, I was recruiting research participants to help us improve the user experience of getting tested for Coronavirus. Recruitment can be a real nightmare, even without a pandemic, so I’m always super happy to see those “Yes I’m happy to take part!” e-mails drop into my inbox.

A screenshot of part of a research consent form from someone agreeing to participate in research

I quickly replied to this e-mail from a prospective participant, and received this unexpected response back:

An image showing part of an email response. The person sending it is explaining that he has non verbal autism

After the initial surprise, my brain started thinking about how I could make this work. I was really keen to ensure we captured as many diverse experiences as possible, and this seemed like a rare opportunity to engage with someone with specific needs. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people communicate and interact with the world. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.

I knew that Autistic people can have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. Some autistic people are unable to speak or have limited speech while other autistic people have very good language skills but struggle to understand sarcasm or tone of voice. There are some good tips from the National Autistic Society on communicating with people with Autism.

Up until now, the research sessions had been semi-scripted video interviews, with a digital prototype and one of my colleagues taking background notes on Miro. I emphasised to this participant that us adapting our approach was our responsibility, and not at all a problem to accommodate. I was really keen that this user not be denied the opportunity to assist with research, and additionally not to feel like a burden.

After having a chat with my UX colleague, we came up with a solution for the user.


  • We set up a practice Miro board for the participant and sent a link to a video tutorial on how to use basic Miro functions such as post-its
  • Created a separate Miro board for this session — outside of the usual note-taking board
  • The participant established his communication preferences for the session — “If we could set one rule for the session……if I raise my hand, it indicates I need time to type something before we move on.”

Running the Session

  • We asked the participant to use two tabs — the digital prototype and Miro
  • The participant then screen shared back to us
  • I asked questions and waited for the participant to type his response on the Miro post it


  • The slight lag between typing and video sometimes means it looks like they’ve finished but they haven’t — found myself accidentally interrupting the participant on a few occasions
  • You don’t get the “flow” of thoughts like with “think aloud” — it feels a bit more scripted/stilted, patience is key
  • Lots more switching between tabs/screens so not as smooth

What we learnt

  • Allow more time — the process was slower overall, so it’s important to allow additional time for people with accessibility needs
  • Prepare your user with any software/program you want them to use — a place to practice or experience a tutorial is great
  • Allow for “lag” — sometimes it looks like they’ve finished but they haven’t
  • Closed questions are good for clarifications. The advice from the National Autistic Society is to sometimes avoid open-ended questions, and I definitely found that these took a lot longer to work through in the research, and closed questions were more effective (as well as the participant not having to type too much/too quickly).
  • Hand gestures to check understanding
  • Being non-verbal doesn’t mean their cognitive processing or intelligence are affected
  • Be comfortable with more silence than usual

You can get in touch with me [email protected]