How 2020 changed user research

March 2nd, 2021 Written by Tobias Marriott

Covid-19 has brought challenges to our usual working practices as user researchers. We need to consider self-isolation, social distancing and people’s varied access to technology. Firstly, we realised that we needed to address more than just remote research methods. 

A large part of user research involves usability testing, a method that is typically facilitated in-person (often in a lab setting). The value of usability testing is to understand how a user interacts with the product and to observe their attitudes and behaviours.

Exploring new ways to work with our teams was just as important. We had to look at how we might run remote sessions to capture the team’s research questions or turn research walls into virtual walls.

We needed to consider how we might approach these challenges and adapt our ways of working to accommodate remote working.

The challenges

We had to think specifically about the logistics around conducting remote research. There are lots of different tools that can be used for remote research. But it’s not an easy choice to make.

Some things we had to consider as a team:

  • What technology does a participant have access to? It might be they only have access to a mobile or landline.
  • How can our research be as inclusive as possible? How can we make sure we can accommodate people with different access needs? I was recruiting participants for a study and a lady had cognitive difficulties. With the added distraction of her pet dog and two young children we accommodated her wish to participate outside of work hours so she was not distracted.
  • What do we want to learn? Identify the limitations of remote tools, pick a tool best suited to the activity i.e. card sorting 
  • Do we need to share a screen? What happens if you cannot due to technical problems?
  • What environment and context will our participant be in? Will they be dealing with children or have caring responsibilities? What does this mean for confidentiality?

A successful approach to mitigate the challenges was to conduct more in-depth onboarding calls with participants, especially those with low digital skills. This process allowed us to briefly talk with our participants and to set expectations so to ensure everything went to plan.

Here is what we did:

  • We gave a background introduction and what we wanted to achieve. This won so many hearts and minds of our participants.
  • We discussed what technologies our participants could use. This reduced the likelihood of technical issues during the testing session.

The benefits

Ability to research users in their natural environment

Remote testing allowed participants to either be at home or in their office. This helped create ease compared with having observers watching them (either beside them or through a one-way mirror depending on the lab setup you may use). The physical separation of me and the participant has also shown to lessen the Hawthorne effect.

Reduction of time

Testing remotely meant that participants and the team did not need to travel to the testing location which enabled more time for preparation and ‘getting in the researcher zone’. 

Increases geographical representation

Without the need to travel to a set lab for testing, we could increase the coverage of our recruitment to engage with users across the UK.

Team visibility

Our team was flexible and quickly adapted in a professional manner. More stakeholders observed using the sharing tools we had. We used Miro (virtual board) to collaborate findings and used lean prioritisation to manage our backlog.

The future 

Social distancing policies have greatly impacted qualitative research activities, such as going to a coffee shop or meeting users at a usability testing lab. Adapting to this new way of working has taught us so much and will benefit us in the future.    

My observation, like many others, is that these adapted research methods can lead to positive research outcomes. 

We now know we do not necessarily need to sit next to a user to do our usability testing and we can more accurately reflect the diversity of our users by expanding our research beyond the constraints of location and the user’s ability to travel to a usability lab.

Covid-19 has taught us remote research methods can teach us new ways of understanding our user experiences and build more environmentally conscious and accessible research practice for everyone.

I will be taking all these learnings from 2020 into the future of user research. Continuously adapt, flex and explore new ways of research that can progress research for the better. 

We always strive to evolve our research practices based on project needs but we never expected to have to react to a global context. We would love to hear of any challenges, benefits and thoughts you have about usability testing during the pandemic of 2020.

Find out more

If you’re interested in finding out more about how user research can help your organisation or would be interested in a design review please get in touch.