Requesting emergency assistance

As researchers, our number one priority is to keep our participants safe. When working with Veterans, it is particularly important to be aware of our participants' psychological and physical well-being during our research sessions. If you find yourself in a session with a Veteran who is experiencing a medical or psychological emergency, follow this protocol to initiate assistance.

  1. Stop research activity in order to attend to the participant.

  2. Contact the recruiting team (Perigean) over Slack immediately. Please use the direct message set up at the start of the study so that everyone is notified.

    • Include a detailed description of the scenario

      • e.g the participant stopped responding and became listless during the interview

      • e.g. the participant vocalized intent to harm themselves/others

    • Perigean will be responsible for calling 911 or the Veteran Crisis Line as appropriate

      • Researcher should only make the emergency call if Perigean is not available

  3. Be available to answer questions.

  4. Follow Perigean's guidance carefully.

    • A member of the recruiting team may join the meeting to identify appropriate next steps.

    • They may escalate to the Veteran Crisis Line or to 911 as needed.

    • They may give you specific instructions about how to keep the participant engaged or how to hand off controls of the session so that they can stay with the participant until emergency support is available.

When emergency is stabilized

  1. Update the Slack channel with any relevant basic details

  2. Loop in your government project point of contact (usually your OCTO lead)

  3. Take care of your mental and emotional health

    • Witnessing an emergency can be a traumatizing experience.

    • Take time to pause and assess your own energy, emotional comfort, and capacity

    • Let your team know if you need any support.

    • Consider a debrief with your team and/or the observers on the call as on opportunity to acknowledge this experience and consider how we can better support researchers and participants moving forward.

Creating a safe space for participants

Although we may not intend it, research sessions inherently create a power dynamic where the moderator is in control: participants don't know what questions will be asked, what tasks will be given, and the moderator represents the VA. Before you start your research study, consider ways to create a psychologically safe space that shifts the power dynamic in favor of the participant.

  • Get an accessibility review from our VSP Accessibility team (#vagov-accessibility on Slack)

    • Expert advice on effective and ethical research design for disabilities and assistive technology

    • Ensure research methods and conversation guide are appropriate for our participant population

    • Help prepare you to be creative in order to accommodate disabilities and assistive technology

  • Limit number of observers

    • Limit VA attendance to 5-6, including moderator and note taker

      • Notetaker and moderator should be considered minimum VA attendance for most sessions.

    • Empowered participants can be more comfortable, and more comfortable participants tend to be better participants

      • Consider genuinely asking “Some of my teammates find it helpful to watch these sessions, but we can instead just share our notes with them after this session ends. Both are perfectly OK. Are you comfortable continuing with observers?"

        • Be prepared to ask observers to leave if needed.

      • Or you may choose to keep observers in the waiting room until asking the participant if they are comfortable with observers. Prepare your observers for this.

        • If observers are ok, use “admit all” button in Zoom

        • If a more private session is requested, notify observers to drop via Slack

  • Be mindful of participant's behavior

    • If they appear to be distressed, take a moment to check in with them

      • Offer to bypass a question

      • Suggest taking a short break

    • If they continue to give signs of distress, offer an opportunity to gracefully exit the session.

  • Prioritize the participant over the research. Be prepared to pivot from your conversation guide and approach in order to meet your participant where they are.

  • Offer participants a graceful exit

    • Include in your conversation guide intro the ability for the participant to pause or stop the session

      • For example: "If for any reason and at any time you want to stop the session, please let me know. You will not lose your stipend or be penalized in any way if we need to stop."

    • During the session, offer participants who appear to be in or are in distress an opportunity to gracefully exit the session.

      • Include an emergency exit section at the end of your conversation guide so you remember to

        • Thank them profusely for their feedback or for making the time to talk to you.

        • Include one or more options from the sample exit strategies that you could use if needed

Creating a safe space for research moderators

It’s important that researchers feel safe and secure while conducting user research. Prepare your own exit strategies in advance with your team. Should an incident occur during the research session making the moderator no longer feels safe or capable to continue, follow the protocol below.

  1. Pause your research activity.

    • You could say “I need to take a few minutes to set up the next task” or “I need a short break, please give me a couple of minutes”

  2. Contact the recruiting team (Perigean) using the Slack direct message set up at the start of the study

    • Describe the scenario in as much detail as you are comfortable

    • As you are able, be available to answer questions.

  3. If it’s best for you to end your participation in the session and you’ve set it ahead of time, hand off session to a backup moderator.

    • e.g “for this next part, [researcher] will take over”

  4. If it’s best to end the session, gracefully close the session with one of your practiced exit strategies.

  5. Let the participant know that the recruiting team will follow up with them.

  6. Inform the recruiting team that the session has been ended.

When the session has ended

  • Take care of your mental and emotional health

    • Being made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable during user research can be a traumatizing experience

    • Take time to pause and assess your own energy, emotional comfort, and capacity

    • Let your team know if you need any support.

    • Consider a debrief with your team and/or the observers on the call as on opportunity to acknowledge this experience and consider how we can better support researchers and participants moving forward.

Sample exit strategies

We recommend you plan a graceful exit strategy that you will feel comfortable using during a session. Your goal is to simply wrap up the session without any further incident or escalation. It is important not to blame the participant, since it could increase any distress or trauma they are experiencing. If you are exiting for a reason on your side, it’s best not to share any personal details, as it may create additional stress for all. Examples of exit strategies that have worked include:

  • Out of questions: We have covered all the questions I have for you today. Thank you so much for your time and feedback.

  • Blame technology: I am so sorry, but I just learned that the [website/prototype/thing I wanted to test with you today] is unexpectedly not working. I apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your time.

  • Backup Moderator: This is best to practice beforehand, but can work if there is an emergency with the moderator. Appoint another team member who will be on the call as the backup moderator. You can say “for the next part of this session [backup moderator name] will moderate.” They should be prepared to jump in if something happens to you or you are not comfortable to finish the session.

If you have any questions, please reach out to:

  • Shane Strassberg (@Shane Strassberg on Slack)