Conducting inclusive user research remotely during COVID-19
I am a user researcher at Kainos, currently leading research on a major government transformation project.
Before COVID-19, the majority of my research was face to face but after March 2020 that quickly changed to conducting all user research remotely, as it did for most user researchers. I was comfortable with this as there have been instances where I have needed to do research remotely before.
Due to the user base being a very broad cross section of the public on this project, it was a priority to conduct inclusive user research with users who need to access the support they are entitled to. When I started to conduct inclusive user research remotely with users who require additional support it had its challenges because:
- this was a new area of research to me
- there were many technical constraints to consider
- a remote tool doesn't give you that human touch even with a web camera
The challenges I came across are ones that are quite common on any remote research session but when conducting research with users who have additional support needs those challenges manifested into new situations such as:
- Conducting a research session with users who were deaf was a challenge for me because I didn't know British Sign Language (BSL) - although, since then I have started a course. Fortunately, I had arranged to run the sessions with an interpreter, so they were able to help communicate between myself and the users. Even then, during one of the sessions, the user and interpreter weren't able to communicate because when screen sharing the video feature became small which means the interrupter and user couldn't clearly see each other. Bear in mind when using BSL interpreters some might require a regional interpreter.
- Technical problems with my network caused me to drop out a few times which didn't help those users with anxiety.
- Some users had issues with their machine loading the remote tool and sometimes I couldn't give users control because the remote tool wouldn't allow it, again, not helping those with anxiety.
- Getting users to fill in consent forms and send them back wasn't easy for those with low digital skills.
So, how did I overcome the challenges whilst conducting inclusive user research? The same as any other research session and this is what worked for me
Plan, don't give up, carry on
Research doesn't always go how we want it to but always have a plan because they are a good back up.
Don't give up on a research session when things don't go as expected and think of another way around it. For example, when users have issues joining via the remote tool ask them if they have another device they can use or use another remote tool. When conducting usability testing, if you have issues with handing control to the participant (this has happened to me a few times) you will have to tell the user to tell you how to navigate which is OK.
Also, when conducting usability testing, I always have a back-up of the journeys on a digital whiteboard so I can walk through the journey if there are any issues with the prototype.
Someone once told me 'some user research is better than no user research'.
Sending an email and follow up text
Send users an email with an invite and then contact them via text via your work phone to let them know you've emailed them because as we all know emails sometimes get stuck in the junk folder. Also, it gives the user two ways to be able to contact you - easing any anxiety they may have.
We all know these can be a pain to fill out, so I let users know that filling them in at the beginning of the session isn't an issue as long as they have read it - it makes the user feel less anxious.
If observers are attending the research, let users know upfront and again at the beginning of the session, set rules with observers about keeping cameras off, microphones off and tell them not to interrupt the session ? have a separate chat where observers can ask questions. Also, let users know that observers aren't observing them, and they can say if they do want them to be on the call.
Things will go wrong so breathing and staying calm helps. Listening to the LeBron James - Train Your Mind playbook before my research day begins always helps.
Let users know upfront that you may have connectivity issues and you will come back to the session if you do drop out.
Not all users are comfortable with their camera on and that's fine especially when it comes to inclusive user research. It all comes down to making the user feel at ease.
Let users know that they can stop the recording and session at any time ? it's all about making the user feel comfortable.
Being more mindful, empathetic and having more patience
I know my users within the first few minutes so if they are nervous, I make them feel less nervous by having a general chat. I let them know that they can take breaks, reassure them that research isn't a test (because it's definitely not), there are no right or wrong answers and that they can take their time.
Every user has a different need, you don't always know what the user is going through so being more mindful and empathic is really important especially when it comes to inclusive user research.
Smile and the whole world smiles with you
Smile when appropriate. There will be times when smiling isn't appropriate, and you'll know when it is and when it isn't.
Unmoderated user research
I haven't conducted unmoderated user research however consider that as an option. Also, consider following this up with an interview and for those who are deaf use a British Sign Language interpreter but check with the user if they need a regional interpreter.
Expand your knowledge
I have made a commitment to learn British Sign Language (BSL) - I have a very long way to go but I have found British Sign to be great for a beginner like me. I also find reading and learning from others about inclusive user research has helped me grow in this area.
And that is it
These are just a few things that have worked for me during this pandemic. As a researcher I get asked 'do you still get nervous before a research session?' and my answer is YES! even more so when conducting inclusive research remotely but I always remember it's ok because I am human (as are all of us) and I am always learning so every moment is a lesson learnt otherwise how do I progress?
This is just the beginning of my journey into inclusive user research and as time goes on, I am looking forward to learning more and growing into what is a new area to me during a pandemic.
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