Business as usual, is a little unusual at the moment. Maybe this will result in long term changes, and hopefully many of them will be for the better. In amongst it all, we’re adapting and finding new ways of working and communicating with each other. We’re seeing households use enterprise-grade software like Zoom and Teams as standard, and they’re no longer thought of as tools that are used in a work capacity only.
This shift in social behaviour and the use of online tools to communicate feels positive in many respects. But in the field of user research, remote research has for many years, been key to what we do. It might actually have pushed those within the industry (including ourselves) to get a little more creative, which we love.
There are times when conducting research face-to-face is needed, if not just preferable. For example, if we have physical products that we want to test with participants or when conducting accessibility testing where it is often easier to build a rapport and deal with any technical issues related to assistive technologies, in-person. There are many situations, however, when we choose remote research as our go-to.
When we talk about remote research, we mean both moderated and unmoderated. Both have their place depending on the research objectives and do exactly what they say on the tin; one involves a researcher running the session with the participant(s) live, and the other involves participants running through predefined tasks independently.
So when is remote user research a good fit? Here are some of the scenarios that make remote research preferable, and our tips for planning and running sessions.
When is remote user research preferable?
1. When you’re trying to speak to a time-poor audience
If you’ve ever carried out user research with those within the healthcare profession or those within management positions, you’ll know that it can be tricky for them to find enough time in their day to travel to labs to take part in user research. Incentives to take part need to be high and often you’ll need to conduct the sessions outside of working hours. The research is also likely to run over a longer period of time. Remote sessions provide these participants with more flexibility to take part, as and when they have a slot in their diary, from wherever they are.
2. Reaching a geographically dispersed audience
For many of our clients, it is important to gather insights on their products, services or new concepts from their customers across different markets. I have found myself carrying out an interview within someone sitting in the sunshine in Florida whilst its 10pm here and torrential rain outside, but we are able to easily reach users across the world to help us understand any differences in behaviours between customer segments.
3. The opportunity to reduce costs
By taking out lab costs and higher incentives for participants to take part, remote research is often a way to work within tighter budgets.
4. Gathering feedback from larger sample sizes
With online surveys, for example, we are able to reach much higher volumes of participants than we can do in one-to-one sessions. This type of quantitative approach is valuable for identifying patterns or supplementing more in-depth qualitative insights.
5. Working within tight time constraints
Set-up time can often be reduced by conducting sessions remotely, and participants can work their schedules around taking part more easily than if they were to travel to a venue. This can be particularly helpful during Sprints, for example, where you can gather insights within a quicker timeframe to feed back to your team.
6. The need for a more ethnographic approach
There is never a project where we don’t see a benefit from participants interacting with products or services, within their own environment. With remote research, participants can often feel more at ease when taking part at home. Depending on the methodology used, remote research serves to make participants feel more comfortable, but also allows them to reflect and capture immediate behaviours, via online diary studies, for example. These approaches often uncover behaviours that may not be captured within a 60 minute lab-based session.
7. Putting participants at ease
Let’s be honest, we have all gotten VERY used to our home comforts over the past weeks. It makes sense, however, that participants taking part in a research session from their own home, using their own devices, can often feel more comfortable which has a positive impact on the insights we can gather. They can also do it in their slippers. It’s a win-win.
Our tips for running remote research
1. Know your audience
Put yourself in their shoes. Are they likely to appreciate a video introduction to the research? Do they require a bit more time to answer questions? The main goal is to engage users with the research and carefully considering how you can introduce them to it remotely can make a real difference to how they engage with you throughout the sessions or study.
2. Plan your questions, then plan them again
This is particularly important if you are carrying out an online survey or diary study. Researchers can often find themselves overwhelmed with data, particularly from remote, unmoderated research, so it’s important to step back and look at the questions. Check (and check again) that you’re asking the right questions and that the participant will easily understand what you are asking of them.
3. Choose your tools wisely
Think about your audience (both the clients and users) and not just the tools that you as an organisation like using. Do they have access to the type of technology required to take part in the sessions? There are so many great tools out there that allow you to collaborate. But sometimes, it can be better to just pick up the phone, use email or send text messages (said like it’s the equivalent to sending a letter via carrier pigeon). For clients, it might help to start meetings with a small exercise to help everyone get familiar with any new tools, like MURAL or Miro. If there’s not enough time for it, set that exercise prior to the meeting (maybe as part of your reminder).
4. Engage users through visuals
It may be that you’re testing the experience of an existing website or app, but where it’s a concept you are testing, the more examples you have to show participants to stimulate conversation, the greater the insights you will be able to gather.
5. Provide tech instructions up front
What seem like the simplest of remote tools to some, can require time and effort for the participant to set up. You want to avoid that “can you hear me” scenario and the need to spend the first 10 minutes of the session dealing with tech issues. Send joining instructions in advance and plan in some contingency time to deal with any hiccups.