The future of user sessions post-covid. 

For most people, in March 2020, the world stopped spinning on its axis. The way we worked at Centre for Inclusive Design, like most organisations, had a significant and rapid makeover.  

The pandemic forced much of our professional and personal lives online, so it necessitated our fieldwork become remote and digital during this time. Now, it feels as though we could be through the worst of the pandemic. Vaccination has steadily been rising, and variants seem less fatal, and so, our in-person user sessions are returning as we settle into the ‘new normal’. 

Before 2020, by default, in-person user sessions were our preferred way of engaging with community to test new designs, uncover pain points and co-design new solutions. There was never a shortage of locations for conducting user sessions, from local libraries, universities, to hotel rooms. If, however, participants were unable to attend in-person sessions due to their availability or location, we had online alternatives. But online was just that, an alternative. 

We now know we can achieve excellent work remotely after two years of designing 100 percent remote research sessions. In some cases, however, there is no substitute for in-person. What have we learnt from the past year? What are the key takeaways from our time online? And, what are the new priorities for user sessions with edge communities? 

Meet people where they are.  

Our travel training wheels are well and truly back on and, in the last few months, our user experience team has been clocking travel miles. Travelling on planes, trains and cars to regional towns, the outback, and major capital cities to conduct user research, user testing and co-design sessions. When we say, ‘meet people where they are’, the implications are not entirely bound to geography. Online or in person, meeting people where they are means bridging the gap between your expectations as a researcher and where the other person is coming from. It means actively listening to understand their experiences, pain points, frustrations and values, while letting go of your own biases. 

Help people feel safe.  

What safety looks like to you is probably quite different to what safety looks like to the person sitting next to you. For some, safety is a vaccination certificate, a mask, a hand sanitiser by the door and a thorough hand wash. For others, safety is an accessible environment free of discrimination, criticism, harassment or judgement. Think consciously about how the participant experiences the situation. Be transparent about the purpose of your research, let them know they can’t do anything wrong and, if you think complex topics might come up, provide the appropriate support. 

Provide options for person-centred research.  

A person-centred approach means putting the participant at the centre of everything you do and respecting their needs and preferences. For some participants remote sessions allow people to stay in the comfort of their homes, or provide safety if leaving the home presents a risk.  For others, in-person sessions are an opportunity to use their social muscles and connect with people outside their everyday. Remote only also assumes people have the resources, connectivity and capacity to connect online. This is not always the case. As a researcher consider whether the stakeholders would permit a hybrid approach, mixing remote participants sessions with some in person. Providing options is user-centred design in practice, which creates a comfortable environment for users to share their unique experiences to help create usable and accessible products. 

Be agile and flexible.  

Part of person-centred research practice is maintaining a level of human connection, regardless of whether the setting is remote or not. Permit people to be themselves. Remote sessions can be wrought with distractions, from furry friends to the post arriving, ambient noises and family members. Whatever it be, bring it into your research and acknowledge a child, pet or device. Include anomalies in in-person interactions we well, it can result in a laugh and a bit of fun, which relaxes everyone involved.   

Icebreakers, no matter the context.  

Icebreakers warm up the conversation. They’re good fun and icebreakers allow everyone to understand one another more personally. They strengthen the connection and, thus, the depth of insight. Icebreakers are non-negotiable at Centre for Inclusive Design, and for a good reason! Because, honestly, we do want to know, ‘if you could be an animal what would you be?’.