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NHS App: Conducting user research in lockdown

Conducting user research remotely is challenging but can yield unexpected benefits. Brigit O’Sullivan, User Researcher at NHS Digital, describes what she learned working as a user researcher for the NHS App during lockdown.

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I joined the NHS App team on 23 March 2020, the day the UK entered full lockdown. This was my fourth and final placement as a user research graduate trainee and I was looking forward to taking on new challenges and gaining independence as a user researcher. I was not, however, expecting to do my entire placement from my bedroom.

A large part of user research involves interacting with users of our products and trying to understand how usable the products are for them. We do this through various research methods, including surveys, observation, interviews, and usability testing. While many of these methods already happen remotely or are easily adapted, usability testing has typically been done in-person with users (often in a lab setting), where we can observe them as they use our products.

We had to adapt quickly to this new way of conducting usability testing remotely, and there were a lot of bumps along the way.

When this became impossible, we had to find another way to continue usability testing. Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, I, along with other members of the team, have managed to accomplish much more than I ever expected we would back in March.

The challenges

We had to adapt quickly to this new way of conducting usability testing remotely, and there were a lot of bumps along the way. These were mostly due to technical issues – my flatmates said they could often hear me saying “can you hear me now?” over and over through the walls.

Screen sharing was difficult for some, so we had to come up with workarounds. Sometimes we ended up sharing the prototype on our screens and asking the users to tell us where they would click. Not ideal, but better than nothing!

Things like joining a video call, opening a link to a prototype, and sharing screens could be a challenge, so we tried to make the sessions as easy as possible.

We recruited users with low digital skills for some of our research sessions because we needed to make sure the NHS App is accessible for everyone, not just the tech savvy. For users with lower digital skills, things like joining a video call, opening a link to a prototype, and sharing screens could be a challenge, so we tried to make the sessions as easy as possible for them.

We offered users optional “tech checks” prior to their sessions, so users could run through the entire process with us in advance and feel more comfortable and confident during the actual research session. We also began using Zoom with some users (instead of Microsoft Teams) because many people had learned to use Zoom during lockdown to keep in touch with their family and friends.

The benefits

We got a lot of research done! One of the advantages of doing research sessions remotely is being able to recruit people relatively quickly, since the pool of potential participants is not as limited by research session location or time of day.

We were able to access a more diverse group of users from all over the country, including those who may not have been able to attend a research session in-person, from the comfort and safety of our and their own homes.

By testing our products at home, instead of in a more artificial lab setting, we got a better understanding of the context in which users may use our products, with distractions like poor Wi-Fi (or lack of Wi-Fi), children, pets and TV.

This allowed us to work more closely with other teams who would benefit from seeing our research.

By running these sessions remotely, more of our own team members could join and observe users interacting with the NHS App. This includes people who normally would not be able to attend research sessions, such as our App team developers and business analysts who are based in Northern Ireland.

We were also able to open up the sessions to members of the wider NHS Digital user centred design community, allowing our colleagues to easily observe research. Several NHS Digital services are integrated with the NHS App, such as NHS login and NHS.UK, so this allowed us to work more closely with other teams who would benefit from seeing our research.

The future

In many ways, I think our successes doing remote user research will benefit us in the future, even once we are able to resume face-to-face research. We now know we do not necessarily need to sit next to a user to do usability testing and we can more accurately reflect the diversity of our users by expanding our research beyond the constraints of location and the user’s ability to travel to a testing centre during normal office working hours.

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Brigit O'Sullivan

Brigit is a user researcher at NHS Digital.

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Last edited: 12 October 2020 4:47 pm