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8 safety guidelines to protect yourself and participants for in-person research

8 Safety Guidelines for In-Person Research: How to Protect Yourself and Participants

In-person research is back. Here are 8 safety protocol tips to help protect both researchers and participants during in-person sessions.

90% of user researchers said they've worked exclusively remotely since the pandemic began. After a pandemic-induced wave of remote UX research, many of our in-person research muscles have atrophied. 

Now, research teams are transitioning back to conducting studies with participants in-person. According to our 2023 State of User Research report, almost 40% of researchers who exclusively work remotely say a portion of their research has been conducted in-person. With these changing trends comes the need for new guardrails and best practices. Protecting everyone’s health and safety should be top-of-mind while conducting studies in-person—not only the typical COVID guidelines but also psychological safety tips.

Whether your research team is new to in-person research or retraining their in-person research muscles, we’ve compiled a list of safety protocol recommendations that have helped us navigate this transition back in-person.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why we need safety guidelines for in-person moderated testing
  • Protecting research participants in-person 
  • Protecting researchers during in-person studies
  • Tips for creating your own health and safety protocols

Importance of safety for in-person moderated research

If remote moderated research has only recently boomed in the past few years, why do research teams need safety protocols now? 

It may seem like an easy transition to go back to doing in-person research the same way it was done before, but the pandemic has left a jarring and lasting imprint on our minds of the importance of health and safety.

Thankfully, we’re at a point where we’re not smack dab in the middle of a health crisis anymore. But we’ve endured, changed, and learned from the COVID era—enough to help us form new guardrails to conduct in-person research safely and more efficiently.

Putting health and safety protocols in place for a post-pandemic research environment can help protect both your research team and research participants. As we’ve learned from the past, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

There are a lot of factors that your research team needs to consider when doing research at a participants’ home or an unfamiliar environment. Some factors include:

  • The time, cost, and distance of commuting 💸
  • Scheduling a time when both researchers and participants can be in-person⌚
  • Parking locations, costs, and time restrictions🚗
  • How risk-averse or health-conscious a participant or researcher might be❤️‍🩹
  • Research study venue requirements (tools, chairs, paper, desks, noise levels, etc.) ✍️

Coordinating an in-person research study can be a logistical challenge—especially if your research team doesn’t have much experience moderating in-person studies. Setting safety guidelines and protocols in addition to coordinating additional logistics can help your research team minimize any potential risk that might occur during in-person research.

Protecting research participants and moderators during in-person sessions 

Researchers should design in-person studies with the health and safety of participants in mind. But it’s also important to consider the safety and health of researchers who are readjusting to this in-person transition.

Our internal research team here at User Interviews conducted a survey for in-person research and found that almost half (~47%) of respondents were planning to do in-person research this year. As in-person research is on the rise, we’ve gathered some creative and helpful ways that other research teams have been navigating this transition.

👇Here are some guidelines and recommendations we’ve compiled to help inspire your own protocols for protecting research participants and moderators: 

1. Pre-screen participants

Your screener survey questions are an opportunity for you to double-check participants’ eligibility and set expectations for participants before they attend the study in-person.

Design screener questions that help participants avoid doing research sessions they’re not comfortable with. Pre-screening participants also makes sure you’re not exposing yourself or other research participants to unwanted risks, such as COVID or other illnesses.

You can pre-screen research participants for:

  • Their willingness to host an in-home session
  • COVID-19 symptoms
  • Their availability

 If your participants feel uncomfortable with in-home or in-person testing, it’s helpful to use a screener survey builder that allows you to program the screener question to reject or disqualify these participants from entering the study. 

The same goes for any COVID symptoms. You can design the screener questions to disqualify or delay the participant from participating If they are exhibiting any symptoms.

Some example COVID screener questions might look like:

  • Have you tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 2 weeks?
  • Have you had any symptoms of COVID-19 in the past few days?
  • Have you been in contact with anyone in the past 14 days who was exposed to COVID-19?

💡 If participants or researchers report any COVID symptoms, you can always reschedule the test for a later date.

Screener surveys are just one part of an effective recruitment process. After all, the higher-quality and more trustworthy the participants, the less likely you are to expose yourself to health risks (and the better data you’ll collect!). Check out the Recruiting Chapter of the UX Research Field Guide for more tips

2. Limit the number of participants

To maintain social distancing, limit the number of participants in each testing session. Limiting the number of participants helps minimize participants’ risk of exposure to COVID or other airborne illnesses. You don’t need to squeeze every participant into one research session, especially if you’re conducting a large research project with a large sample size.

