No, COVID-19 Is Not Skewing Your User Experience Research

Photo by Oğuzhan Akdoğan

In just a few weeks everything has changed. But work goes on, even within the relatively unimportant context of user experience research. Or does it?

Recently I have heard questions and concerns about whether it makes sense to do user research at this highly unusual and fragile time. In short, yes it does, as it is essential to support the user experiences of our new reality.

Is it appropriate to recruit participants?
One concern is that it is an inappropriate time to ask people to participate in (remote) user research. Presumably, people are too busy, distracted, or disinterested. While this may be true for many, some may have greater availability because they are not commuting and/or their work has slowed down. Others are at home with little to do, possibly unemployed and needing sources of income that research participation can provide. The point is, user research recruitment is typically a voluntary, opt-in process and those who are willing and interested can make decisions for themselves.

Is the research valid?
A broader question is whether research conducted now is valid. The pandemic has so quickly and profoundly affected so many things — medical, economic, social and otherwise. Consequently, there is concern that it is not a representative time to do research.

But it’s essential to recognize that the purpose of user research is to understand how and why users are interacting with technologies and services in the present. We can only ask about and observe interactions in the context of reality, even if we are asking people about the future.

To take what might now be considered an extreme example, imagine planning research around an airline reservations application. Airline travel has dropped immensely and it's unlikely that people are planning future trips. On the other hand, people have had to get information from airlines, cancel or reschedule flights, and request refunds. There’s a clear change in how airline applications are used. But it would be irresponsible to ignore these shifts as “temporary”. Rather, research goals and questions should shift with the times to focus on what is important to users.

Will current research findings be applicable in the future?
A final consideration is whether the findings from today will be relevant when the world goes back to “normal.” First, we don’t know how long the pandemic will last, nor can we assume things will be the same even after the risks of spreading the virus are greatly diminished. The rapid shift to becoming a mass work from home culture, changes in consumer spending abilities and choices, and increased virtual social interactions may result in long-term differences that we aren’t aware of yet. All the more reason to proactively continue well-thought-out research to help identify and design for such changes.

Moreover, the question of future applicability is nothing new in user research. Over the years, what seemed to be common design principles have been contradicted as technology and culture have co-evolved. We need to continue to stay ahead of the curve, even as we try to #FlattenTheCurve.

Human-centered design researcher