The importance of inclusive and accessible user research in digital transformation projects

Since the onset of the pandemic, businesses have had do to do much more than adapt their workplaces with new health and safety measures. Many have had to digitally transform at an unprecedented pace and overhaul their tech infrastructure.

However, with any technical overhaul, it’s crucial that an inclusive approach is taken, to ensure that the end result is truly accessible, and all user needs are met. That’s why research is a vital stage in the process – and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Clare Gledhill, operations director at CDS, shares her thoughts, below…

An upsurge in digital usage

Digital transformation is one of the buzzwords from the last 18 months, with many companies having fast-tracked their plans due to the impact of Covid-19. However, while it may have already been on the cards for some, for other services and sectors that weren’t yet on that digital journey, they soon had to be.

As a result of needing to work at such a rapid pace though, this has meant that in some cases, businesses have cut corners to roll-out new systems and comms channels quickly – and often to the detriment of user experience. It has been a baptism of fire for both parties.

Approaching a project without user research, journey mapping, persona development, pattern analysis, and experience prototyping, results in a lack of real evidence on which to base design and usability requirement decisions. Consequently, this runs a huge risk of excluding people.

In truth, there’s a huge paradox between digital inclusion and digital exclusion. Online solutions can undoubtedly enable organisations to operate more effectively and be in-tune with their audiences, however, if designed using subjective, opinion-based methodologies – without user input – this can have the reverse effect and cause more feelings of disconnect and frustration.

Research to understand users’ needs

At the cornerstone of any successful digital application – whether that’s a website, content management system, or mobile app – is satisfaction from the people who will be using it.

The key point here is to note the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’, too. For example, do users want to call you because they don’t find the website accessible? Or do they need to communicate via a certain channel, but can’t find it easily?

Research is the key to unlocking this insight – with ethnographic, observation, and flexible styles allowing more people to be a part of the fact-finding process.

This inclusive approach has also arguably never been more important than it is at present. Following the pandemic, people who had previously managed their lives without using technology have been forced online, as companies and services made the shift from face-to-face to digital.

This has meant that while user segments have previously been dominated by digital natives and early adopters of technology, we now have to recognise that inclusive design means understanding the full spectrum of user needs, motivations, pain-points, ambitions, hopes, and capabilities – in relation to access to technology, alongside digital experience understanding and confidence.

Digital transformation offers the opportunity for companies to change positively rather than simply keep amending or retrofitting features onto an existing, not-fit-for-purpose solution. Businesses have the chance to step back and do things properly – segmenting audiences and tackling persona profiles in a much broader, more accurate way.

Ultimately, the research phase is essential for building a deep and meaningful picture of your audience and their requirements.

Research is the biggest long-term gain

Working at speed and needing to implement new channels or features quickly can often see companies rush into their digital transformation projects – believing that the fewer stakeholders involved, the better.

Yet while involving a fewer number of people in the process may initially accelerate the overhaul, this time-saving is short lived. Conceptualising and building a new solution based on one person or a small, select group’s opinions is never going to be reflective of the true end-user – meaning they’ll experience more challenges and frustrations when the product finally reaches them.

This is why the fear that research will slow a project down is unfounded. The irony is that incorporating research can actually make the process move quicker – everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, no one is making decisions based upon guesswork, and design is completely user-centric.

It’s no secret that a lot of digital transformation projects are commercially driven, streamlining operations and offering greater employee and customer satisfaction, so getting it right is understandably important. But this can only be achieved through taking the time to get to know users and placing them at the heart of the project.

Finally, while embedding inclusive and accessible research into digital transformation ventures is important, it needs to be fully valued by companies – not simply seen as a tick-box exercise. When carried out properly, it can empower an organisation with true audience understanding and guide decision-making, which not only has a positive impact on user experience, but this translates across brand reputation, customer and employee retention, and bottom-line impact, too.


Inspirational Woman: Clare Gledhill | Operations Director, CDS

Clare Gledhill

Clare Gledhill has over 18 years’ experience working within the digital sector and is focused on leading teams to deliver large-scale digital transformation programmes and user-centred insights, design, and creative projects.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m Clare Gledhill, the operations director of digital, insight, and content at Yorkshire-headquartered CDS – a communications agency that focuses on making a positive difference in society.

I have over 18 years’ experience of leading teams and shaping services to deliver some of the UK’s most important digital transformation programmes, user-centred and accessible research projects, and the creation of award-winning content.

At CDS, we’ve also recently announced the launch of our new behavioural insight division, designed to drive inclusivity and accessibility throughout the private and public sector. And as part of my responsibilities, I also oversee the management and strategic development of this new venture and our digital and content divisions at CDS.

 Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not at all. I’ve had a really varied career – working both in the UK and abroad, and it’s this role diversity, and my love of learning, which has led me to where I am today.

After leaving school, I initially worked within retail banking, before leaving to join the RAF – where I became an air-traffic controller for three years. I then did a PR degree at Leeds University, which saw me go on to work in various marketing and HR roles. I then caught the travel bug and moved to Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where I worked in hospitality before returning to the UK and continuing my career in HR.

I then decided it was time for another adventure, so I trained to become an English teacher to speakers of other languages and spent two years teaching in Genoa, northwest Italy. After my stint of teaching, I was fortunate enough to be asked to join a fledgling digital agency and spent time between the UK and Italy for a further three years.

Next, I went to Africa to do a specialist assignment for VSO in Zambia, as an organisational development advisor, before returning to the UK and getting a job in another digital agency. I’ve since held many senior roles within the digital delivery and agency operations spaces too, which is how I came to be appointed at CDS in 2015.

I’ve enjoyed every single element of my career so far, and each decision has been made due to life circumstances and lifestyle choices at that time. For me, the most important part of career success is being committed, open, and honest in the way you operate – this is how people see your value as an employee, a leader, and as a person. If you operate with integrity, career planning isn’t really that important.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Yes, absolutely. As a woman in the professional world, I’ve been sexually harassed on numerous occasions, discriminated against, and, on one occasion, bullied in the workplace. At times, this can undermine your confidence, but no matter what, you have to work really hard to continue believing in yourself and your capability to do a good job.

The world is forever changing, and my advice is to be clear about who you are, what you stand for, and the value you bring – try not to be intimidated. Speaking up and standing tall in your own truth and power is incredibly important.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

There have been many moments I’ve been proud of, but I’d say my biggest achievement has been while working at CDS.

I came to the firm nearly six years ago to run the digital division and have since taken on the content and behavioural insight departments – and I’ve done so against the backdrop of being single parent with young twins and also completing an MBA. It’s been tough, but so worth it.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Being human. I’ve never played the corporate game, and I’m not politician. I like to behave as a real person and see people as human beings.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

No matter which area of the industry it is, I’d say to know what you like and do what you love. If you’re passionate about what you do and you find an environment that is accepting and supporting of this, you’ve won.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, there are, but I think the barriers are more around perception. The reality is, we don’t receive many CVs from women, and I think more needs to be done at school level, regarding education about the digital industry the opportunities available. Generally, people aren’t aware of the varied roles that exist in the agency space, and just because a person classes themselves as ‘creative’, doesn’t mean ruling out a role in tech. The perception that it’s only about being technically minded is far from the truth – smart thinking, collaboration, and strategic planning all play a crucial role too.

As an employer, I would love to see more amazing females in our tech and digital teams.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Be flexible and accommodating for all staff – irrespective of gender – and have an inclusive approach to how they run their business.

I think that recognising and implementing flexibility around working patterns is vital, as is understanding that people are human – they have families and other commitments outside work and they’ll perform so much better in the professional environment, if they’re able to manage this balance themselves, with full support from their employer.

There are currently only 15% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would change the way that we talk about tech in education – talking truthfully about what it is and the plethora of roles that are available. We need to convey the message that for the technology industry to thrive, you don’t just need one kind of person, but a broad mixture of skillsets, perceptions, and opinions, which work together to deliver something great.

Also, it’s important to raise awareness that technology really can be used as a force for good and that working in the sector gives you the chance to have a major, positive impact on enabling people’s lives within society.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I don’t have any really, as I’ve never seen myself as a ‘woman in tech’ – I see myself as good at what I do, not that I’m a female operating in the digital world.

One thing I will say though is that there are some amazing networking groups out there that can help to bolster confidence and help you share your industry experiences with like-minded individuals.

You mentioned CDS has launched a new behavioural insight division, can you tell us a bit more about this?

The core aim of our new behavioural insight team is to help organisations to understand the needs of their audiences, so that they can build and deliver experiences and communications that are truly authentic and empathic in nature – and an overall delight.

The division itself has multiple arms to it – including behavioural research, service design, user experience, and planning and performance – all of which work in harmony to help brands uncover their users’ needs and requirements and deploy communications that truly resonate with them.

We want people to feel their own individual needs are understood by the brands they interact with, and this means inclusivity should be baked into their communications strategy as standard. The one-size-fits-all approach to communication is neither effective nor sustainable for businesses and we’re here to empower them with true user insight, to help create an ethically and commercially stable future – which always has the target audience at its heart.

Ultimately, the humanisation of communications is crucial for organisations – not only in order to better connect with their customers but their employees too.