When conducting large-scale moderated studies in-person, consider scheduling multiple sessions to break up the load. Being flexible with multiple sessions helps reduce the risk of sickness for both participants and researchers.

Limiting the number of participants reduces your research team’s risk of exposure to COVID-19, but it also helps you avoid researcher fatigue, or experiencing burnout from doing back-to-back in-depth research sessions. By capping the number of participants in the study, you can protect them from health risks and give yourself room to breathe with the amount of information you need to process as the moderator.

💚✨ Already dealing with burnout as a UX researcher? Improve your workplace wellness with this 2023 Self-Care Playbook for Researchers.

3. Sanitize equipment

This one is a no-brainer. Make sure to sanitize all equipment before and after each testing session, including devices, chairs, and tables. Even better, prepare to provide hand sanitizer for both participants and moderators.

4. Reserve a public testing space

If possible, try and find a large testing space to ensure social distancing between participants and moderators. While you can try and limit the number of participants you invite to the session, some research projects simply need more participants depending on the scale of the study. 

Also, some participants might not feel comfortable inviting strangers into their homes for in-person testing. 

Reserving a large, public testing space for in-person research also protects researchers from any potential risks or danger that comes with entering a stranger’s home for the first time. You can still choose to conduct in-home research sessions, but consider looking into public spaces if your research budget allows.

💡A great alternative to in-home sessions is to rent a hotel conference room, coworking spaces, or an office space.

5. Communicate safety expectations for in-person research

Whether you choose to reserve a hotel conference room or do an in-home session, it’s important to set some expectations and guardrails in advance for in-person research studies.

After you’ve scheduled the in-person session with the participants, send them a one-pager via email that summarizes the safety expectations for the upcoming session. The goal here is not to create fear, but to ensure the participants are aware of what to expect during the session.

Some questions that a participant might have about in-home research sessions are:

  • Can I have a friend or family member present during the in-person session?
  • Are we required to wear masks or face coverings?
  • What equipment or requirements do I need to prepare for the in-home session?

💡Don’t know where to start? Here are some key points to include in your safety guideline messaging to participants:

  • Outline what types of activities you’ll be asking them to do so they know what to expect
  • Explain the safety measures your research team will be taking to ensure on-site safety (providing hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, masks, and other protective equipment)
  • Provide photos of the testing venue so the participants have peace of mind about where they’re going
  • Note the requirement to either wear a mask or be mindful of social distancing during the session

💡Our recommendation: Include these reminders in your research participant consent form and send to confirmed participants prior to the scheduled research session, or set it and forget it with our automated participant communication features.

6. Set up a buddy system

Meeting strangers in-person for the first time always comes with risk. We recommend you always use a smart participant recruitment solution like User Interviews’s Recruit tool to vet your participants, but there’s always a factor of the unknown that comes into play with in-person research.

If you’re blessed with a research team of multiple people, consider conducting in-person studies in pairs or with multiple members of your team. Setting up a buddy system helps protect researchers in case there is a safety issue, but also ensures a second or third person who can advocate for the research team should there be a participant complaint or issue.

What’s more, conducting in-person research with multiple members of your team also helps distribute the responsibility and logistics of coordinating the research session among multiple people. Instead of placing the onus on one person, the session becomes a shared responsibility among multiple researchers.

If you’re a research team of one, you can also consider asking a stakeholder or a cross-functional team member to join you during the in-person session. Offering the opportunity for them to sit in on a session in-person can help them gain firsthand experience with conducting research and help you take notes on the session with their unique observations. For a lone researcher, even having one other person to help with note taking, making observations, or just being there for support can be tremendously helpful.

Having multiple  moderators also protects participants by offering them multiple people to consult for any health or safety concerns should they arise. For in-home sessions, you can consider allowing participants to have a family member or close friend accompany them during the session to help them feel more comfortable.

As research teams learn to navigate different safety and health measures with in-person research, some teams have hired a security guard to ensure everyone’s safety during the  session. If your research budget allows for this, consider investing in a security guard for the first few in-person sessions until you and your participants are comfortable with in-person studies.

But before you decide to hire a security guard, start with multiple research moderators and see how that works for you and your participants first.

⭐ A bonus: Enlisting multiple moderators to join research sessions can also help you collect diverse perspectives, minimizing bias. Learn other tips for reducing bias in UX research. 

