Pursuing User Research When Everyone’s in Quarantine

April 21, 2020

Many innovators are struggling with a big question right now: How do you maintain the quality and breadth of your user research when it seems the whole world is under house arrest due to coronavirus? We all know that the innovation and design world rely on interactions with customers and users, through activities like empathy, anthropology, focus groups, and testing. So how do you preserve that input into your process when everybody is locked down?

Timothy Berendt

It’s an ideal moment for getting your team to embrace new tools and approaches. A few examples…

The IDEO CoLab brings together multiple large organizations to innovate together, on topics like the future of work, climate change, and cryptocurrencies. Matt Weiss, Managing Director and Co-Founder of the CoLab, says they had to make some adjustments to their regularly-scheduled programming for member organizations. With the rise of COVID-19, CoLab adapted and designed an already-planned distributed sprint, but as the pandemic continued to grow, they found that participation was too challenging of an ask for some CoLab members — especially those who were now forced to juggle parenting and work.

So they took what would have been a collaborative sprint dedicated to solving mid- and long-term shared problems across industries, and quickly pivoted to a COVID-19-specific virtual sprint with a smaller group of available academic fellows and IDEO employees who were eager to help. The virtual sprint took place in late March.

Amazingly, they were able to explore several different topics, including small business bailouts, and digital toolkits for “not so” digital businesses. Some concepts that emerged included job matching services and a platform to help restaurants generate revenue beyond just offering take-out food. (See below for a screenshot of the latter concept.)

A prototype from IDEO’s sprint, intended to share ideas between restaurants — like offering cooking classes, meal kits, or flower bouquets for date night.

How did this approach to a sprint alter their user insights and testing? CoLab typically does a significant amount of virtual user research, so “it seemed to flow pretty easily, and people might have more free time on their hands while being motivated by the topic, but there is something better about it being in-person,” Weiss says. “There are things you pick up on when you’re physically in someone’s home or office conducting ethnographic-style research.”

On the other hand, Weiss pointed out there were advantages to being solely virtual. Participants were able to show their concepts easily using tools like Zoom, Google Slides, and Figma. And they had the ability to cast a wider net for testing, without tilting toward a certain location or demographic — often an issue with physical testing.

Existing barriers that commonly can hinder attraction or participation can give innovators an advantage during this time, because the emotional context has already been unearthed. In empathy and storytelling, two critical components to design thinking, one of the biggest challenges is eliciting those emotional insights and falling in love with the problem. COVID-19 has made that task seamless, as many people feel helpless, bored, or want to get involved in something constructive, creative, or helpful.

  1. Zoom (for interviews and testing)
  2. Mural (for gathering insight, ideation, co-design)
  3. Adobe XD (for prototyping and testing)
  4. Slack (for communication, insights gathering, and simple surveys)
  5. Google Suite (for collaboration and presentations)  

Amy Heymans, Co-Founder and Chief Experience Officer of the design agency Mad*Pow, spoke specifically to some of these elements. She says, “In ethnography research, there are indeed methods to observe without being there physically. Video journaling, as an example, can be useful when scheduling certain times or prompts for in-the-moment feedback.”

However, similar to Matt Weiss’s perspective, she still feels something may be lost compared to in-person interviews and visits, even though many people are becoming more open to virtually exposing a glimpse of their home surroundings during COVID-19. 

Finally, there is an opportunity right now to tap recruit larger groups of participants, supporters, and users/testers to your innovation projects — and get much higher engagement than normal. 

Organizations that supported the MIT COVID-19 Challenge, a virtual hackathon.

Earlier in April, MIT launched the COVID-19 Challenge, a distributed “hack” (virtual hackathon), and quickly started setting engagement records. In a little less than two weeks’ time, there were roughly 4,500 participant applications, and more than 500 mentor applications — many of them from healthcare workers and industry experts — which was far more than the university typically sees for its regularly-scheduled in-person hackathons. The participants were split across 10 parallel tracks and formed 238 teams during the weekend.

The hack focused on a range of challenges, like developing new approaches to tasks like at-home patient triage; identifying people who are immune to COVID-19; and better organizing data about treatments that work across many siloed organizations that collect that data. The group of mentors supplied a healthcare system reality check.

Freddy Nguyen, a resident physician in the Department of Pathology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and former co-director of MIT’s Hacking Medicine group, says, “As a physician, it gives me hope that it’s not just the medical personnel of the world that will be combating this unique and terrible virus, but all people of age, profession, and location coming together.”

The graphic at right shows all the organizations that participated. 

So, what does this mean for research and testing?

COVID-19 has without a doubt changed the world, how we connect, and how we think about innovation in what is hopefully a short-lived period. However, with every hardship can come opportunity, especially as it pertains to user research. If you are looking to engage with popular tools such as Slack, Zoom, Mural, and the Google Suite, each can provide new entry ways into differentiated research. If you are already using them, maybe there are other beneficial add-ons you might not be aware of, such as Compass, which ties into Slack to help visualize, analyze, and collect feedback. (See the box above for my list of top tools for user research.)

If there is a positive in this choppy and challenging time, it is that one of the the hardest barriers of user research and testing — penetrating the emotional state of the user — has been lifted, while great tools exist to support innovators working in a virtual world to develop new solutions.


Timothy Berendt is a former Director of Innovation at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and an adjunct professor who teaches design thinking and entrepreneurship at Wentworth Institute of Technology.