Preparing for challenging research topics

When you’re planning research with vulnerable users who are sharing difficult experiences, it is important to take steps to look after both your participants and your research team. Here’s some tips on how to prepare, from a team who were researching one of the most difficult subjects — death.

A woman being interviewed for user research purposes.
Caption: A user research session being conducted.

Designing better government services means that we need to understand the critical times when people need to use those services. We often have to do user research about difficult times in people’s lives, and with people who are in some way vulnerable. This requires good preparation to make sure that both our research participants and our research team are well looked after.

Recently the DTA partnered with PaperGiant on a service research project to understand the experiences of people who have recently experienced the death of a loved one.

Here are some tips we learned about preparing for emotionally challenging research.

Don’t recruit people at their most vulnerable

It’s important that you perform due diligence in your recruitment plan, so that you know you’re not speaking to people at particularly vulnerable or traumatic stages in their experience. You should consult with experts in order to identify those periods, and use that to create inclusion and exclusion criteria for your research.

For example, on our project, we consulted with a clinical psychologist and were advised not to recruit people who had experienced a death within the last 6 months, nor those that had lost a young child. This was to avoid the most emotionally challenging stages and forms of grief, where conversations were more likely to be traumatic for participants and researchers alike.

Prime participants, and yourselves

Both participants and researchers need to feel prepared for the conversation ahead. At the very least, you should provide plain language statements and consent forms a few days ahead of your interview so that people have time to read them properly.

For more challenging research, you should consider designing a pre-task – a small survey or activity for participants to complete before you meet them.

In our research, we asked participants to complete a survey that told us about their loved one; the relationship they had had, the loved one’s name, and the way they died. This provided valuable data for the research, but it also helped us begin the interviews more sensitively and compassionately.

We also asked participants to find a photo of their loved one they would like to share with us. This prepared participants emotionally for the discussion ahead, and helped us tell their stories more effectively.

Pair researchers

Research work is emotionally and mentally taxing, and it’s important that researchers have support in the field.

As a rule of thumb, research interviews should always be conducted in pairs. Two researchers are able to better deal with unexpected reactions or situations, and the ability to debrief between each interview is important when dealing with emotional topics. Over the course of a busy research day or week, the ability to swap roles (between facilitator and note-taker) also goes a long way towards preventing burn-out.

Make supports available

When participants are sharing personal, traumatic or emotional stories, it can feel jarring for everyone when the interview needs to end, and the researchers leave. It’s important to provide clear avenues of support for participants after an interview. It’s also important to recognise that researchers are not immune to emotions and grief, and that participant stories might trigger emotional responses from events in their personal life.

For our project, we designed state- and city-specific support fact sheets that we gave to participant at the end of interviews. These provided clear contact details and locations for a number of free support services close to them.

We also made grief counselling available to the research team. It was important to us to make sure this support was not seen as taboo within our own team, and so we all took part in at least one session with a professional counsellor.

Debrief and follow up

It’s important for any research team to debrief regularly during a project. Ideally this should happen after each research interview. At a minimum it should happen at the end of each research day. Scheduling time for this helps researchers process the stories they’ve heard, and decide on adjustments to their approach.

It’s also a good idea to schedule a debrief with your research participants. We made sure we phoned each participant within a week of their interview, to see how they were coping. Participants appreciated this as it gave them a chance to ask questions about the research outside of the pressure and stress of an interview. Our team appreciated these calls as they allowed us to reach closure with the stories we’d heard. We were also able to reiterate the supports that were available, and help participants take the first step towards getting help if they needed it.

Each of these steps helped us navigate the complex topic that is death, and we hope these tips help other user researchers investigate challenging topics.