• Cairo Walker

User Research in the Time of C-19 - A Feel-Good How-To

Updated: May 5

The dogs (and the cats) may be the ultimate work from home winners, but it seems humans are doing ok too.

Writer’s own image — Inca ‘helping’ write my novel

A couple of weeks ago, it became apparent that the Coronavirus was going to upend life. New Zealand went into lock-down first, and it quickly became evident that Australia would follow suit. Overnight clients pivoted. The new focus was singular — get all our people out of the office and working from home ASAP.

Panic was the initial reaction. Those that already supported staff working from home were not ready to move their entire workforce to work remotely. Others didn’t even have the basics in play, such as access to files, security, collaboration, communication and ways to conduct meetings in a distributed environment.

A lot of businesses will struggle to survive — but for a very few, the opposite is the case. Last week Telco Telstra put a call out for 1,000 staff, Coles Supermarket is looking for 5,000 staff, and today Woolworths called out for 20,000 more staff for an immediate start.

We have one client whose services are more in demand as a result of this crisis. At the same time, they aren’t on the frontline of the C-19 pandemic. As such, after a few weeks getting their team of 200 set up and settled into remote working, they called to move forward with their project.

The company recently committed to putting in their first intranet.

Running a Project in this Business, Economic & Social Environment

All of our engagements begin with user research. We conduct one-on-one interviews, carry out workplace observation and run workshops. As with the rest of the world, we picked up the phone; jumped online and got down to business.

We allow an hour for interviews and, expect to wrap-up in around 45 minutes. It is usually less if we are conducting interviews remotely via phone, or video hook-up of some kind. After my first few interviews, I called my business partner.

Expect interviews to take the entire hour. People are in isolation, and they want to talk about their experience working remotely. Also, people are craving new connection outside their usual networks.

Since everyone needed to spend the first 10–15 minutes of the interview talking about remote working, we decided to work this into our process.

An Executive Director told me he was a ‘dinosaur’ and didn’t do anything social online. As the interview warmed up, he said to me that he was George Clooney today. He’d taken to swapping his avatar in Microsoft Teams daily.

I asked him how he went about setting up the Teams space for his group. He told me that he asked a colleague, a fellow Executive Director, to set it up on his behalf.

It’s buoying, that at the top levels of management in an organisation that still talks about digitising Compactus items, that the most senior people are supporting the organisation into new, social ways of working.

A junior in the organisation told me how her Executive Director set the new ways of working by daily sharing of memes alongside links to industry-related information and initiating group chats about these.

“I haven’t seen any GIFs yet,” she said, “but I love the emojis.”

These ways of working also easily allow the one-to-many relationship. A Senior Manager told me how he had to taken his dog to the vet. Typically he would have received a multitude of follow up phone calls and emails, but now he used the newly installed Teams to answer the questions once.

You don’t know what you don’t know

It’s pointless asking people in an organisation that doesn’t have an intranet what they want from an intranet.

I can tell you know what they would say:

  • Search that works like Google

  • Easy and intuitive to use

  • and so on….


Rather than asking people what they want from the intranet, focus instead on asking people what they do.

User research uncovers rich, new territories. Typically a bunch of frustrations emerge, along with manual processes. With a little technical understanding, these become new, better ways of working. Every so often, there is a clear and direct return on investment, and I love that — almost as much as I love removing people’s frustration at silly systems and duplication of effort.

As UX practitioners, our job is to see the opportunities. To understand these opportunities, and to bring these to life in the real world. Best outcomes leverage technology, people, process and business outcomes.

If your goal is some kind of nirvana across the elements, then focus research on the following:

  • The critical tasks that people do each on a daily, weekly monthly, quarterly or annual basis.

  • The documents that people produce, the information they consume, who they work with, where they store and access documents.

  • The systems that people use and what they use them for, how they find them, and where there are any gaps or duplication.

  • Missing information — what do people want that is not, or not readily available?

  • My personal favourite is the bug-bear — issues or opportunities are the same by any other name — what are these?

As simplistic at this sounds, if you conduct interviews along these lines, you will soon see patterns expressed as frustrations, inefficient/ manual processes, double-handling and, these can easily be turned into new and better ways of working.

Top tasks


In any project, engagement of piece of user research, find the top ten tasks — blockers, or opportunities. These ‘Top 10’ will be the ‘killer items’ that will rock your users’ world and propel them into digital working 101 (or whatever version that might be up to).

Identifying Customer Top Tasks (Chapter 14 from Transform: A Rebel’s Guide for Digital Transformation) medium.com With the move to the Cloud and new ways of working, putting systems in place is simple. The troublesome piece is ‘herding the cats’ to create all the necessary content and agree on new work practices to bring your vision to life. Focussing on no more than the Top Ten provides a balance between limiting scope so you can deliver and at the same time, drive to ensure sufficient improvement for end-users.

Top Tasks will change and be specific to each organisation. There are a few top-line items that often recur, such as:

  • Onboarding — all the material to support new starters

  • Board papers, budgeting, annual planning — requires a lot of input many times over from multiple stakeholders

  • Policies, procedures, guidelines — agreeing on what these are, what they look like, writing them so that the most important information is first and naming and contextualising them so that they can be easily found and understood

  • Staff directory — who is who, what do they do (1–2 lines), who do they report to, organisational chart etc.

  • Communications — getting all the key messages out to staff, think about top-down as well as within teams

  • Social — there are many aspects to this. While footy tipping or buy-swap-sell may seem unimportant, these can help the shy, or late adopters find comfort engaging with new digital ways of working.


These weird times add a new dimension to user research. There are always businesses that require the services that UX professionals have to offer. It is about finding the need. More than this, it is about framing what we as UX professionals have to offer in a way that make sense to any given business and its people. Keys tips for research:

  • People need an opportunity up-front to talk about whatever is going on for them — remote working, the leaf blower outside, wine time — virtual hook-up a 4pm or the latest craziness with toilet paper — allow for this and let it happen.

  • Ask people what they do — don’t ask people what they want. You are the expert, take this and turn it into something that will improve the lives of you end-users.

  • Find the top ten tasks and design your solution around these.

The real winners from this C-19 thing are the dogs. I’ve had meetings with people while they walk their dogs, apologies for the barking and chaos in the background. Not that I am saying it’s a canine conspiracy or anything.


The dogs win, Peanut in the back of my ute


Acknowledgement - Most of what I do is intertwined with the thoughts of business partner Amanda Broomhall.


#COVID19 #userresearch #UX #planning



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