Safely Resuming F2F Research

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Many clients are wondering how soon they can resume in-person research activities safely since they are anxious to reconnect and assess how their customers are thinking and feeling.

Our first priority is the safety and health of our staff and the communities where we live and work. While we are usually the first to advocate for the value of in-person immersion, we feel extremely fortunate to have been able to innovate creative workarounds so far this year, and we are committed to thinking through each project one by one in order to make the best calls on what is both safe, ethical, and logistically possible.

Within this framework, our team has done a great job embracing ingenuity and making tradeoffs and compromises that feel like gains instead of setbacks! Our general approach is twofold. First, we are taking the lead from each industry, as "getting back to normal" can look very different depending on the industry and company norms that have been set. Next, if we can find an alternative approach that we can feel good about, we should pursue it.

In partnership with our clients - and with extensive safety protocols in place - we have been able to resume some in-person and face-to-face research in the US. For example:

  • We had a team in the field conducting app research in August in a Quick Service Restaurant drive-thru
  • We have teams conducting in-person research in workplace environments with employees (no customers) for short periods of time

Where F2F work is being resumed, two factors in particular, enhance feasibility. Especially if research can be done with limited exposure in time and duration, as well as in number of people (e.g., no customers, just employees) or make use of open-air environments (or a facility that has extensive COVID protocols in place).

In the drive-thru example above, interviews were 10-15 minutes per participant, with intercepts conducted in the drive-thru in an open-air environment. Researchers wore PPE and followed strict protocols based on CDC guidelines. Participants were able to remain safely in their cars throughout the interview period. Rather than filming from inside the car, we developed our own custom rig, mounting cameras on the end of a long tripod scoped through the passenger-side window.

Ten considerations we’ve learned to take into account when undertaking F2F work in this COVID environment:

  1. Choose local(ish), low transmission areas
  2. Avoid air travel for fieldwork (opt for ground travel)
  3. Utilize COVID screening and on-site temperature checks for all participants, clients and researchers
  4. Develop contingency plans and back up approaches (in case of an uptick in infection rates)
  5. Opt for open-air environments as much as possible
  6. Augmenting or adapting your video and documentation protocols in order to maintain social distancing 
  7. Conduct research at facilities with extensive COVID protocols in place
  8. Limit number of clients on-site as observers,  provide live-streaming alternatives
  9. Limit number of participants for any given session based on space constraints so that social distancing can be observed
  10. Encourage employees to get tested after fieldwork and cover any related costs

Another factor to consider is the additional costs related to in-person work, including:

  • Higher incentives, along with increased recruiting costs due to lower acceptance rates
  • Additional PPE and cleaning supply costs for the research team and participants
  • Testing costs for researchers (many states require tests even if traveling by car)

Global research is another interesting and constantly evolving area to think about, regarding in-person work.

As you might expect, global travel is essentially off the table for the remainder of 2020. So our global work is either being done via digital ethnography or through surveys. However, some of our local partners in APAC (especially Korea, Japan and China, and our co-owned sister company in Thailand, Teak Research) have been able to resume in-person work more easily because daily life has returned to something closer to “normal” in these areas of the world.

Whether to F2F or NOT – that is the question.

F2F research is definitely a grey area TODAY. In some of our recent research studies, it is clear that many consumers in the US are still not confident even visiting with close friends or family members (or resuming essential services like doctor visits). This means that we are hesitant to recommend any research that brings strangers together or adds stress to already complicated situations.

There are also situations for which we strongly advise AGAINST in-person work – specifically, research that involves:

  • At-risk or vulnerable populations (individuals with health conditions, concerns, caregivers, and the elderly)

  • High-stress environments (e.g., healthcare, education, law enforcement)

  • In-home interviewing: Family life is now very stressful for many, with e-learning and remote work challenges wreaking havoc on top of the pandemic itself. Under the circumstances, expecting participants to invite researchers into their homes feels like an ethically grey area.

What are the viable alternatives? Digital ethnography and remote interviews and sessions have been the best way for us to meet most of our research needs, but there have also been some really inventive techniques we have used to gather great data during this time. These have included creative screen sharing and casting, deputizing household members to observe and shadow other members of their family and report back, organizing virtual tours with participants over zoom, deploying fixed video cameras and go-pros, or even conducting “patio chats” as an open-air alternative that still enables deep and reflective discussion. We have been writing about COVID implications regularly, some things to check out:

The situation remains dynamic and constantly changing, and our recommendations depend on the audience, the timelines, the research needs, and even the geographic market. At Conifer, we are monitoring shifts in consideration and expected timing for every project and proposal. With projects scoped for later this year, we are designing methodologies with built-in back-up plans and contingencies, using CDC guidelines and phased reopening data to inform decision-making.

We hope to be in a different climate in early 2021, along with returns to more normalcy in terms of political uncertainty, education disruption, and racial tensions. Until then, we believe F2F research will get easier to reliably plan and predict again little by little, once some of the compounded tensions have been eased and public confidence in testing, treatments, vaccination prevention and government response improves.

Please let us know when you’d like to discuss your specific situation, and we will be happy to explore creative alternative methods or techniques that can help you in meeting your objectives.

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