Conducting User Research and COVID-19

Written by

Kelly Franznick

Kiki takes a guests temperature at Blink

Like many of our peers, we have been able to continue much of our work from home during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandates. Our teams have adapted to this temporary reality, and we have conducted much of our planned research using remote methods. But some research questions can’t easily be answered remotely, and we cannot wait to return to our user experience research labs.

How do you ensure participant health and safety in light of COVID-19?”

One of our long-term consumer electronic hardware clients posed this question. We have been able to conduct some studies remotely, but we will be able to more effectively answer questions about fit and finish, ergonomics, and subtle feedback once we’re back in the lab.

Blink has 20 years of experience in designing, building, and optimizing UX research labs. We also have connections and partnerships with some of the most innovative thinkers and technologists across a variety of industries. In collaboration with colleagues within and outside of Blink, plus a fair amount of experimenting at home, we’ve established a protocol to follow a safe return to our user research labs that will be followed until COVID-19 is no longer a concern.

First and foremost, Blink is committed to the health and safety of our research participants, employees, clients, and partners. We continue to monitor information from the CDC and will follow the guidance of state and local governments in each of our research locations. We are reviewing our policies and procedures constantly to adapt them to this evolving situation.

Blink is implementing a multifaceted approach to maintaining the health and safety of post-COVID-19 in-person research. This approach will include modified research procedures, screening procedures, social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning and disinfection of facilities, and sanitization of all hardware.

Listening to the Local Experts

COVID-19 risks vary tremendously from location to location around the globe. We have offices in four states, and each one requires specific treatment based on the recommendations of state and local health officials. Most states have published plans for stages when conducting one-on-one interviews or working in small groups would be appropriate.

Remote Whenever Possible

I believe the COVID-19 pandemic will influence how people make decisions about the activities they do for months, if not years, to come. Remote research methods will continue to be popular and are the lowest-risk option for participants and researchers, so we should use them whenever possible.

Minimizing Risk Through Participant Screening

Blink's screening process for all participant recruiting for in-person research at any facility we use will include self-reported screening questions specific to COVID-19 health and safety. These questions will address self-reported symptoms, possible exposure, and past travel risk (defined by travel to locations that haven't yet reached the CDC’s Phase 3 gating criteria). We will ask participants these questions in the initial phone screens and then again upon participants’ arrival at the research facility.

Check-In Procedures

In addition to verifying each participant’s identity and answers to the screening questions, we will ask participants to opt in to contactless temperature checks. Our facility hosts will perform these checks with a simple infrared thermometer. As is our policy today, we will continue to empower our staff and clients to quickly dismiss any participant who we feel may present a risk to health and safety.

PPE

Blink will require participants and staff to wear, at minimum, KN95-rated face masks, which we will provide. We don’t want to reduce the supply of the N95 masks, which healthcare workers badly need, and the KN95 masks are nearly as effective.

Research Facility Modifications

Blink's research facilities will support social distancing by default. This will include adhering to the following standards:

  • - Participants will not co-mingle while waiting for research sessions.
  • - Food and beverage will be limited to single-serve, individually packaged products.
  • - Participant group size will follow the guidelines of state and local governments.
  • - Any notepads, pens, and pencils will be single-use and disposed of after each session.

Robotic Moderation

Experimenting with robotic moderation in our labs.

We have placed fixed telepresence robots in our labs so that our teams can moderate sessions from outside the lab space. Moderators may participate from another room, another Blink location, or their home. These devices allow for eyes and ears in the research facility, with the ability to pan and zoom for good viewing of the research activities.

We have selected fixed telepresence robots to keep the participant distraction to a minimum. In some ways, this is the modern equivalent of the old usability lab intercom — except with today’s technology, the user can see and hear, as well as pan and zoom.

One feature I really like about this solution is that the user can move the robot slightly to indicate their engagement with the participant. Even a small turn toward what they are talking about breaks down the barrier that exists in typical remote sessions. I was even playing with pre-programmed robot movements to indicate emotions such as surprise.

Cleaning and Disinfection

High-quality sanitizing wipes for use in our labs.

Regularly cleaning our labs, observation rooms, and shared spaces has always been a part of Blink’s protocol. Going forward, we will clean all surfaces with a CDC-approved cleaner after each session.

When possible, each participant will use disposable covers for things such as VR headsets, and we will discard them after every session.

We will use calibrated, scientific-quality UV-C sanitizers.

Some delicate hardware can’t be cleaned easily with liquid solutions, so we have outfitted our labs with UV-C sanitizers. These powerful lights require safety precautions such as glasses and gloves, but they have been shown to be very effective against coronaviruses. Be cautious of the wave of UV-C equipment that I expect will flood the market soon. We test all of our UV-C equipment with a calibrated, scientific-quality UV-C light meter to ensure that our equipment is working effectively. This meter will also allow us to identify the time required for each device to inactivate and decontaminate.

UV-C is not an ideal solution for some of the sensitive optics we test. We are currently working with a partner who is doing material studies and developing an ozone gas system designed specifically for electronics. The partner hopes to have a proof of concept ready for evaluation in the next few weeks.

Our Commitment

We keep our clients’ user research needs top of mind as we look to reopen our labs. Blink is committed to working closely with our clients to develop a safety program that meets their specific needs and provides protection for the health and safety of our staff and user research participants. If you have a question, comment, or suggestion about our protocol, please let us know.

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