UX Research in Challenging Times: How to Adjust for Impacts on Participants

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Apr 2, 2020

The global pandemic of COVID-19 has introduced unique challenges and feelings that many of us have never experienced before. Many of you are asking, “How do we conduct research at a time like this?” We hear you. As researchers, we have to be mindful and understanding of these new challenges as we continue gathering user insights during this time. Circumstances are shifting daily, and we need to be ready to shift our methods and practices alongside them to continue meeting our goals.

Although we face uncertainty, there is still great value in connecting with your customers. 

Continuing to have conversations with your customers shows you’re still thinking of them and care about their input especially at a time like this. However, it also presents an opportunity to innovate and improve your experiences to help your customers in both the current climate and beyond it. There are a number of ways to gather more general insights about their needs outside of the current situation. But, conducting research now can also help you better understand how your customers may be impacted by the pandemic. And, as we begin to identify our “new normal,” you’ll learn how you can meet them where they’re at today as we all plan for tomorrow.

While it’s valuable to continue talking to users, there are a few modifications we must make. Shifting circumstances call for adjustments to our methods to be respectful of our participants, understanding of new challenges, and aware of added complications that may arise during research sessions. Our team of 130+ remote research experts has come together to better prepare for building trust with participants and creating comfortable, and productive research experiences. To discover insights that will help you meet users’ needs as they evolve in these changing times, we have to adapt our methods to participants’ current circumstances.

As you make the switch to remote research, try some of these changes our team finds successful. These steps help you accommodate participants’ changing needs, while mitigating any potential biases given the current climate.

Be considerate of participants’ circumstances 

Different populations will be affected differently, and we have to take that into consideration when designing research. At AnswerLab, we’ve put a hold on engaging with healthcare professionals until their services are needed at a less critical level. We are also being considerate of the difficult situations of many small business owners, service workers, students, and others. Check in with these individuals during recruitment to understand if they’re comfortable discussing topics related to work, school, or their lifestyle. For some, participating in a session may be a welcome diversion, a helpful paycheck, and a chance to share about topics that are meaningful to them. However, for others, it might be too emotionally or mentally stressful. 

With many now working from home, major layoffs in several industries, children of all ages home from school, and potential care-taking responsibilities, keeping participants focused and on track is an even harder task. Here are a few things we’ve found helpful:

  • Observe participants’ body language, reactions, and any possible distractions in their physical space. (As a reminder, always use webcams during remote research!) If you feel you’re not getting focused insights, try to redirect the conversation with probing questions. And, don’t be afraid to dismiss a participant and move to an alternate if it’s not working out.

  • We might ask the participant to bring a homework reflection or artifacts like photos or videos. This helps them get into the right mindset prior to the session, so they’re adequately prepared. You can also use prompts like, “Remember a time when,” to help spark thoughts about their normal, everyday experience rather than the current circumstances of the pandemic. Learn more about using homework and artifacts in remote exploratory research.

  • Social distancing and remote work may become a new normal for many. With more people staying home, we’re seeing an increase in demand for digital services and products. Getting a headstart on understanding your customers’ new normal can be a competitive advantage for your brand to meet those new demands.

  • When assessing usability, we find if a participant can successfully complete a task or navigate an experience in this heightened state, it’s very likely they’ll still be able to navigate it once circumstances return to normal.

Prepare remote participants for sessions

Learning from participants about sensitive matters is actually often better suited to a remote setting than in-person in a lab. Being interviewed in the comfort of their own home can help participants feel stronger and safer than even the most friendly lab environment. And as a researcher, carrying out interviews in a stress-free, comfortable setting of your own can increase participants’ willingness to open up.

Our team also provides remote “walk-ins” where we call participants just prior to the session to help set up their audio and video. This minimizes tech hurdles and ensures participants feel mentally and physically prepared to join.

Schedule alternates

We always schedule a few alternate participants in the event the main participant is unable to participate due to unforeseen circumstances. During this more uncertain time, there may be more distractions or disruptions in our participants’ lives, so scheduling more alternates may be more necessary than usual.

Reconsider your typical practices

Given current challenges, otherwise normal topics such as health or financial wellbeing, may become sensitive for participants to discuss. Interviews related to difficult topics can often take longer than conventional usability sessions. Try increasing session length by 25% when dealing with these kinds of topics to help make space for participants to think and reflect.

We also recommend giving a thorough introduction at the start of the interview to review the purpose of the study, emphasize the positive impact likely to come from it, and remind them of the confidentiality of the session. To build further rapport, we encourage our researchers to take off their “objectivity hat” and openly express empathy when participants share difficult material. 

Utilize key non-verbal cues

In sessions over webcam, participants’ main focus is the researcher’s face and voice, which are critical for building trust and rapport. Open facial expressions that express curiosity without judgment are helpful. And, a warm tone of voice can build rapport, combined with reassuring and empathic affirmations and sounds. Try to limit any distractions, such as typed note-taking during such sessions since this can make the researcher appear distant. 

Ensure remote participants will have privacy

Participants will be more comfortable sharing about sensitive matters if they are in a private place. When recruiting, we ensure they will be able to do the session from a private room with a closable door, with a headset — not in a car, not with others present — and we double-check to confirm that this is the case as the session begins.


This is an uncertain time for many, so being aware and prepared for unexpected shifts and mishaps is important. Every study and research objective is different, so when designing research, try to think critically about how you can successfully adjust your methods to accommodate participants while prioritizing getting the findings you need.

For more information about remote methodologies, download our Guide to Remote Research or contact us to hear about our remote research toolkit. 

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AnswerLab Research

The AnswerLab research team collaborates on articles to bring you the latest UX trends and best practices.

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