The Show Must Go On

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
May 6, 2019

A lot of time, effort, and expense goes into planning user research, recruiting research participants, and scheduling user-research sessions. To prepare for user research, you must do the following:

  • A project manager prepares a contract for the client.
  • The client signs the contract.
  • The project manager sets firm dates for the research sessions and subsequent project activities and documents them in a project plan.
  • Someone books a research facility for those dates.
  • A recruiter screens and schedules participants.
  • A UX researcher plans the research activities.
  • Everyone on the team travels to the research facility.
  • Participants begin traveling to the research facility for their scheduled sessions.
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Once all of that preparation has taken place, the research sessions must happen. The researcher is usually the only person who knows the study plan in enough detail to conduct the sessions effectively, so he or she must conduct the sessions. Unless the researcher is gravely, deathly ill, the show must go on!

Ironically, conducting user research is very likely to make you sick. UX researchers encounter a lot of people, work very closely with participants, shake their hands, sit near them in closed rooms, and handle the same keyboards, pointing devices, and mobile devices. Researchers also spend a lot of time in highly germ-concentrated locations such as airports, airplanes, train stations, trains, and hotels while traveling. In addition to their catching contagious diseases, researchers might also suffer from various, uncomfortable maladies or injuries because of unhealthy changes in diet while on the road, not getting enough sleep in unfamiliar hotel rooms, drinking too much coffee to stay alert, or sitting for too long in uncomfortable positions.

The bottom line is: if you’re a UX researcher, you will get sick, but the show must go on. In this column, I’ll provide some advice on how to cope with and survive user research when you’re sick.

Make It Easy for Someone to Substitute for You

Of course, you can never predict when you might get sick and might be too sick to conduct research sessions, so you should always prepare for that situation—just in case. I once had to take over for a sick colleague just half an hour before the first usability-testing session in a study, not knowing anything about the project or what I would be testing. I had to wing it through the first few participants’ sessions, stumbling a few times before I became familiar enough with the discussion guide and prototype.

Here are some tips to make it easy for someone to take over research sessions at the last minute:

  • Create a very self-explanatory discussion guide that someone else could easily understand. Instead of abbreviating, include full instructions, tasks, and questions. Include the correct answers and the correct paths for completing tasks, so the substitute moderator can determine whether participants were successful. Include screenshots of key screens with which the participants will interact and that they might discuss. This helps orient the substitute moderator during the session, so he’ll know where the participant should be at each point in a task.
  • Keep all your project documents in a well-organized, clearly labeled folder on a shared drive and ensure that potential substitute moderators can access it.
  • Record important meetings, using a Web-meeting service’s recording function, and add these recordings to the project folder on the shared drive. For example, sharing recordings of the project-kickoff meeting and a walkthrough of the testing materials can help your substitute quickly get up to speed on the project.

Arrange a Backup When You’re Feeling Sick

You never know exactly how you’ll feel until the morning of a day of research sessions, but sometimes you might feel like you’re getting sick the day before or you might already be sick when the days on which you’ve scheduled research approach. It might be a just mild cold that isn’t a big deal, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Even if you’ve already followed the steps for making it easy for someone else to take over, it’s a good idea to identify a backup moderator and get that person ready.

To prepare a backup moderator to possibly take over the research sessions, do the following:

  • Find another researcher who has availability on the scheduled days and ask whether that person could take over if necessary.
  • Sit down with that researcher—but not too close—and brief him or her on the project. Walk through the prototypes or designs and go through the discussion guide.
  • If you haven’t already done a pilot test, use your backup moderator as a pilot-test participant. That can serve two purposes: testing the research process and getting your backup moderator familiar with it.
  • As you get closer to the research dates, stay in touch with your backup moderator to make sure he knows how you’re feeling and the likelihood that he’ll need to take over.

Have a Tag-Team Partner

Sometimes you won’t conduct research alone. You’ll have another researcher or designer observe the research sessions. It would make sense for that person to act as your backup if necessary. For example, I once went to Canada to conduct usability testing with doctors in their offices. I came down with a terrible cold and cough. Luckily, the designer on the project was observing the sessions. At one point, I had a horrible, uncontrollable coughing fit that was so bad I had to hand over the discussion guide to the designer and leave the room for a few minutes until I stopped coughing. She took over moderation for me. To prepare a tag-team partner for your research, do the following:

  • Discuss, in advance, the possibility of your falling ill and needing your research partner to jump in as a substitute moderator.
  • If your tag-team partner is not a researcher, give that person some high-level tips on how to moderate effectively.
  • Make sure your partner is familiar with the discussion guide and the design materials you’re testing.

Be Prepared with First Aid

No matter how well you prepare, at some point, you’ll have to conduct research when you’re sick or not feeling well. At any time, you might come down with a cold or other viral infection, with symptoms such as coughing, runny nose, headaches, sinus pain, and fatigue. But, even if you don’t have a contagious illness, long days of sitting in research sessions can bring on headaches, backaches, and aches in your neck and shoulders. You might suffer from an upset stomach, heartburn, gas, or diarrhea when you’re traveling, eating out a lot, not getting enough sleep, and drinking too much caffeine to stay awake throughout long days of research sessions. Conducting international research increases the chances of your encountering a local bacteria or virus for which your system isn’t ready.

