Navigating as a Graduate during the pandemic

COVID has had an impact on everyone across the world and it has been impossible to avoid the topic. I’m fortunate enough to not have had to experience the serious physical health implications related to this awful virus but, living through this uncertain environment as a final year student did take a mental toll on me. Universities had to quickly adapt to online learning, which was the first introduction I had to remote working for a sustained amount of time. Whilst it was evident that they were trying to do the best they could, the quality of resources and support wasn’t the same. Students were left in the dark about the structure of their assessments and I had an 8000-word dissertation hanging over my head, whilst trying to cope with all of the working from home stresses. My invitation to re-join Kainos as a Graduate User Researcher after my placement term provided light at the end of the tunnel and a level of security but also, motivation through this unusual and difficult time.

Once joining Kainos, I jumped straight into a COVID-related project and onboarded onto the Test and Trace service. I have previous experience working on a government project but this one is quite different; the service was forced to go live before any consideration of research due to the public health concern of the virus and ever-changing policy requirements means that there can’t be a clear-cut research plan. We’ve been playing catch up with the service in terms of identifying user needs and pain points due to the nature of its release but, despite all of this, the team have managed to provide a usable service that supports the fight against COVID.

Adapting to remote testing

Due to the limited social interactions, a creative plan was needed to engage our users and adapt to the circumstances. This was particularly relevant when testing proposed design changes as participants were expected to interact with the service and understand the different layers to the session. Although it is always important to build a relationship with participants and create a comfortable environment, this rings truer when you have to solely rely on communication to walk them through the process as you can’t provide physical assistance.

I found that preparation is a key aspect to remote testing; it provides benefits to both the facilitator and the participant and ensures the session can run smoothly. Checking that all necessary tools and features are working before making contact with the general public allows you to identify any issues without impacting the session or the participant’s perception. Informing participants prior to the session of the relevant technology features that they need to use proved invaluable as it gave them a chance to familiarise themselves with these tools and feel comfortable using them. In my opinion, remote interviews don’t need as much technology preparation as it relies on communicative practises that the public may already be familiar with. However, it is still good to provide an overview of the session and guidance to make the user feel confident to participate. I also found that it was very beneficial to provide more time to each remote research session to allow participants to go at their own pace and account for any technical difficulties if they emerged.

Although testing remotely with users does have it challenges, for example having to verbally direct participants if they are unsure how to navigate, it has proved to be quite successful in this context. One advantage being that participants expectedly feel more comfortable in their own homes or environment, rather than taking part in sessions that are in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar technology. It causes some separation between the facilitator and the participant, which can ease nerves that may be present when someone is physically besides you seemingly watching all of your actions. Another advantage is that it has allowed our participant pool to be more representative as we can reach people from across the UK without any expense to travel. The lack of travel means that the general public can fit research around their own schedules and has also caused a reduction in the time needed for research. This has meant that insights from these sessions can be delivered quicker and ensures a rapid turnaround for improvements. Team members and stakeholders can observe sessions with ease through the click of a Zoom or MS Teams link, which has given the ability for more people to get involved in research with little disruption to their day.

Support at Kainos

My Kainos onboarding was the complete opposite to my negative experience of transitioning to online learning at University. Before I joined, Khush (the lead researcher on my project) made contact with me to discuss my previous experience and provide a general overview of what to expect once I joined. This was a great help and provided comfort to the daunting idea of building relationships with new people over a screen and working on a project in isolation from my team. Right from the start, everyone in my team was very welcoming and made the effort to introduce themselves and get me up to speed with the current state of the service.

Outside of the project, 2 days were dedicated to welcoming new joiners to the company through an internal corporate introduction of “all things Kainos”. These sessions not only provided key takeaways about company policies and applications, but it also provided a sense of team where people may have felt at their loneliest. Specifically focusing on the Kainos User Research team, there are bi-weekly catch up calls in place for researchers to get together and discuss what they’re working on and raise any blockers where advice may be needed. I appreciate these calls immensely, especially at a time where you feel distant from your colleagues.

Although there have been challenging moments adapting to this new way of working, it has been rewarding to work on a service that’s main goal is to help with the national effort to reduce the spread of COVID. Since joining the project, there has been an increase in satisfactory and completion rates, which is a representation of the teams hard work and effort to make this service the best service it can be.