We cancelled our user research because of the coronavirus

Here’s why, and why you might want to do the same

Two people cooking in their kitchen.

🚨 Before you read this article:

The COVID-19 pandemic evolved so quickly since I wrote this article, that I’d like to preface it with some additional context and to respond to some questions.

Why did I write this article?

We cancelled our research on Monday, March 9. I wrote this article on Wednesday, March 11 and published it in the morning on Thursday, March 12.

At the time of writing, the pandemic and global response was only beginning to pick up. The majority of companies had not yet responded to the evolving situation by asking their employees to work from home when possible.

Our decision to cancel our user research came ahead of the global response. At the time, it was not yet clear how quickly and how badly the situation would escalate.

I wrote this article because I was in a position to make the decision to cancel our in-person research activities we had scheduled for the week. Not everyone in our field has the same decision-making capacity in their position. My hope was that by sharing this story while the pandemic was in its earlier stages, other researchers or designers would have another company’s story that they could use as an example to push for their own company to change their plans. If a single reader was empowered to make or push for change as a result of this article at the time it was published, I consider myself to have succeeded as a writer.

Of course, the pandemic accelerated so quickly that this article and its goals are already quite outdated.

Why didn’t / don’t we just do remote research?

My team already does remote research to great effect, and we certainly plan to re-do this research study adapted to a remote research format. However, at the time we made the decision to cancel our research, we didn’t only have to decide what to do about our research: we had to decide what to do about ourselves. Our team was visiting our company’s New York City office from our home base in Berlin. Ultimately, we decided to leave NYC and return home the following day.

No research project takes priority over your team’s health and safety. Adapting our research project on the fly for a remote format was, quite appropriately, the last thing on our mind.


It’s been a hell of a week.

For the last two months, my team has been planning a series of user testing sessions in our New York City office, to test some of our latest ideas with our American customers.

We love doing user testing with our customers, not only because we get to meet and get to know the people that use our product, but because it involves inviting them to our office’s test kitchen and asking them to cook a meal.

A few weeks ago, rumblings around the coronavirus (COVID-19) began to pick up steam. Our product and design team is based in Berlin, and as the virus was not yet in Germany or the USA, we decided to move ahead with our planning and made the trip to New York City two weeks ago.

We had a productive first week with the New York team, running workshops and sharing stories while recruiting and preparing for the research sessions scheduled for the following week. We were planning to conduct ten 2-hour sessions throughout the week.

During the week, it was clear that the coronavirus was a growing concern, as the first few cases began to arrive in the USA and New York state.

On Sunday, March 8, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged New Yorkers to stay away from workplaces and public transportation.

On Monday, March 9, we checked in as a team to decide how to proceed.

Each of us shared our concerns. We felt that health and safety aside, we faced an ethical challenge around continuing ahead with in-person user research.

While there were no mandatory guidelines around travel and commuting set out by the city or state governing bodies, we knew that by continuing with the study, we would be asking participants to travel to the office, potentially exposing them to transmission along the way. While folks might choose to travel anyway and could always choose to cancel on their own, we’d be creating an incentive to making a choice that they might not otherwise choose to make.

Unfortunately, as the sessions rely on a physical kitchen environment, we couldn’t adapt on the fly to a remote testing setup.

That’s why we decided, together, to cancel all of our research sessions.

On the surface, this was a difficult decision. The research project was months in the making and involved a lot of time, energy, and spent costs. But as soon as we looked at the broader context and our ethical obligations as designers, researchers, and product managers, the decision was easy.

Why am I sharing this story?

The coronavirus continues to spread. Workplaces around the world are being asked to have their employees work from home. But as I write this article, it’s just a “recommendation.”

We were in a position to decide to cancel our research ourselves. Not everyone is in that position. I hope that by sharing our story, you will be more empowered to make the same decision yourselves if you find yourself in a similar situation.

In the coming weeks, we’re going to adapt our research plan and find ways to test our ideas using remote research techniques. While we may not get exactly the same insights as if we held our sessions in our own kitchen environment, we will absolutely still learn a lot! And, we’ll find it easier to do remote research in the future, because we’ll have had the time to sit down and figure out how to make it work best for us.

  • Ethics

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