Be prepared at all times to handle any symptoms by bringing the following medications along whenever you conduct research:

  • pain killers—Ibuprofen is especially good because it works for both headaches and muscle aches.
  • decongestants—These can clear sinus pressure and reduce the need to blow your nose.
  • cough suppressants—Doctors often advise against cough suppressants because you need to cough to get the phlegm out. But user research is one time when you really do need to suppress a cough.
  • cough drops—Keep a few in your pocket so you can easily access them in the middle of a session.
  • expectorants—Once the sessions are over for the day, switch from taking cough suppressants to taking expectorants to help clear out the mucus.
  • allergy medicine—If you have allergies, always keep some allergy medicine handy—especially if you’re visiting participants in their own locations.
  • antacids—Bring these along if you’re susceptible to heartburn or upset stomach.
  • diarrhea and gas medications—Obviously, one of the last places you want to experience diarrhea and gas problems is during the middle of a research session.
  • Kleenex—If you’re sick, keep plenty of Kleenex nearby for yourself and also for participants.
  • water and caffeine—Water can help soothe your dry throat and cough. Caffeine can help combat the extra fatigue you feel when you’re sick.

Avoid Getting Sick

Of course, the best way to avoid all of these problems is never to get sick. If only it were that easy! Although it’s not always possible to avoid illnesses, there are some things you can do to prevent illness, especially when you have research sessions coming up, as follows:

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
  • Use hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Avoid touching anything in public places that you don’t need to touch.
  • Eat healthily—especially when you’re on the road.
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. When traveling, bring sleeping pills to help you sleep on airplanes and in unfamiliar hotel rooms.
  • Be careful not to overdo the caffeine.

Conducting Research Sessions While You’re Sick

Although it’s not ideal, at some point in your research career, you’ll conduct research when you’re sick. Sometimes you won’t know you’re sick until you’re already in the sessions. For example, I recently traveled to Chicago to conduct usability testing. I started to feel sick during the second session on the first day. At that point, it was too late to do anything but soldier on through the sessions.

In other cases, you’ll know you’re sick before the sessions begin, and you’ll have to decide whether to go ahead and conduct the sessions or call in sick. In this situation, there are three things to consider.

1. What Would Happen If You Weren’t Able to Conduct the Sessions?

If you’ve followed the advice I gave you earlier, you’ll have made it easy for someone to take over the sessions for you. Plus, you’ll have prepared a backup moderator. Doing so makes it easier to for you to call in sick when necessary and feel that things will be okay. If not, you’ll have to consider whether someone could fill in for you or whether it would be possible to reschedule the research—and what effect that would have on the project. 

2. How Do You Feel?

You’ll also have to assess whether you can make it through the sessions—with the aid of modern medicine—even though you’re sick. Are you deathly ill? Are you in severe pain? If not, do you still have vision? Can you still hear? Can you still speak? If so, you might need to tough it out and do the sessions. Fortunately, for most typical illnesses such as the common cold, you can medicate yourself and make it through.

3. Might You Make Other People Sick?

But what about the people with which you’ll interact—clients, the project team, and especially, the participants? Won’t you get them sick? Yes, you might. So consider whether you’re contagious and how serious the illness is.

If you’re going to conduct the sessions even though you have a contagious illness, use the following precautions to protect everyone else:

  • Tell your clients and project-team members who are observing the sessions that you’re sick. Telling them in advance enables them to keep their distance and explains why you’re coughing, blowing your nose, or might need to leave the room in a hurry. They’ll probably be understanding and might even give you some extra credit for soldiering through the sessions despite your illness.
  • Immediately tell participants that you’re sick. This can be awkward because you’ll have to break the social convention of shaking hands when you’re first saying hello and introducing yourself. Handshaking can happen so quickly and automatically that you’ll have to preempt it by quickly saying, “Hi, I’m sick. Don’t shake my hand.” Say that as you’re walking over to greet the participant and are still at a slight distance. If you don’t tell them that you’re sick up front, they’ll eventually figure it out, but it’s far more awkward for them to find out after they’ve shaken your hand.
  • Sit further away from participants than usual.
  • Wash your hands often and use a hand sanitizer. Provide a separate hand sanitizer for participants.
  • Use Clorox clean-up wipes to clean off keyboards, pointing devices, mobile devices, and other items that you’ll both touch.

Conduct Remote Research

If possible, conduct research sessions remotely when you’re sick. Remote research is the ideal remedy for the problems that can arise from your being sick. Most importantly, you won’t get the participants or observers sick. Plus, you might be able to conduct the sessions from home, where you would be much more comfortable and have your medicines at hand. Usually, the participants can’t see you, so you can dress more comfortably and won’t feel self-conscious about your symptoms. Plus, you can put your microphone on mute whenever you need to cough or blow your nose.


User researchers are human, and all humans get sick from time to time. Sometimes you’ll come down with a minor illness, but be able to soldier on and conduct the sessions. While, at other times, you might be too sick to run the sessions yourself. However, if you’ve followed my advice, you’ll have made it easier for someone else to take over for you as a substitute moderator, and you won’t feel so bad about having to call in sick. After all, even though people might get sick, the show must go on! 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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