How user research helped me stay connected while shielding

Charlotte Jais - profile picture
A keyring in the shape of Link's shield from the Legend of Zelda games

Thanks to the fact that I have ulcerative colitis, I regularly take medications that suppress my immune system. This means that like a lot of other “clinically extremely vulnerable” people, I’ve had to stay at home and not leave my house (also known as shielding) for much of the pandemic. 

Shielding has been really hard. Painfully hard. It’s been almost 2 years since I last saw many of the people who I am closest to in person and my anxiety is worse than ever before. So it might seem a bit odd to say that I’ve thought of myself as lucky over the last couple of years, but bear with me.

At the start of the pandemic, I thought a lot about how lucky I was to be able to work from home – this has been really helpful in terms of maintaining some sort of normality. 

More recently, I’ve also been thinking about how lucky I am to have a job that enables me to speak to so many people during the course of my working week. Because the thing is, while I’ve been shielding, my job hasn’t only been my job – it’s also been my main source of contact with the outside world. At times I’ve literally gone for weeks without seeing anyone in real life other than my husband. But as a user researcher, I’ve been speaking to new people almost every day.

Most of these conversations have revolved around digital services and what might be good or bad about them. During what has been a very strange and scary time, there’s been something weirdly comforting about listening to people’s frustrations with relatively mundane things like the fact that they have to update 3 different spreadsheets with the same information.

I’ve also got snippets of other people’s experiences of working from home through our interactions:

“Hold on a sec, I think my parcel just turned up”

“Give me two minutes, I can’t hear you very well because the dog’s barking” – this often follows the previous statement

It might seem silly, but things like this have really made me smile. Not only have they reminded me that I’ve not been the only one stuck at home, but they’ve also given me some sense of feeling connected to the real world when at times it has felt pretty distant. Ultimately, these interactions with other people have made me feel less alone.

Of course, given that we’re living through a pandemic, not all of the conversations I’ve had with other people have been particularly cheerful. In some of the research sessions I’ve done, I’ve heard about the very real impact that Covid has had on the people I’ve spoken to – particularly those working in social care. While this hasn’t always been easy to hear about, it’s felt important to hear about. Hiding away from the world shouldn’t mean hiding away from the reality of the situation we’ve all found ourselves in.

I’m not ready to go back to “normal” yet, whatever that now looks like. I suspect that there are a lot of other people who have been shielding who probably feel the same. But at least as a user researcher, being shut away at home doesn’t mean being completely cut off from the world.

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