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How to Do Compassionate Research — Even When It’s Tough

When the going gets tough, it’s important to remember that sometimes the kindest work is the work you don’t do at all.

Tough times come about in many different shapes and forms: pandemics, crises in cities or towns, or personal problems.

I remember trying to conduct user research while going through a heart wrenching breakup. It pained me to smile and focus entirely on what the participant was saying. On the flip side, I’ve had participants who have burst into tears during a session because of similar reasons.

I pushed through my difficult times. Sometimes the distraction was welcome. If it was too much, I asked a colleague to step in for me when possible. For the participants, I asked them if they wanted to reschedule for a better day. Some took me up on the offer, grateful for the out, and others welcomed the distraction.

The thing is, we are human. We are unpredictable, illogical, and irrational. We are all these things while we think we are the opposite. This particular pandemic has highlighted these facts and brought up many issues. I believe these ideas go beyond this specific pandemic. Some of the biggest questions I have seen floating around are:

  • Should we do user research during a pandemic?
  • Will research be a welcome distraction or a burden?
  • Will we still get meaningful data?
  • What adjustments should we make?

With these questions in mind, I have seen many people debate the science of user research. What I tell people is, user research is not a science. We are dealing with humans, not chemicals. User research is the observation and understanding of mental models, motivations, and interactions. The validity of user research stands on a precarious edge.

Let’s investigate the above questions.

Should we do user research during a pandemic?

There is a remote alternative for nearly every user research method, but does that mean we should use them?

Many of the people going through this pandemic have never experienced anything of the sort. There are ongoing pandemics, such as AIDs and Zika Virus, and those who stuck with us for a shorter time, such as Swine Flu and Ebola. However, many of these didn’t have as wide-reaching of a global impact. That is not to demean the importance of them, but to highlight the newness of the current situation.

People are freaking out. They might not think they are, and there might not be any outward, apparent signs, but we are freaking out internally. Do you know the flight or fright response? That response is now continuously active. What does that mean?

People are unable to act in a “normal” way. This accounts for both researchers and participants. No one knows how to navigate these murky waters of uncertainty, leaving most of us with an underlying sense of anxiety. This anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways: irritability, exhaustion, stress, restlessness, confusion, and many others. Simply put, we can’t respond naturally to our environment.

What does this mean for user research? We need to consider the ethics of conducting user research during this particular period. People may be experiencing high levels of anxiety and distress, in particular those on the front line. However, there are also others experiencing issues just as stressful. I spoke with a participant who was trying desperately to get a grocery service to deliver to her parents, who live in a relatively remote area. It was difficult for her to concentrate on anything but this issue.

We need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. Is the research necessary to do at this moment, and why do we think so?
    1. This question is crucial if you are researching an at-risk population or those on the frontline.
  2. How might we find alternative ways to conduct research (ex: literature reviews, using past research)?
  3. How might we care for our participants?
  4. How might we support our participants during this time?
  5. How might we take care of ourselves during this time?

If we ask ourselves these questions, there might be some positive influence we can bring through user research. Some research will not make sense to conduct in the current environment. Anything that requires a physical presence or research on how people usually navigate their lives will be less relevant. Make sure the research you are conducting is helpful during this time, for the company and participants. Hopefully, these questions will help you reflect on how to design your research to maximize the benefits and minimize the impact on participants (and researchers).

The short answer to this question: most likely, we should continue, but it depends on the audience and the topics.

Will research be a welcome distraction or burden?

I will answer this question with the most common, yet infuriating answer: it depends.

Depending on your participant, and how they are feeling, there could be a different answer every day. How might we ensure we don’t come off as insensitive to our users?

The last thing we want to do is continue as per usual. Reaching out to users about traveling, eating at restaurants, or in-person shopping may come off as ignorant. We can still research these topics but in a more relevant way. Instead of in-person, people are trying to experience the world digitally. We can try to understand how people are coping and what they are doing instead of making up for this.

Like some of my previous participants, our research sessions were a welcome distraction. One woman had just lost her job and was thankful for the incentive money. This situation can be especially relevant to the current circumstance. Some people are looking for opportunities to make some extra money through participating in research studies. I heard some participants mention that they wanted to use their time to contribute to something helpful. There has been an uptick in the response rates of surveys and people’s availability to participate in a remote research session. While they are stuck at home, they might be looking to beat the boredom.

However, there is the other side of the coin. When I was trying to focus on my research subject with some participants, they were unable to keep away from talking about their current problems. Some participants entirely focused on the latest news, restrictions changing, or how this impacted their family. There was little room for other conversations. I had to face the facts. I asked them how they were coping, and if they wanted to move the research to a later date. Just acknowledging the difficulties helped some participants refocus and finish the interview. Others took the opportunity to reschedule.

The best thing that we can do in these uncertain times is to ask. Ask questions to see how participants are doing, and allow them the flexibility if they can’t be mentally and emotionally present during the interview. We are all human.

Will we still get meaningful data?

Let’s take data with a grain of salt. Since people are unable to act in ordinary ways, their behavior and motivations likely have changed. People who never used to order groceries or takeaway may be doing so much more. Those who never shopped online may be forced to. Gym fanatics might be purchasing online fitness classes when they swore they would never do so. One personal anecdote: I went to the drug store the other day, picked up a load of eye makeup, and spent three hours watching videos on how to apply it.

People are still consuming and doing things but in different ways. Ultimately, no one is sure how long-term the impact will be on the world. People may abandon their past habits for new ones, which may become the “new normal.” Gym fanatics might find home workouts more enticing. People who swore by public transport might buy a car and start driving. Although not all of the changes will become permanent, we still need to understand how people change in response to weird times.

The great thing is, people are always changing their behavior for a variety of reasons. It may be pandemics, breakups, losses of family members, moving, and many other circumstances. As organizations, we need to keep up with the constant shifts people make in their day-to-day lives. The data might not be 100% relevant one or two years down the line, but it is appropriate for now. We need to learn how to adapt to the current reality and how to pivot in the future.

What adjustments should we make?

We are creating a remote environment for user research to thrive. Many tools have popped up, aiding in this transition. User research will become more accessible to organizations and allow us to reach a wider audience of participants. We should continue to utilize these tools beyond the pandemic.

Aside from the current pandemic, these ideas call into question how we can adapt user research to weird times, in general. I believe we should ask the last three questions I mentioned above on a more regular basis:

  1. How might we care for our participants?
  2. How might we support our participants during this time?
  3. How might we take care of ourselves during this time?

The pandemic has allowed us to put user research in a new light. We can be more thoughtful about our process and how certain times may impact our participants. We can ask the necessary questions and be more open with the people we are talking with. And, I believe, most importantly, we can truly see our participants as humans, not just users.

Nikki Anderson

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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