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Design & research in critical times

Among the many challenges during critical times is a change to how we work. Suddenly, many designers and researchers who can continue working are now in a remote workplace and distributed team for the first time. For those accustomed to working in-person with their research participants and teams, this can be a big adjustment.

GSA’s 18F staff is distributed across the country and the majority of our research has been and will continue to be facilitated remotely. Our team has been working this way since our organization’s inception six years ago. We hope our experience will help guide designers and researchers as they adapt to new ways of working and provide some additional considerations to keep in mind while conducting research in critical times.

Scheduling and time constraints

Everyone’s schedules and priorities are shifting in response to the current challenges. Some people are finding themselves with an abundance of time and others face ever increasing demands for their time and attention. We need to adapt to the dynamic situation and needs of everyone involved.

Prioritization and sequencing

Researchers should reconsider the urgency of their research. Research plans and sessions can be restructured to answer the most critical questions first.

Whether your research work is in progress or scheduled to begin, some questions to consider:

  • Would some of this research be more effective later?
  • What’s the most important question to answer right now?
  • What sequence does research need to happen in? Can that order change?

Being flexible and responsive in interviews

  • We should remain mindful of broader research questions, but be prepared for heavy deviation from the interview questions. The interview direction may change depending on how the participant is affected by current events and the subject matter.
  • Heavily prioritize interview questions, starting with the most crucial. Depending on how the participant is affected, you may get to far fewer questions than in normal circumstances and may spend much more time on each question.

Participation

Critical times can impact people in different ways, and can also have an impact on who will be able to participate. We should consider who is and isn’t able to participate and the impact that may have on what we learn and potential bias in our research during this time. Consider who can still say yes to participating in research and who cannot.

The availability of our teams is also subject to shifting demands. Remember that the people we work with may have more or less time than usual. Consider the cost of their time and attention and try not to add burden. Things are changing fast. Priorities and requests materialize quickly. Be flexible with scheduling, cancellations, and changes with short notice.

We can address some of the participation challenges we face by seeking to understand people’s reasons for participating. Ask yourself what your participants really need and want to get out of it, and help them get it. Explain how their input connects back to the end goal and shapes the development of products and services so that they feel invested in the process and like their time is valued. To further cultivate that investment, consider debriefing participants after a session, explaining the intent of the research and inviting active co-creation and participation.

Consider other participants
Design research is often targeted to specific groups of participants to help us better understand the people that use our products and services. This approach can be critical to some research but we should also consider other approaches.

  • Determine which questions could be answered by doing research with a general audience rather than a narrow selection of people.
  • Identify people who find themselves with increased free time. With many people at home and settling into a new normal, now might be a really good time to do remote research. Folks might be looking for a distraction and be interested in taking some time to talk with us.
  • If at all possible, compensate participants. Providing compensation makes it easier to recruit a wider range of participants and in a time when many people are out of work, being able to compensate participants can be increasingly meaningful.

Be flexible with scheduling
To continue to do research in these tumultuous times we need to become more flexible with scheduling and creating time for research.

  • Can you provide a variety of options for participants?
  • Can you create options for participants to self-schedule if possible?
  • How can you make research asynchronous if that’s the ideal approach?
  • How can you adjust the length or number of sessions and still have valuable research?

Methods and fidelity

With increasing demands on people’s time and other restrictions we may not be able to proceed with research as planned. We can consider how to shift methods in response.

  • Consider what methods may still be effective while decreasing demand on participants. Some suggestions include:

    • Surveys
    • Demos and asynchronous feedback
    • Unmonitored usability testing
  • Explore methods for answering questions and evaluating design without end-user research.

    • For existing products, you can use heuristic evaluation to evaluate designs against best practices.
  • Be flexible on fidelity. For example, if you can only get participation by phone but not video, is the input still helpful?
  • If research plans are postponed, this could be an opportunity to explore ideas that have been identified but not yet fully shaped. This exploratory design work can help keep teams engaged and boost morale.

Emotional and psychological impact

These are stressful times. In addition to increasing demands on people’s time, we are all under increased emotional and psychological stress. We should be mindful of the impact of our research on our team and participants.

  • Be empathetic and considerate. When preparing for research and during a session, consider the emotional and psychological impact of bringing up a topic and how it will impact our participants, partners, and our internal teams.
  • Be respectful of sensitive topics. Carefully consider if all topics are essential to meeting research goals.
  • Acknowledge current events but redirect to the task at hand. Current events can be distracting. If research is continuing and you find your sessions going off track, use redirection skills to make sure you are getting value out of the research time. Some examples include:

    • Start by asking people how they are doing. People will vary in how much they want to share.
    • Listen, acknowledge, and redirect to the task at hand.
    • Let people know you value their input.
  • Set aside more time than usual at the end of the session.Make time for broad exploration and to answer any questions the participant may have. You may have to defer more questions than usual from participants—many of them particular points of stress—until the end.

Interviewing and listening

If a participant is stressed, it’s even more important to deeply listen to the context the participant is providing. Ensure that they know you’re listening by telling them what you’re hearing with statements like “it sounds like [what you heard]” or “it feels like [what you heard]“. It’s often helpful—especially if the participant is stressed—to avoid adding your own personal anecdotes or including yourself in the phrasing, so avoid putting it as “what I’m hearing is [what you heard].“

Here to serve

At 18F, our team of 100 designers, software engineers, strategists, and product managers — all federal employees — are distributed and remote-first in nearly every state in the union. We have deep experience with conducting research remotely and we continually build upon how we put these methods and considerations into practice.

Our mission remains the same: to improve the user experience of government services by helping our partners build and buy technology more effectively. And we’re here to help your team.

Is your design and research team trying to shift to fully remote work at this critical moment? With expertise in modern digital tools and practices, 18F can equip your staff with strategies to maximize effective collaboration in a distributed setting. We can also help implement or create online options for processes that are currently only available in-person.

Contact 18F-inquiries@gsa.gov if you’re a government agency with federal funding (including state and local!) who needs help adapting your digital services to rapidly shifting demands.

Thank you to everyone in the 18F Design Team and the TTS Research Guild who participated in the conversations that led to this post. Thanks to Ron Bronson for leading the initial conversation, Anne Petersen for direction and guidance, and Malaika Carpenter for editing.

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