Reflections On Conducting Research During a Pandemic

Technical Challenges (and Solutions!)

Research is interesting, difficult, and important, but I would never want to do it myself.  I enjoy my role in the process though as Lextant’s Technical Specialist.  My  job is to support the research staff in many ways, technology being the biggest of them. I love a good technical challenge. Some of our clients relish telling me their list of borderline insane demands thinking “THIS time I’ve got him!” to which I usually reply something like “oh man…this might be the one.” We always figure it out though. There’s almost no setup that can’t be accomplished through the proper mix and application of ingenuity and funding.

I am a millennial. I have been through some adversity in my life. 9/11, Recession one, Recession two, Global Pandemic to name a few. Covid-19 is just another world thing that we all must deal with. Eventually, it will be a blip on my radar of life.  But for the foreseeable future the virus is challenging us to find innovative ways to continue doing the work we do.

Research & The Mask

Whether or not you value the evidence of the effectiveness of masks, it’s pretty widely accepted that they are uncomfortable and under normal circumstances, people would prefer to not wear one.  We’ve worked hard to adapt our processes to accommodate our participants’ needs for comfort and safety.  Here’s an experience I had during a recent study with the participant in one room, the moderator in the observation room with control of the participants computer and camera views.

The participant enters the study room. They approach the table they were prepared to see. There is a computer, a tablet and some laminated sheets. “hello!, thank you for taking the time to join us for our study today!” The warm voice of the moderator over the tablet welcomes the participant. Surprised at the novelty of this strange setup, the participant says thank you and sits down, making herself comfortable while listening to instructions and an overview of all the precautions and cleaning that have been done before her arrival. Once the spiel is over, the participant looks conspiratorially around and asks.. “hey, since there’s…no one around…do you think I could….” “YES! Since you are alone, feel free to remove your mask. Likewise, if you prefer to still wear it, that’s fine too.” With a weight seemingly lifted off her shoulders, or ears, the participant gleefully removes the mask, ready to complete whatever task the moderator can throw her way.

You dislike wearing a mask and so do I. – build rapport?   Check!

A Lockdown Pivot

When the lockdown hit, we were supposed to be bringing in participants with their cars to talk about details within them and then talking for hours about stuff outside the car…lights out, right? How are we supposed to interview a person who can’t come here about their car that they can’t bring because they shouldn’t be leaving the house, all while capturing all of this information in a way that we can go back for review while also allowing our clients to be “there” viewing the entire process while also not freaking the participant out with the peanut gallery?

Oh yeah, and we have to do all of this here in Columbus and also concurrently with another team doing the same thing across the country when they can’t get on a plane to go there. Turns out the answer was in a lesson my high-school jazz teacher gave when teaching us how to improv — KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. There are always multiple ways to solve a problem. Most times, the simplest way is the best.

Here’s what we did: Since we had already recruited for the study, we asked who had a smart phone. Spoiler alert, everyone did. You might think, “well, they just had a Facetime conversation.” And you would essentially be right, but also wrong. Facetime has a few limitations that prevented us from going that route. First being, it’s only on iOS and while iPhone users are 45% of smartphone owners in the U.S., that’s not nearly enough.

We needed something that didn’t matter what phone you had. We also needed to be able to allow clients to observe without participants seeing their faces. We also wanted the ability for cloud recording. At Lextant we have plenty of tech for recording whatever we want but remember…We couldn’t even leave our houses yet.

Enter GoToMeeting. GoToMeeting will not always be the research savior that it is now; and it is not the only solution out there, but I can honestly say that without it, we would not be doing the quality research that we are during this pandemic.  The app has been solid, vetted, secure and while not quirkily beautiful, it works.

Technology In Action

We had participants join our session via a link sent to their email by the recruiter. Once in, the study felt like an in-person session some two-way chat for a bit. There was conversation, there was screen sharing some scales, a little rating here, a little “what do you think of that?” there.

Then the fun part. We wanted to see their cars! “Look person, you have this feature we are interested in, and we want you to show us how you use or don’t use it and why or why not.” So, since they’re already on their phone, they just took us into their cars. When needed, they flipped the camera around and showed us the thing they wanted. When it was time to talk to their kid, they handed the phone to them to let them get a few words in. It was great!

It was great because our participants (everyone, really) could participate without risking  their health. It was great because even though they were 2000 miles away, we had meaningful and productive conversations with people in their own cars. It was great for the researchers and clients because with the participant holding and directing the camera, they were showing us what THEY wanted us to see. It was great for me because I didn’t have to travel across country to set up gear in 30 different people’s cars when I was supposed to just be at home in my boxers and work shirt.

The New Normal

That study was a success and acted as a model for much of the testing we did after it. Even some of the testing we’re now able to do in our labs is still using GoToMeeting in one way or another. I’ve also gotten over my fear of lost data with cloud recording. That will always be a risk we have to deal with for remote studies. At our lab, I’ll just make a backup-recording on physical drives here in our space, no big deal.

Contributed by Steve Mauger, Lextant’s Senior Technical Specialist