Safety in numbers during design research


On the edge of NYC in a sleeting-cold January storm, two colleagues and I arrived at a home visit with instructions to ‘go round back’.

Without going into detail, ‘round back’ did not look like a safe place to visit, and we made the joint call to bail out.

This was the first time I’ve abandoned a user research session, and I was so pleased not to be alone. In fact, had I been alone, I’m fairly sure I would have gone ahead out of duty to the client and the project, brushing off any safety concerns, despite what my instinct was telling me.

The shared experience forced a rethink in my practice — one fuelled by reaching out to a community of researchers to hear their experiences and approaches to staying safe while in the field, something I’d never given much thought.

When I mentioned risk and safety to some colleagues, I opened a can of worms, and war stories, one involving a guns-blazing police situation where the researcher was handcuffed on a drug-runner’s couch…

“Next thing I know I’m handcuffed with actual police handcuffs on”

Those who’ve read Steve Portigal’s book on User Research War stories will know there’s a raft of encounters awaiting the intrepid researchermostly humorous in hindsightbut after this bailout experience I had a few enlightening conversations which have changed my approach. I’ve summarised the learnings from these below with a few direct quotes from experienced researchers, and some principles worth adopting if you spend time visiting peoples homes or workplaces. 

The big one being…

Pair up!

Always take a partner. For many researchers it’s a deal breaker.

“I never go solo, we don’t know what we’re walking into”

“If I can’t get resources to bring another person if traveling, I won’t do the research”

Risks people mentioned ranged from uncomfortable atmospheres, through to being intimidated, to physical danger or being accused of something during or post the session … none of which anyone signs up for, especially alone.

Some companies mandate that researchers never conduct fieldwork alone. The second person is built into the project from the start.

“It’s company policy, you must bring a secondary person or the study will be cancelled. We’ve cancelled visits when our second person’s flight was late. It’s just not worth the risks”

Dynamic duo

Having a partner in the field is a solid rule of thumb, not just for safety, but the quality and impact of your work.
On a practical level, having a dedicated note-taker allows the lead researcher to be more present and focus on the conversation.
A duo of researchers is a natural and common pairing, each understanding the landscape and knowing the other has ‘got your back’.

If your partner/note taker is a client the immersion and exposure in their customer’s world can be an invaluable eye opener. If several stake-holders can join you over the course of a few days this can convert skeptics and contribute to a culture of being customer centred, building appetite for more or more focused research. This will prove itself immediately in the field, then again during later stages, especially when sharing back to the wider team. As I explain in ‘You had to be there’.

Convincing a client or stakeholder to ride shotgun can involve persuasion when time commitment seems onerous or buy-in isn’t there (yet) and can provide a similarly welcome dynamic in the field, plus, hearing the client’s responses or questions helps you tune into what’s important and relevant to the business/design decisions they are facing.

Introducing bias, revealing agendas, asking inappropriate questions etc. are a different kind of risk, and can be overcome by a solid briefing on how to behave, what good note taking needs to cover and even what not to wear.

Other practical steps

I heard many tactics to add a layer of comfort while in the field, from self defence classes and carrying to pepper spray to the more pedestrian list below:

  • During recruitment, ask participants to send photos of themselves in their home environment,
  • Share your appointment schedule with someone, let them know when you check-in/out of a session,
  • Have a ‘code phrase’ you mention to your partner when either of you feel it’s time to bug out, like ’the camera is malfunctioning / we’ll need to reschedule’,
  • Set your alarm to go off, or ask someone to call you 10 minutes into the session to provide an alibi for a snappy exit,
  • If your client has the money but not the time, hire a videographer to accompany you, adding to the richness of the data and stories you collect,
  • If they have neither, reach out to universities for students to ride along. Psychology, Film, HCI, or research departments. They may have students who’d love to be part of a live project,
  • If you’re running a team make it known that it’s totally OK to back out of a visit if it feels uncomfortable (solo or as a pair). That it’s the researcher’s prerogative to make this call and that it will be respected,
  • If you’re working with communities where there may be an inherent risk, opt to meet in a public space like a cafe.

Safety works both ways…

“Paired researchers can encourage the safety and psychological comfort of both parties”

I’ve had participants express their surprise that it’s ‘only me’ arriving at their home, the look on their face suggesting ‘this is a bit more intense than I thought’, so having the third person in the room can reduce this feeling.

I’ve attended many sessions in homes where it’s been clear there’s a partner or housemate ‘hovering’ to make sure the activity is legit and their friend is not being sold life insurance, that the type of questions weren’t inappropriate, so be transparent and upfront with the participant about who’s visiting, send a smiley mugshot of you and your partner in advance so they know who to expect.

Before you rush out to buy a taser…

There will be bucketloads more of this type of thing in my upcoming bookUSERPALOOZA, a field researcher’s guide. Sign up to be notified.

Huge thanks to Abby Leafe, Alison Rak, Andrea Knight Dolan, Andrea Libelo, Becca Hare, Ed Burak, Sanghee Oh, Gloria Suzie Kim, Keren Solomon, J.M, Melissa Eggleston, Rebecca Hope, Steve Portigal and Wako Takayama for sharing your views and stories…

…and for changing my approach to this work.

…and all those who have commented on and offline with intelligence and sensitivity, helping me find focus in this article.