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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.
12 October 2020
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.
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.
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.