Reopening research labs safely during a pandemic

Update

Due to an increase in infections in the local area we’ve been forced to close our labs once again. We stand ready (and eager) with our COVID-safe processes to restart testing, but only when we see the local infections decrease to a suitable level. The last thing we want is to put our staff and players at risk.

Infections were low when we reopened in August, but were rising rapidly when we closed again in late September

Original article

Player Research, like most other businesses, was put into ‘lockdown’ this year.

Social distancing

6 months on, and life is slowly returning to the UK’s highstreets and industrial sectors. With careful planning we’ve now resumed in-person user testing, inviting players into our Brighton, UK research labs. To do so we have adopted a host of new precautions against COVID-19.

The project to resume playtesting took 7 weeks between the start of response planning and the first playtest with new precautions.

Here’s what we learned and what we changed.

The three steps to opening

Our aim throughout this process was to run lab-based research, while going above-and-beyond on safety measures. The steps we took to reopen the labs were:

  1. Wait for COVID infections to fall
  2. Perform a risk assessment, removing and mitigating the risks found
  3. Communicate the changes to everyone

1. Wait for COVID infections to fall

Before re-opening the lab we wanted to wait until COVID infections were at a low rate, so it was safe to bring participants and staff in for playtests. We waited for a sustained drop in infection levels.

The UK government shares lots of COVID information, allowing us to track infection levels. We were most interested in the R number, the 7 day average % and number of positive tests. Through this we could understand the local and national picture and make a judgement on when it was low enough to reopen.

Local cases — daily confirmed cases and weekly average

The above chart shows confirmed local COVID cases. It was of great use and offered reassurance to us as we looked to open for the start of August.

Opening the lab is only one challenge. We also had to set the point where the labs close the lab again. We will listen to government guidance and watch for increases in the infection rate. If guidance changes or the rate gets too high we’ll simply close the lab and wait for infection rates to fall, as before.

2. Perform a risk assessment, removing and mitigating the risks found

Before the risk assessment we wanted to understand the challenge. To do this we researched the virus itself and took into account all the advice and guidance we could find from a variety of sources:

  • governments,
  • trade bodies,
  • other companies,
  • and our parent company, Keywords International

After the risk assessment, we tackled each issue raised, assessing each issue and either:

  • Removing the issue
  • Where this wasn’t possible, mitigating the issue through either a change in process and/or a change in the lab (such as adjusting the space, or new personal protective equipment)
The Player Research COVID cornerstones — Minimise contact, Maximise separation, Think about airflow, Think about touch

Each issue was approached using our COVID cornerstones, giving us a framework to build around. These cornerstones were developed internally to clarify solutions to the issues created.

Was it an issue around touch? Airflow? Contact? Separation? A combination? All our issues fell around these cornerstones, and helped us to identify a solution.

They also help employees when they return to the labs — there’s a lot of new processes, but if employees can remember these four guidelines they’ll be thinking about the right things.

Maximise separation

The lab has been adjusted, to support social distancing as much as possible, including:

  • Maximising space between seats in the reception
  • Using every other booth in our multiplayer lab
  • A limit on the number of people allowed in each room
  • A limit on the number of staff present on-site
  • Staggered arrival and departure times for players so they don’t arrive in large groups
  • Physical barriers (both opaque and translucent as needed)
  • Staff and participants wear face masks at all times while in the lab
  • Only allowing one team of researchers to be present at any one time
Social distancing in reception
Every other booth is used in our large lab

To reduce the need for people having to raise their voice anything that makes noise (such as stereos) was removed. We purchased a new PA system, so we can brief a room full of players without having to raise our voice.

We have reduced the number of research sessions per day. The new processes have increased safety at the cost of reduced efficiency. We now have more time for set up, cleaning between sessions and keeping players apart.

One of the greatest challenges was to get the PPE required. The support our parent company Keywords was vital to us. We had few issues, yet some items took several weeks longer to arrive than expected. If you are looking to open up your own lab my advice would be to start ordering PPE as soon as you can.

Minimise contact

To minimise the number of people in our office at one time, we are reviewing the sample sizes of players for our research. While we are taking steps to minimise risks we must accept every time a research session is run there is a risk of infection. A balance must be found between exposing people and collecting data.

