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Research & Design Strategy

Should Covid change your research plans?

April 15, 2020

To say we’re living in turbulent times right now is an understatement. I won’t belabor repeating the news or all the facets of uncertainty. With that, I write this hoping all who read it are as safe and healthy as can be and that you are finding things to be grateful for even when that seems impossible.

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been asked by clients and my team has thought a lot about the question, “Should we be doing research now?” We’ve also had to think about, “Can we do research now? How?” as some of our research plans have been disrupted and we’ve had to pivot quickly. The “can” and “how” questions have been easier to answer in some ways. But the “should we” question doesn’t have an easy answer.

The simple answer to that question is, of course, “It depends.” My gut answer is also, “Yes, now more than ever.” However, it is not to that question that I answer “yes”, it is to a reframed question: “Should we be understanding people right now?” That’s because there is a lot to learn with major implications at the moment!

Not-so-side note: As I started to write this blog, I went down a rabbit hole of examining personal behaviors that have shifted in the last two weeks and wondering what will stick or shift back to pre-Covid-19 days. This blog started to sound more like a journal entry than a work blog – and was opening up Pandora’s box to an existential crisis about my privilege and what I should be grateful for. I say that in a way to assure you, dear readers, that I’m not as dense as this blog might make me look. So back to the subject here.

With my belief that we should be understanding people right now, here are some considerations to inform your decision regarding whether or not primary research right now is appropriate for you:

  1. Potential impact of COVID-19. How might COVID-19 alter participant responses? What are the likely implications of COVID-19 on my design or business decisions?
  2. The research objectives. What do we need to know and why?
  3. Timing/urgency of knowing. By when do we really need this information?
  4. Method dependencies. How might we gather insights? Can we go virtual? Who is accessible for research?
  5. Flexibility. How willing/able are you to try something and pivot if needed?

What’s not listed here is the most important factor: your gut and any “ick factor” you feel. In some industries, you don’t need this list to know what to do. It might be blatantly clear that now is not the right time to be exploring certain issues. Specifically, anything about toilet paper or talking to emergency department clinicians comes to mind.

Since these factors aren’t mutually exclusive, here are a few, albeit incredibly simplified, scenarios that might help you decide what to do:

You want to understand people’s preferences and some usability questions for a new website layout for your shoe business and were planning to do it via online interviews.

  • People’s behaviors and preferences when it comes to navigating websites probably isn’t going to change. Maybe it isn’t that urgent for you to know how they feel about a particular layout right now. People might not be in a shopping mood, but it isn’t about buying shoes, it is about usability and design.
  • So, you could do that research now because it might not be impacted much by COVID-19. You may need to design the research so it is online or virtual, extend the timeline, or over-recruit just in case. Alternatively, you could decide to wait a while because you really don’t need to know ASAP and fewer shoppers means less urgency to make changes.

You are about to launch a study to understand people’s attitudes toward your credit card and some new offers. The plan was to do in-home interviews and a larger online survey.

  • Obviously, this one has a lot of potential impacts from COVID-19, and you shouldn’t plan in-home interviews at all!
  • You could choose to pause since people might be too sensitive or distracted – but your offers may risk appearing tone-deaf. Or you could decide to pivot the objectives toward revisiting attitudes about money and home finances more broadly, and scrap questions about credit cards offers.
  • A virtual longitudinal study with a handful of households around the country and short online surveys might be more meaningful and more feasible. Real-time data might help you see inflection points and clues to the future sooner.

If you decide to go forward with research now or in the near future, then there are a whole new set of factors to consider that I won’t get into great detail on here:

  • Screening. How might COVID-19 need to be considered for screening respondents? Do you want to get a mix of people who perceive themselves to be significantly affected, moderately affected, or even somehow unaffected?
  • Design. What method is the best (and safest) way to gather your data? What’s perfect, and what’s “good enough” given the constraints?
  • Protocol. How will you build rapport? Be human and acknowledge the elephant in the room. There are ways to talk about COVID-19 without derailing the conversation. Add time (and honoraria) to let people talk about it. Be flexible and understanding if people decide to opt out for whatever reason. Be human!
  • Analysis and Synthesis. How much weight should you give to COVID-19? Some of your findings might need to be filtered through the lens of COVID-19, especially if it is foundational to the research objectives. Pull in other data sources to help your sensemaking.
  • Storytelling. How will you share your findings so that the context of COVID-19 isn’t missed, but doesn’t overshadow the primary message? What can you do to generate empathy for your stakeholders who might have a very different reality than your respondents?

In the end, if you can’t conduct primary research, remember that there are many ways to gather insights and inspiration. Contextual/desk research, interviewing internal SMEs (subject matter experts), looking at trend reports, social media boards, competitive benchmarking, and/or meta-analysis of past studies can be invaluable.

With all that said, let your gut be your first guide. We don’t need to write off research completely right now, but we do need to be sensitive and very thoughtful to avoid potential unintended exploitation in this especially vulnerable time. As researchers, we have a responsibility first to our participants, and then to our organization and clients. If you sense grey area, think about it, explore it, and take steps to remedy it to ensure you are doing the right research the right way.

Let’s talk about how we can help move your business forward.

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