Running an in-lab research project in the midst of a global pandemic

Resetting our defaults

When we first started working from home, AQ set internal guidelines for our stance on in-person gatherings. The objective was to alleviate general concerns about having to agree to in-person meetings, and for each person to feel equipped to handle that discussion with colleagues, collaborators, and clients at their discretion.

Because our Japanese researchers were the most likely to be first to be faced with making nuanced choices, we took the lead in considering an array of scenarios and wrote those guidelines, which have now been in place for the entire company for over a year.

In the Fall of 2020, infection rates in Tokyo were relatively low. Public transportation ran as usual, restaurants were operating with extra precautions, and some of us had begun to occasionally commute to the office. When we received an inquiry for an exciting project that included almost a hundred in-lab interviews, we were keen to find a way to make it work.

We had racked up a ton of experience shipping devices to participants’ homes for remote research, which you can read about in this article. The nature of this particular study, however, made it such that shipping devices to participants was off the table; interviews would need to be conducted in the lab or the interviews could not be run at all.

In this article, we outline the steps we took to complete this project, and the lessons we learned.

A note on context: None of the following is meant to be a recommendation. Our contexts at all levels — team, population, culture, city, country, etc. — are unique. Additionally: at the time this article was written and published (March 2021), Japan is in a State of Emergency and we are back to conducting all studies online.

Discussions and considerations

Our first step was to review our own guidelines and hold an open discussion about what each of us felt comfortable with, and if the project could be accommodated at our facility. Once we reached a consensus about the preparations and precautions needed, and an agreement that we were ready to put in that effort, we moved forward with the project inquiry.

Our pre-project discussions were all held remotely, but this photo of us in the early set-up stages of our study seemed to fit well here anyway.

We held similar discussions with our client team (who were not based in Japan), sharing our plans and working out a minimum set of break-points for pausing and re-starting the project depending on how the situation evolved.

We also consulted with our recruitment partner to understand what they were hearing from their panel. Their guidance was in line with our experience as Tokyoites — that most people were comfortable donning a mask to take public transportation to go a well-ventilated space with as few people as possible.

Setting expectations during recruitment

The screener was an effective way to communicate and set the terms: participants would be required to wear a mask at all times and follow precautionary procedures in the lab. This kind of signaling and filtering helped avoid potential misunderstandings and issues. Respondents could decide for themselves if they wanted to take part in the study, and those who would go on to become participants would know what to expect and have peace of mind that safety was of high priority for the organizers of the study.

Preparing the lab for participants and moderators

Before the pandemic, it was common to have participants miked individually, and we would often use some of the smaller meeting rooms for a more intimate setting between the participant and the moderator.

Faced with the need to change, first, we selected our now-vacated largest rooms in our office to be the new labs and changed how the furniture was laid out. In the new layout, the moderator and participant could sit at a distance that was comfortable to speak from, but also far enough away from one another.

One of our two lab spaces: distanced seating, high space-to-people ratio, cross-ventilation, and sanitary solutions at the ready.

Ventilation was the other priority. Keeping select windows open ensured a cross-breeze through our large lab rooms. This kept the temperature comfortable, and the air fresh and flowing. Lastly: because heating in Japan doesn’t do much to maintain a comfortable 60% humidity level, we also set up our humidifiers to run day in and out.

A common element set up in Tokyo’s retail spaces are plastic dividers between the customer and the cashier — we explored the idea of implementing this kind of barrier but decided the space was large and well-ventilated enough.

We used a single condenser microphone to capture the audio in the room more clearly, and put that on a boom stand between the participant and the moderator. The microphone also had different settings for different situations, and this was key in picking up good room audio. We used the two-person interview setting, which captures audio on both sides of the microphone, and it worked like a charm.

Setting up on interview days

We always make sure our labs are prepared and tested at least the day before the study, if not earlier. This makes setup on the day of as relaxed as possible. With COVID in the mix, we had a few extra procedures to be conscious of: Those humidifiers we mentioned above? Those had to be refilled and switched on. Cracking windows: again, for better air circulation. Wiping down surfaces and equipment was also essential, and we did this between sessions as well.

