User research in a crisis: my top 5 tips

A picture of our user researcher Narelle Ong

As user researchers in an agile team, we're used to working quickly.

Then 2020 hit.

Suddenly we were in the midst of a crisis, with the council responsible for delivering vital services and life-saving messages. Things were moving quickly.

We knew we'd have to adapt if we were going to keep users at the heart of what we were doing.

This is how user research stepped up to play our part.

1. Build a research approach that can flex 

When we began this work, Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions were changing almost overnight. Parts of Essex moved from Tier 2 to full lockdown within the space of 3 weeks and schools closed with one day's notice 

Because of this fast pace of change, we knew that research needs would also be changing fast.  If we weren’t careful, the research we had undertaken would quickly become obsolete

We took these simple steps to make sure this didn't happen.

Cover a wider range of issues than you normally would

We explored a range of COVID-19-related matters within the same research session where we could, pre-empting future research needs. For example, we often explored people’s social distancing, testing and self-isolation behaviours within the same sessions.

Keep participant numbers low and follow up quickly with more rounds

We kept each of our research rounds small. We spoke with no more than 5 residents, then waited a little before speaking with another 5. This enabled us to tweak our research plan between rounds, based on what was most relevant for our stakeholders at the time. 

Develop and maintain strong stakeholder relationships

We tried to keep links with all potential stakeholders open. This meant we could ensure our sessions explored things that might be valuable to everyone, and not just those who'd asked us to undertake the work initially (more on this in tip 5).  

2. Reach out to the wider research community 

We're all in the same boat. Almost all government bodies are having to respond and adapt to COVID-19 in some way. If we were researching something, others probably were too.  

We reached out to the cross-government user research community. Lo and behold, a few organisations had valuable insights to share. This saved us time, by providing universal insights into the public’s attitudes and behaviours. 

We also contacted ECC's internal research, citizen insight and data and analytics functions. Ijust so happened that they had recent survey findings exploring  residents' attitudes to COVID-19, as well as a list of residents who were happy to be contacted to discuss their attitudes in more detail. This was a massive win for our research recruitment approach (see tip 3).  

3. Use multi-pronged approach to recruitment 

We were often informing work that had a delivery date of less than 2 weeks away. We needed to speak with Essex residents quickly!  Here's how we did it. 

We thought a lot about who the target group was for each testing round

For example, would we be best to speak with residents who struggle to socially distance, due to either their working role or their lifestyle? If so, how can we best engage with that specific group? They may be able to tell us more about social distancing than residents who are currently spending most of their time at home.

We used our personal networks

This included friends and relatives who were key workers or those who we knew were finding staying at home difficult. Those who knew us were more likely to speak with us frankly about their true behaviours. Residents might not be keen to tell us about times when they had broken the rules, so having the personal touch helped!

We used our staff networks

An Essex County Council parenting group was a great source of participants for research into young people’s attitudes towards social distancing, for instanceWe also used community social media groups and our own User Research Panel.

4. Bring in help when you need it 

The Service Transformation team were happy to muck in when the going got tough. All of our user researchers supported research at some point, to help us get research done quickly. Content, Service and Interaction Designers have helped too. Some of the team even acted as research participants, where appropriate.   

5. Make findings shortiterative and user-led 

With our stakeholders busy on the front line, there was little time for them to observe user research first-hand. There's a crisis going on! We needed other ways to get our findings into the right hands at the right time

This is how we did it:

  • identify the audience for our insights at each phase
  • only invite people to meetings if there's something of direct value to them (stakeholders engage better with our findings relevant to them)
  • use existing groups to share what we know, including Council planning meetings around Covid-19 
  • away with the long reports! Keep emails and meetings short - stakeholders will tell you where they need more detail
  • be open - we got questions from all parts of the council about residents' response to COVID-19, and often we had some insight to share

It wasn't all smooth sailing 

No doubt that this work led to a busy little research team. We like to think that the insights achieved were worth it. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing and we made some mistakes too and we’ll be telling you about them in a future blog, so watch this space!  

Share this page


  1. Comment by Claire Ryan-East posted on

    Hi - good to read your post. I'd just like to know how you did your user research? You haven't said if you did it in person or over a video call? We're keen to continue with observing user journeys but obviously can no longer do this in a lab. I'd love to know what tech you used and if there were any privacy issues.

    • Replies to Claire Ryan-East>

      Comment by Narelle Ong posted on

      Hi Claire, we used Microsoft teams video meetings for this research. Participants could "share their screens" with us, so we could observe their digital journeys from afar. We began each session with dedicated time to 'test the tech': this ensured that participants were comfortable sharing their screen with us before we started.

  2. Comment by Rad posted on

    Amazing Blog! Thank you for sharing wonderful information with us about the <a href="">Home Moving Services</a>


Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person