User research during COVID-19

Stay Home Stay Safe. Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash.

While the COVID-19 health crisis has deeply impacted people who were already in a disadvantaged position, the truth is that all of a sudden, we could be talking about nearly anyone: that friend who is between jobs and who is taking a bit too long to find their next role; the single parent who sees all childcare options vanish overnight; self-employed folks whose phones stop ringing, going hazardously quiet; or it could be someone who is at home with an abusive partner. It could be any of us. More often than not, the lines that separate our fortunes are thinner than we would like to imagine.

The research

From February to April 2020, I led the user research for the digital platform of ‘Good Work Camden’, a programme created by Camden Council to promote better employment opportunities and boost the economy in the borough.

The objective was to uncover the needs of residents who would benefit from employment support and to test our assumptions with prototypes.

We began with face-to-face interviews but had to abruptly shift to remote sessions and adapt our materials after the first measures against COVID-19 started.

While I had previous extensive experience with remote user research and also working with sensitive topics, this was an entirely new situation. We didn’t just have to engage with participants remotely, we also had to deal with an intense emotional load, a by-product of the current climate of uncertainty.

User interviews are not natural conversations.

If there is one thing we do really well in user research is listen; we listen to what our participants have to say, trying our best to remain impartial, receptive, non-leading, unbiased. We use intentional silence to moderate, invite a response, to give them space to expand their thoughts. When that silence becomes too uncomfortable and threatens the rhythm, we might occasionally murmur a few ‘aha’ and ‘uhms’ to ease things a little… It’s like a dance. The person conducting the interview becomes small, very small. We transform ourselves into a picture frame and let the participant be the only protagonist.

When we listen and give others space to talk, unexpected things can happen. Sometimes their internal narratives are amplified. They might become aware of aspects of their new reality that they hadn’t processed.

With social distancing measures, most of us had had to cut or reduce our contact with the outside world drastically. Talking to a stranger could seem therapeutic. But we, user researchers and UX folk are not trained as therapists, least of all qualified to advise in these situations.

I want to share some of the things I have found helpful. There is also a recommended list of links at the end of this article.

A visual sketchnote showing the key points when conducting User Research during COVID-19. Illustration by Mar Murube.

Before the session

Think about your users

If we are researching with a particular segment or group of users, it’s essential to gather information and learn as much as we can about what they might be going through. This will help us be more mindful and inclusive when we are writing the conversation guideline, choosing tools and planning the sessions.

“Creating a comfortable atmosphere and a safe environment is vital when running a workshop or conducting an interview on emotional topics. Always put empathy at the heart of your design approach” — User research: how do you look after participants? by We Are Snook

Get ready to help

Once we know who we will be speaking with, we can start to gather a list of links and resources where they can get support and have it ready before the sessions. This might include things like accessing mental health support, advice for applying for benefits or connecting with local volunteer groups. We also need to be aware of safeguarding procedures.

While it is not our job to give users advice, we can help them by pointing them to existing services.

Plan timings mindfully

Schedule fewer sessions in one day, and space them out, leaving more time between them.

We should avoid sessions that are too long; this can emotionally drain participants or cause them to narrow excessively in just one thing, instead of providing us with more holistic insights.

But do allow extra time is people want to talk about their experiences or continue the conversation a bit longer.

Prepare yourself

Easier said than done! In an ideal world, we would start each session in a clear and calm space of mind. For some of us, that might mean meditating a few minutes before, doing mindful breathing exercises or start moving.

During the session

Offer clear guidance

I like to have a script with directions to help them get the Tech sorted, and dealing with common problems like shaky internet connections, delayed sound, becoming familiar with the icons on their screen. It’s also a good idea to think of a back-up option and alternatives, like a phone, in case it fails, or they don’t have access to a computer.

Then I also like to have a little list for myself. It includes things like making sure I have their consent before recording, asking them to close any personal windows before they share their screen, having links to the prototypes or any other tools handy. I keep this as a note on my laptop, so it’s just cut and paste.

Manage expectations

For many participants, it will be the first time taking part in a research session, let alone a remote one. It’s essential to run through the basics and let them know which tools we’ll be using, what kind of things I will be asking them to do and what would be helpful for us to know. It also allows them to ask us any questions they might have.

Sort out incentives at the beginning

Unfortunately, because we began our research before the outbreak, we had only physical vouchers, which we sent by post after each session. If it had been in person, we would have handed them before we started. That way, participants don’t feel like they are being tested, and it gets rid of any ambiguity.

Love2Shop has egift cards valid in major high street stores.

Remind them that they are in control

Keep on doing this. During the session, keep reminding participants that they can pause, go back, ask us to delete, stop recording, decide to skip questions or even end the session without justification. This is good practice in a standard setting, but I feel like in these times we need to remind them even more often.

Consider using artefacts

Depending on the type of research and the methods that we are using, it might be possible to use objects to help participants focus on the task.

In my experience, the more explorative and ‘open’ the research, the more some people might inadvertently begin to delve into their current problems or whatever is going through their minds at that moment. And during a pandemic, things can get gloomy quite quickly. Of course, we want to know how and what they think — but we want to stop before it becomes traumatic for the participants. In those moments, using artefacts like an image, a prototype, or an exercise can help us redirect their attention and keep things light(er) and focused.

Be flexible, be kind

Ultimately, we need to be prepared to modify/be flexible with the discussion guide and be ready to stop the session if things get too distressing for the participant (they might want to reschedule or not — know when it’s a good idea to offer it).

But we need to also prepared to simply listen, even if they want to talk about something that seems utterly unrelated to the purpose of our research. Yes, we want our insights, but let’s be human and show empathy above everything else.

After

Remember to check-in with yourself

After a session, I would generally start debriefing and comparing notes with the observer as soon as possible while their words and everything else is still ‘fresh’ (mostly to avoid having to listen to the recordings later).

However, in these times, I recommend taking time to disconnect and recharge your batteries as the top priority by doing whatever works best for each of us. I like going for a walk (even if during lockdown that just means going around the house), and talking to someone: the observer, a colleague or a friend.

Follow-up

Sending a ‘thank you’ email with our professional contact details in the signature and, if we think it might help them, the links for the support that we had previously gathered to the participant.

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