Five Things We Did to Pull off In-Person Research in the Middle of a Pandemic


We just finished fieldwork on a user experience project that would have been challenging in normal times, but was made doubly so since we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

L&E Research in Denver, CO. Breckenridge Room

Our client wanted 40 1-on-1 interviews across four markets – and they HAD to be done in person. Not only could we not let the product out of our sight—we also needed a dual camera setup in order to capture the respondents’ hands AND their faces (so, no masks allowed).

Challenge accepted! Here’s what we did to make this happen:

1. No travel: Luckily, we have a great network of moderators around the country, so nobody had to travel outside of their home market. The clients tuned in via FocusVision.

2. No shared stimulus: In the “before times,” we might have used the same set of stimuli for all respondents. Not in 2020. Each respondent had a pre-bagged, randomly rotated set of stimulus in a plastic ziplock bag that nobody else touched.

3. Over-communicating with respondents: As part of the screening process, our recruiters told respondents approximately 400 times that they would be in a room with a divider but nobody would be masked. Over-communicating extended to the interview as well, according to Southpaw moderator Sidney Jansons:

I found that over-communicating was even more important than previous in-person research. The more I could preemptively explain the set up, the technology, the cleanliness standards, etc. the more success I had. That explanation and rapport building started in the lobby with the first greeting while masked up. Masks remained on until we were sitting in our respective chairs.

I was able to explain that since I was physically far from the respondent, behind the shields, and only watching their hands through a camera that I needed even more description and vocalization from them than normal. This helped me get robust answers about what they were doing and seeing throughout the research. 

4. Having a plan B, as well as a plan C and D: Despite the screener, we still had one respondent who was uncomfortable going mask-less. We anticipated that this might happen, so all moderators came prepared with a few face shields (in their own unopened packaging). This respondent was still uncomfortable and opted to leave, but luckily, we had over-recruited so managed to stay on track.

5. Safety first: Our facility partners were on the front lines of safety, and they thought of everything. Between each interview, furniture was sanitized for the next respondent. All doors had the latches removed and little foot “claws” installed for no-touch opening.

Putting respondents at ease is what moderators are known for. For this project, helping respondents feel that we had taken all the needed precautions was key to diving in and getting the needed information for the project goals. In-person research can be a success even during a pandemic!

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Founder of Southpaw Insights