Since early March of this year, stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have profoundly impacted every aspect of our communities, homes and work life in ways that would have been near-impossible to imagine as we began the year.

As we’ve slowly progressed through each stage in anticipation of reopening, clients have still relied on Nemera’s Insight Innovation Center to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the patient journey to drive early stage innovation as well as conduct human factors studies that are vital to executing successful development programs. Given the broad set of client objectives we support, we’ve had to consider a number of creative approaches to continue helping clients while abiding by social distancing and geographical restrictions. We’ve been working alongside our clients to develop research strategies that best support their development requirements. Not only are we continuing to leverage remote research, where appropriate, but we’ve begun chasing locations of a higher stage progression and are proactively planning for contactless in-facility research once restrictions are eased.

There are certain engagements that require observing and capturing detailed interactions or workflows. So, as we transition back to in-person user research, we wanted to outline key precautions being put in place to ensure the safety of both our participants and researchers. Additionally, we’d like to share our multi-faceted approach to serving our clients user research needs in these challenging times.

The value and practicality of remote research

Since the stay-at-home order was put in place, we have leveraged our 10+ years of remote research experience to guide our clients and progress programs that were intended as in-person efforts. See our previous article Feasibility and Value of Conducting Remote Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic to learn what these key considerations look like.

By taking this approach, we were able to successfully conduct remote research targeting geographies, healthcare facilities and personnel lesser impacted by COVID-19, engaging in patient and clinician interviews, virtual visits and evaluative efforts via secure, web-enabled communication platforms.

Remote research is great when looking to understand attitudes and perceptions to inform decision making or behaviors that occur over time or are unplanned through longitudinal studies. We will continue to utilize these remote practices to minimize risks where appropriate. However, we must also pivot back to in-person research for certain usability and ethnography efforts that involve detailed device interactions and first-hand observations of real-world actions and processes to inform development.

Ensuring safety during in-facility research

To provide the safest possible environment for in-person research, we have developed detailed and robust protocols referencing local and national guidelines. These protocols also incorporate proven best practices from healthcare institutes and other industries. This is vitally important given that our patient and caregiver populations may themselves be considered at-risk due to their age or pre-existing conditions. These protocols focus on four key areas of:

  • Extensive cleaning  – dedicated cleaning of all surfaces between research sessions to sanitize the participant rooms. All high-touch surfaces such as tables, chairs, door handles, and bathrooms will be cleaned, and we’ll ensure that any study materials a participant may interact with during a session are cleaned ahead of time.
  • Physical distancing – promoting physical distancing by becoming a ‘lobby-less’ facility. We’ll be removing waiting chairs and asking participants to wait in their cars while installing acrylic dividers where appropriate. We will leverage our livestreaming system to minimize the number of people in the facility at a single time and our two-way mirror will be repurposed as a glass divide, with the study moderator on one side and participant on the other.
  • Health screening – required of all participants, visitors and researchers. Both participants and researchers will complete health screening questionnaires on the day of their scheduled sessions. Also, anyone entering the building will perform infra-red temperature checks upon their arrival. Importantly, contact tracing protocols will be put in place if a participant later exhibits symptoms.
  • PPEs (masks and gloves) – protective wear provided to all participants. All participants must wear a mask to access the facility and must continue to wear it for the duration of any session.

While these protocols are necessary and important, it is also critical we develop a culture of accountability and mindfulness to ensure these procedures are consistently executed to provide a level of safety and participant comfort that ensures the best possible research outcomes.

Leveraging re-opened geographies

The process of re-opening the country is of course complex and challenging. Densely populated urban areas will take much longer to open than more remote regions. Chicago is a great example, while the city may remain somewhat inaccessible for research, many suburbs have already opened. As we plan to re-open our user research facilities, we are also targeting locations within driving distance of the Chicago area that are further along the path of re-opening for both usability and ethnography efforts.

Some of the precautions for local travel include considerations such as adequate PPE for our researchers in the field, avoiding hotels stays where possible, and adhering to local guidelines and healthcare facility screening requirements. As the virus is brought further under control, the next step in this progression is to begin flying to locations that are lesser impacted by the virus. As part of this re-engagement with national travel, our teams are proactively vetting airline and car rental company protocols to ensure those in the field are suitably protected.

Moving forward

As this pandemic has also taught us – “official” and “recommended” practices are constantly changing and being re-thought. As new information becomes available, we will continuously update our safety protocols.

As we reengage with in-person research, safety is our highest priority. We will continue to work with our clients to plot the best course of action, be it in-person or remote research, to ensure that programs can move forward.

Let’s work together to make progress on your development programs.