Doing (remote) user research for government services in times of COVID-19

Marlieke Kieboom
8 min readApr 1, 2020


By: Marlieke Kieboom & Melissa Sasi— Service Designers in the Government of British Columbia — Canada.

In times of crisis the need for effective citizen centred government services is extremely high. COVID-19 has governments all over the world grappling with similar challenges. In extraordinary time frames they are moving existing services online, in the form of updated web content, digital forms, video intake processes and so on. And they are building new, essential services like COVID-19 related income assistance at a faster pace than ever before.

As members of a service design team in the B.C. Government, one of our core practices is user research. We use various tools and methodologies to help our Ministerial colleagues uncover citizens’ motivations for using a service, their current challenges, and their ideas for change (see our draft design research guide). We shouldn’t dismiss the value of this practice in times of crisis when there is a need to build and adapt services quickly, but user research can’t become a barrier or cause for delay in delivering essential services. Instead, we must think about conducting research as soon as possible to continually help inform how content or a service needs to change over time. As we move forward on service design projects — both related to the B.C. Government’s COVID-19 response and otherwise — in this time of social distancing, conducting iterative, quick and remote user research is top of mind.

However, COVID-19 has created specific barriers to conducting user-research. Timelines, for example, may dictate that novel user-research is not feasible, and we must rely on intuition, past insights and design patterns gathered around citizen’s needs to decide the best way forward. Social distancing measures also require us to rethink fieldwork and what it takes to connect meaningfully with citizens and stakeholders to get their input on the design process. How can we design good government services when we can’t practice our usual methodologies, like face-to-face meetings, shadowing interactions and visiting (work)places? What unique challenges and considerations apply to a government context?

Summary ‘Doing (remote) user research for government services in times of COVID-19’ — Image by: Marlieke Kieboom and Melissa Sasi / graphic design by: Smriti Shakdher — CC-BY-4.0

Below are some topics our service team is exploring based on past and present experiences in the B.C. Government. Are they applicable to your (government) context? Are you doing things differently? Get in touch, we’d love to hear from you!

1. Find creative ways to leverage familiar software tools, such as video calls, emails, and instant messaging

What kind of tools and applications are already on people’s phones and computers? Using existing and approved applications — in our case, email, Skype/whiteboard, photo editing on phones, and Powerpoint — has many benefits. Participants are less likely to be flustered with familiar interfaces, the proper measures to protect privacy and information of citizens might already be in place, and it comes at a low cost for tax payers.

If you do choose to use a new application, make sure: a) to check in with your privacy and personal information office and make sure you are meeting their requirements, and b) that the application is easy to log-in (preferably no log-in required) and navigate in without prior knowledge. We are currently exploring the use of tools like Zoom (for video group conferencing), Miro (for collaborative design workshops), Figma (for prototyping digital products) and DeDoose (for collaborative data analysis).

2. Remote does not equal online: get to ‘thick data’ by combining approaches

The art and practice of hosting activities that entice people to tell stories and share ideas might seem harder in a remote or online setting. Sometimes, in order to retrieve thick and rich data, we need to get people beyond the level of merely answering questions and into the ‘sense making space’, where they attribute meaning and value to their experience. In this exercise remote does not equal online. Going back and forth between online and offline activities will help to yield richer insights and achieve higher engagement from participants. Get creative!

Here are some methodologies we are looking into using or modifying for remote research:

>> Photo/Video/Voice Ethnography

Photo/video ethnography involves asking research participants to use a camera or voice recording app (often on their smartphone) to take photos, make videos or voice memos about their everyday practices and interactions that they can then share with you or a group at a later date. You can provide them with questions or prompts to direct their recordings and documentations.

>> Diaries/journaling

This method involves completing diaries or journals using pen and paper, voice memos, online platforms or special apps. Diaries can also be combined with interviews or focus groups, where the diary can act as a prompt for further discussion.

>> Design probes

This method involves developing design probes that help people complete an assignment with materials that people have at home (think kitchen utensils, arts & craft supplies, Lego). Probes can come in the form of cards with visual imagery and instructions for completion. Tasks often have a creative element — people are more likely to engage with fun tasks or tasks that give them some creative agency than with pure information gathering activities. Probes provide a glimpse into people’s lives and form an inspiration or starting point for more formal interviews. Probes can be sent out before or during an individual interview or focus group.

>> Rich pictures

Example of a rich picture. Source:

A Rich Picture is a way to explore, acknowledge and define a complex system/situation and express it through individual drawing. A rich picture helps to open discussion when coming together with a group of stakeholders and come to a broad, shared understanding of a situation. Rich pictures could form the start of a journey map for example.

3. Come prepared

Doing remote user-research asks a different kind of preparation and requires strong technical and personal facilitation and communication skills.

