Design Research in the sensitive world

Imagine young HIV patients who live under the stigma of their condition, and the uncertainty of how a small mistake or side-effect of their medication could affect their wellbeing.

Or the case of frail elderly who feel alone and left apart by their offspring while being aware of their decline, plenty of wisdom but sure that everyday is a present that should not be taken for granted.

As UX designer and researcher, I had the chance of working on projects dealing with people in sensitive situations. I don’t mean under-cover spies or sneaky politicians. I’m talking about real people, with real issues of the kind that thrill you, that worry you, and that can even make you emotional no matter how cold your heart is.

One of the toughest projects was researching for a job board platform, in Spain, during the crisis. There I frequently encountered 50+ job seekers with family responsibilities, no income, and no competitive profile in the middle of an economic crisis. No matter their huge effort and energy investment in finding jobs, they were just not what the market was demanding. Some cases were heart breaking, and as a matter of fact, a few times tears were present in the testing room.

Research practice with these sort of participants requires an extra toolset, different than the default scientifically neutral approach and techniques one might be trained in.

It doesn’t matter whether you are running usability tests or doing context studies, these notes might be as helpful to you as they were to me. Notice I don’t claim these to be universal truths, but pieces of knowledge that proved useful to me in the past.

Do not forget you are human, but do not let it overrun your professional side.

The kind of participants in these situations do not only deal with usability problems, more often than not they deal with emotional issues, those of the kind that are difficult to detect and measure (if at all). To understand those, you need to reach out to them, yet not as a friend, but as a respectful professional who really cares about their situation. Being fully neutral and aseptic is not an option, empathy is key.

Prepare in advance.

It’s not enough to be acquainted with the field of research. You have to know it well. Otherwise it will show during your interviews or tests, and it will become an obstacle in building trust with research participants. Besides, the more you know, the more insights you will get from your research with participants.

There is no excuse not to do a pilot test.

Remember Murphy? Well let me say it clear, shit does happen, and when the shit hits the fan you don’t want to loose one of those extremely difficult to recruit participants. Run a pilot test, don’t question it, just do it.

Trust is paramount.

Gain participant’s trust, and make them feel safe and confident, else you are loosing your time. If they do not trust you, you will never get to the bottom of the problem. Make explicit that all material gathered is anonymous, that only people within the project will have access to it, and that nothing will ever be released outside the project and/or team. Furthermore, do NOT record their faces, hand them a copy of all formal documents, and contact them personally when arranging sessions. Last but not least, consider it twice before you let an assistant into the room.

Listen first.

To get to understand the problem, you have to understand the person first. Always start the sessions progressively, smoothly and with open questions about the problem at hand. They are unique experts in the world on that topic that really matters so much to them, so let them speak about it for as long as they need. Do follow up questions (without asking leading question), and boost your back channeling to the top. Not only you have to listen, but you have to show you do listen, and do care about their voice. Side note: because of this, be generous when allocating time for each session.

Empower participants, make them feel experts.

There is a lot to learn when talking about a specific field with a person who really cares about it. Ask participants detailed follow up questions, ask them how they do what they do, why they do it so, why it is important for them to do it that way, and how could it change for better to them…

Stick to the plan, don’t let emotions prevent you from getting a great outcome.

We are all human, we are all imperfect. Having that in mind, and considering your test plan has been crafted carefully, try to stick to your plan as much as you can so you can be flexible when you need it without loosing your plan reference. Learn the complete setup and questions by heart if you can. That way, the mechanics will be clear, for you to focus more on capturing the right information, than carrying out the test.

Postpone any conclusion to the end of the study.

Do not look for patterns, and do not draw any conclusions until the research is finished. This might be tempting not only because they might seem extremely clear after 4 or 5 tests, but also because of the emotional load each case may put on you. If while conducting the research you have to be human, when treating the information you have to be aseptic. Do not let emotion influence the value of each insight gathered.

Let participants know what will happen with their contribution.

Debriefing is always a good wrap up for the participant’s session, and might help you recruiting some of the participants friends indirectly.

Last but not least consider that when the emotional load is big in participants, a compensation for their contribution does not matter that much. More important is letting them know that you are working in a solution that affects them directly and that they can contribute to it with just a small bit of their time.

Researching is always a complex and multifaceted duty that requires talent, dedication, and effort. Hopefully these notes will help the reader in upcoming projects, even if its just by refreshing concepts or rising awareness.