To do this, the numbers of participants are being reduced where it won’t interfere with the quality or confidence of our findings. Playtest sessions where it may not be possible to maintain social distancing (e.g. playtesting with children, focus groups, VR Testing) cannot be run at this time.

Some people have a heightened risk of COVID complications (65+, various chronic illnesses, etc). These people are not allowed to attend our labs (be they staff or players).

All contact tracing requirements are followed. A record is kept of who has visited the labs when, allowing us to make contact and warn others if we ever have a confirmed (or even a suspected) case visit the labs.

Think about airflow

The virus seems to infect others most in stale air, so we took steps to keep air circulating throughout the lab. All windows are kept open in any occupied room and we have installed extra fans anywhere the air may become ‘stagnant’.

We have installed an air purifier using a UV light filter that reduces the incidence of other viruses in the air. It is unknown if it has an effect on COVID but we want to take all steps possible to reduce the risk of infection.

Think about touch

Strict COVID hygiene is maintained through the labs:

  • Staff and participants wash their hands and receive a temperature check on arrival
  • Anyone (either employees or participants) exhibiting any symptoms are sent home
  • Masks and personal supplies of hand sanitiser are handed out on arrival
  • Everyone uses hand sanitiser as they move between rooms
  • All staff have access to gloves, worn whenever they need to touch player equipment
  • We ask everyone to touch as little as possible
  • Each multiplayer booth is used once per day
  • Each piece of equipment is used once before being cleaned

No participant is penalised if they have COVID symptoms. They are sent home with their full incentive as we don’t want people feeling they need to come in or stay to get paid.

All public facing rooms have been decluttered to ensure rooms are easy to clean. A professional cleaner cleans all used rooms and equipment at the end of each playtest day.

We are also using new technology to support players remotely from a distance instead of having staff come to their desk during a playtest e.g. tech support, player interviews, etc.

3. Communicate the changes to everyone

Everyone has to be comfortable with the changes in process and new equipment. There are three different audiences we needed to communicate with, each with different questions and concerns:

Employees — We had an open approach to reopening the lab. We communicated with staff as plans were taking shape, and shared new processes around testing and safety as soon as we could. We ran training sessions with all of our employees to make sure they were familiar with our new testing processes.We also hold open debriefs after each in-lab project to discuss what went well and what can be improved ahead of future tests.

We created a manual (regularly updated to maximise clarity), and checklists to ensure everyone knew what they needed to do.

Participants — We performed user research to understand our players’ questions and concerns. Our messaging was tailored accordingly — online, by email, text, phone calls and on arrival at our labs.

Clients — We have worked hard to ensure our employees understand our new processes and any restrictions in place. This can then be communicated to our clients, who need to understand what we can and can’t do in our playtests now and to ensure they can still get the most value from us. I’m pleased to say our clients have been very welcoming and understanding of the new measures, keen that safety is a top priority for any in-lab playtests we run.

Player feedback

Although this is early days (less than 40 participants have visited the labs so far), feedback from players about the new processes has been excellent:

  • “I feel like all the staff have taken our safety during covid incredibly seriously and have handled it very well. I can’t think of any improvements”
  • “Player Research had the most clear and well structured preventative measures of any place I have been”
  • “Everything from playing to leaving and entering was planned exceptionally and I would recommend it to anyone”
  • “I don’t think there’s anything else Player Research could have done to make me feel safe as everything was very well handled from the outset”

This is exceptionally pleasing, as this shows we are going about things the right way.

Final thoughts

Reopening our labs during the confusion of COVID was daunting at first. We were unsure if reducing risks and ensuring safety was even possible. As the UK lockdown started to be lifted, we took several weeks to plan, prepare and implement our re-opening before welcoming our first set of players back into the labs.

There was much to do to reopen safely

We wanted to do everything we could to keep our staff and participants safe, and we know that thanks to the measures we’ve taken our employees can do what they do best, high quality user research, in a safe environment.

Thank you to everyone in Player Research, Keywords and our cleaning partners who have helped us welcome players to our labs once again. Also a big thanks to our players who have playtested with us so far who have all followed our new procedures to the letter, as well as our clients who have been so understanding while we prepared to re-open the lab.

Written by Alistair Greo

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