We don’t think that doing remote/online user-research necessarily takes more time than traditional user-research. You might have to take more time to prepare your sessions, but less time is needed to transcribe and digitize findings when most of them will already be digital!

When preparing and facilitating a remote user-research session, consider the following points:

  • Set the stage: Take more time for the introduction at the beginning to set the stage: lay out ground rules, consent, agenda, territorial acknowledgements, ways to keep track of inclusion (who talks, who doesn’t?). Laying these foundations before you start your activity is key!
  • Troubleshoot early: Take time to troubleshoot your technology and give user-research participants a chance to get familiar with the way you will be communicating and working before you start.
  • Pause for a moment: Take time for breaks and break-out groups, just like you would in regular workshops. You might want to take more time for breaks– it’s more tiring to be on a 2 hour video call than doing in-person group activities for 2 hours.
  • Assign roles: Consider different team roles: facilitators, break-out group facilitators, presenters, scribes (for screenshots, recording, taking notes) and a tech-support person.
  • Stipends: How can we reward remote participants for their time and engagement? There are some particular challenges to delivering and documenting stipends in a remote setting (for example, how can we ensure the participants received them?)
  • Less is more: Set one goal for a session, such as making or reviewing a journey map. Gathering stories, building a systems map, reviewing/discussing findings are all separate sessions.

4. We must respect citizens’ rights on privacy and personal information

As public servants we carry a responsibility to protect citizens’ privacy and personal information even in unprecedented times. When people participate in remote user-research the usual measures remain in place (see BC’s 10 Privacy Principles). Here are some extra things to think of:

  • How to ask for consent when a paper + pen signature is not possible?
    Let’s not make it into a big headache for our research participants. Think of an audio recording that includes the participant’s consent, have someone take a photo of their signed form, use a digital signature. Also think of properly storing and filing this data. Hopefully in the future signing digital consent forms will be the new normal!
  • When using new digital tools, make sure to check whether their security measures and data storage are in line with your government’s regulations. In B.C. please refer to ‘Guidance on Ministerial Order 085 — using third party tools and applications.’

5. Inclusive and ethical design considerations are more important than ever

Remote approaches can open up some accessibility challenges when it comes to participant recruitment and holding the space for everyone in a virtual, pandemic world.

>> Participant recruitment

It is good practice to recruit a representative spread of age, gender, social and economic status, cultural and linguistic background, geographic location and education level (check GBA+ framework) and hold meetings in an accessible way regardless of a pandemic. It’s important to consider how tech-heavy activities might create barriers for remote communities (ie. low band-with) or for people with low tech literacy.

  • Think of doing a ‘digital check-in’ in advance of your session to gauge participant’s digital skills level without making assumptions. You can think of questions like: what is your access like to a reliable internet connection? What is your level of comfort with the following tools?
  • It helps to be specific on how the chosen technology will work in advance of the session.
  • When recruiting online (for example, in Facebook groups) make sure to ask permission from the online group administrator.

>> Holding the space in a virtual, pandemic world

COVID-19 will have an effect on everyone, and especially on people who already hold a vulnerable position in society. Consider how the pandemic might be affecting potential research participants, and think of how you can create space for their experiences. Normal routines are disrupted, many people are feeling uncertain and worried, and some are ill or caring for ill family members. On the other hand, people feeling confined, bored, or restless, but in good health, may welcome the opportunity to be part of a research project.

Consider your target participant group very carefully when making decisions about the best way forward. There might be tough subjects that people might not be as comfortable with to talk about virtually or in a group setting. What will you do when people get very emotional? Think this through with your team and have a plan that will help safeguard your participants and yourself.

Bottom line

User research allows citizens and public servants to collaborate in decision-making processes, creates trust, and increases chances of finding innovative solutions. If remote, online user-research is all you can do for now, then go ahead and experiment, make mistakes (review them!) and try again. Your lessons learned will improve your products or services, and inform future research approaches, many of which will still be applicable in a post-social distancing world. Ultimately, working through these challenges will only strengthen our practice.

Are you doing remote user-research in a government context? Do you have ideas/best practices to share? Get in touch!

Marlieke Kieboom & Melissa Sasi — service designers in the B.C. Government — Canada.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are solely the author’s and do not represent those of the Province of British Columbia or any other parties.

A special thank you to colleagues who provided feedback on earlier versions.

References we found helpful:

Remote Design Research Webinar — How to connect with your users and co-design online — Portable

Making design research work remotely — FutureGov

Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic — crowdsourced documentations from global academics

What do when in-person experience and service design research activities are not an option — Miream Rabba



Marlieke Kieboom

Service designer + anthropologist in BC Public Service | Dutchie in Canada/Turtle Island | people, power, politics | Views my own