7. Break the ice

Interacting with strangers for the first time in-person can be uncomfortable for both participants and researchers. 

Consider scheduling in some time before the research session for participants to get comfortable and build rapport with you and other moderators.

Giving the participants some time to adjust can help them be more relaxed and focused to participate in the study. That’s why building psychological safety is important not only for researchers in an organization, but also for participants to avoid feeling like they will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Build rapport with some preliminary small talk, explain expectations for the research session, and give participants time to ask any questions before getting started. The goal is to make the participants feel at ease and comfortable enough to participate in the session.

If they felt threatened, scared, or nervous there’s the possibility that they won’t be able to feel fully present and in the right mindset to participate in the study, resulting in less detailed responses and insights.

💡Don’t just treat the research participants like test subjects; show them that their input and participation is valuable. Once you build trust with the participants, they will feel more comfortable providing deeper insight into their thoughts and feelings.

8. Create a crisis management plan

Maybe one of your participants tested positive for COVID right before the in-person session. Or maybe one of your moderators got bit by a participant’s dog during an in-home session. What are your next steps?

WIth in-person research, there are so many external factors that are out of your control so it’s important to set a crisis management plan in case things do go awry. 

Here are some tips to help you set a backup plan in motion:

  • Designate emergency contacts on your team should something go wrong with you or another research team member
  • Consider offering multiple testing dates in case you need to reschedule the session for any reason, whether personal or for the sake of the participants
  • Check with your insurance broker if your organization’s current plan covers COVID or injury liability
  • Implement a contact tracing system in case a participant or moderator tests positive for COVID-19 after the research session. This can help you identify and notify others who may have been exposed

Proactively planning for potential risks or emergencies related to in-person research can help your team take action more quickly, improving trust and avoiding reputational damage. It also helps researchers make quick decisions on their feet, rather than being reactive or passive to potential threats.

Tips for creating your own health and safety guidelines

There’s no right or wrong answer to how strictly you want to enforce health and safety protocols to protect research participants and researchers. Creating your own guidelines becomes easier with firsthand experience and learning from others’ mistakes.

Make sure to be mindful of your research team’s budget, bandwidth, and willingness to take on the logistics of in-person research. Here are some tips to keep in mind when creating your safety and health protocol guidelines for in-person research.👇

  • Be clear and concise with instructions. Provide clear instructions for participants and moderators on safety protocols before the testing session. This can include information on wearing masks, sanitizing equipment, and maintaining social distancing.
  • Consider remote testing if in-person isn’t 100% necessary. Remote testing is a flexible option for participants who may not feel comfortable with in-person testing. 
  • Monitor local guidelines. Stay up-to-date with local guidelines for in-person testing, as they may change over time depending on your local COVID-19 situation.

Summary of guidelines

Protecting research participants and moderators doesn't have to be a siloed effort. You can use our guidelines as inspiration to protect everyone's physical health and psychological safety at the same time to ensure a smooth in-person research experience.

Here's a summary of the guidelines that we've found useful for in-person research.

  • Limit the number of research participants and moderators for each in-person session to reduce everyone’s risk of exposure to illness and research fatigue.
  • Pre-screen research participants for their willingness to join sessions in-person, COVID-19 symptoms, and their availability.
  • Sanitize any equipment used during the in-person session and provide hand sanitizer.
  • Consider reserving a public testing space to ensure social distancing and help both moderators and participants feel more comfortable.
  • Communicate safety and health expectations to participants with a one-pager prior to the session.
  • Consider implementing a buddy system for both researchers and participants.
  • Break the ice before an in-person research session to provide mental comfort and build rapport.
  • Create a crisis management plan should anything go wrong during the in-person session.

Prioritizing safety over risk

Protecting research participants and moderators during in-person sessions can be difficult to balance and navigate at first, but there’s no right or wrong answer. Use these recommendations to help you build the foundation for a safer transition back to in-person moderated research.

Need help finding the right participants for your next in-person research session? Our participant recruiting tool Recruit is the fastest and easiest way to find, vet, and manage research participants. Sign up free today to start finding the right participants for your study.

Rachell Lee
Copywriter at Seamless.AI

Rachell is a SEO Copywriter at Seamless.AI and former Content Marketing Manager at User Interviews. Content writer. Marketing enthusiast. INFJ. Inspired by humans and their stories. She spends ridiculous amounts of time on Duolingo and cooking new recipes.

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