Camera tests, check. Audio tests, check. Humidifiers, check. Seating, lighting, airflow, sanitizing surfaces, check. Our 2nd floor lab setting — can’t forget to add some plants to the mix to liven up the space!

Because we had done so much preparation prior to the day of the study to prepare participants and ourselves for COVID mitigation, we were ready.

Welcoming participants to the lab

For arrival procedures, we referenced what other establishments were doing to get a sense of good practices and general expectations. In Tokyo, it’s common to go into a store and have your temperature taken at the entrance, either with a big automated heat camera, or a hand-held contactless electronic thermometer. Each shop also has hand sanitizer at the entrance, which was already common prior to the pandemic.

We followed suit: Upon entering, participants were greeted and had their temperatures taken by handheld thermometers, and asked to use our friendly, automated hand sanitizer dispenser.

Things you will see in every establishment open for business in Japan during the pandemic: a handheld thermometer and hand sanitizer.

Not all offices in Japan do this, but we have a shoes-off policy and guests typically use one of the two dozen pairs of slippers at the office. To avoid discomfort for those that might prefer not to use slippers recently used by someone else, we ordered disposable slippers for everyone.

We also prepared a COVID “goody bag” with a mask, the disposable slippers and sterilized rubber gloves. In the first few sessions, we observed that people didn’t need a spare mask and felt comfortable using the test devices without rubber gloves, so we reduced our kit to just the disposable slippers. Masks and rubber gloves were always available, however.

During the sessions

At the beginning of each session, we pointed out our ventilation measures and the alcohol wipes and hand sanitizers at their disposal. As researchers, we’re always conscious of how we act when sharing space with participants but we were especially careful about our actions during this in-person study. We wore a mask and washed our hands regularly and we also used sanitary practices in front of our participants. We noticed that this was another way to share our commitment to safety and comfort, while silently encouraging them to do the same.

There was always the possibility that one or more participants would prefer not to be in the same room with another person. Our back-up plan was to have participants complete the study in the room alone, with a telepresence version of the moderator available on a table nearby to facilitate the session. In the end, this set-up went unused but a run-through set us up to handle a situation if anyone showed signs of unease.

This room was set up for remote lab monitoring and doubled as a potential remote facilitation location in case any of our participants preferred not to share the room with the moderator.

Resetting the lab between sessions and cleanup

After each session we would reset the lab and test devices to their initial state. This included: restarting the hardware we were using, initiating the cameras and microphones, and returning the furniture to its default location. Additionally, we wiped down all equipment touched by us or the participant during the session, including pens and the table. Disposable slippers were disposed.

Nourishment, focus, and health

Not having to worry about nourishing our bodies allows us to stay focused, and reduce stress throughout the busy interview days. Usually we have bento box deliveries, or ask our fantastic studio manager to pick up something for the group. We’ll also set aside seasonal fruits and sweets for healthy snacking, and of course plenty of tea, water and coffee.

One of the many delicious obento lunches that fueled us over the course of our study.

This was especially important for staying healthy and extra alert, with so many additional considerations on top of running high-quality interviews.

Closing thoughts and takeaways

Around the time that our final round of in-lab work was wrapped, cases started increasing again and a few weeks thereafter the Japanese government instituted its second State of Emergency, primarily targeted at keeping people out of restaurants and karaoke booths past 8pm.

In retrospect, the only way we were ever going to consider this project as a feasible option was at the precise timing it presented itself to us. As researchers, our work is, above all else, predicated on observing and listening. These skills were invaluable as we navigated ourselves and our participants through this effort. In doing so we felt out the boundaries of a fragile moment in time, and came out even more sensitive to the needs of our participants, clients, our team, and ourselves.

🌻 We have a decade of experience with user research and design in Japan. Interested in understanding your current and future customers in Japan? See our research services and reach out to us for a chat.

This article was written by Michi Migita and Johnny Linnert.

March 10, 2021