12 Ways to Get the Most Out of Remote User Research During and Beyond COVID-19

user research

We recently covered the importance of understanding your clients’ customers (or your own) through different user research methods. Often this research is carried out in person, but COVID-19 has changed the way many of us will be conducting research for the foreseeable future.

Travelling to meet user research participants or inviting them to your office may no longer be an option. User research, however, is more critical than ever: it helps us understand what has changed for your clients’ users and what impact COVID-19 has had on their behavior. 

The current situation doesn’t mean you’re restricted to learning about your client’s audience from analytics and surveys. We now have the technology at our disposal to conduct meaningful remote user research, while keeping participants and ourselves safe. In fact, this is an opportunity to improve our facilitation techniques for remote research and take advantage of its benefits. For example, remote user research enables you to observe participants (and immerse yourself) in their natural environment and culture. It’s also usually cheaper, faster, and gives you access to a larger pool of potential participants (as you aren’t geographically constrained).

For this article, we interviewed nine user research experts to find out how they’ve adapted to conducting rich research at a distance. Their advice will help you carry out better remote research sessions to get the answers you need, and ensure your participants are comfortable, engaged, and safe all at the same time. 

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1. Combine qualitative and quantitative tools for better insights

user research: webpage displaying heat lamp activity
You can use tools like heatmaps, as illustrated above, to see what specific website areas your client’s users are clicking on. Then, you can follow up by asking them why they clicked there.

To get the best user research insights, Zoltan Kollin, design principal at IBM Watson Media, recommends always combining quantitative and qualitative methods. It ensures that you have both rock solid data about your client’s users, and also know what they feel and think. In order to carry out this user research remotely, you can make use of a whole range of affordable online tools. 

“A survey, for example, can bring you qualitative and quantitative insights just by using open and closed questions. But however easy it seems, you should only rely on surveys if you really know what you’re doing,” Zoltan advises. “More typically, you do user interviews—with free or cheap tools like Zoom, Google Meet, Facetime, and the likes—that uncover the emotions and motivations of your client’s users. Such insights are always invaluable, but you might want to validate them on a larger sample by checking user behavior in Google Analytics and Hotjar, or running an A/B test in Optimizely, based on your recently learned insights.”

"A survey, for example, can bring you qualitative and quantitative insights just by using open and closed questions."

Often, you will also notice something in your quantitative reports (for example, a specific link is clicked way more than it should be) that makes you want to follow up with a qualitative study to find out why that’s happening. For that purpose, Zoltan recommends Hotjar, which provides you with heatmaps and screen recordings to give you some context: you can see what exactly users do on the page before and after clicking the link. If that still doesn’t explain it, Zoltan suggests placing an in-app recruiting survey on the page, which will return a list of users who specifically visited the critical page and are willing to talk to you about their experiences.

“When combined wisely, remote tools are incredibly efficient for exploratory user research,” Zoltan concludes.

2. Set expectations for your participants

If you’re carrying out remote research via video conferencing tools, it’s always a good idea to set expectations before the interview. 

“It’s likely that a remote user research session, however you understand that term, is going to be something different for your participant,” explains experienced user researcher Steve Portigal. “It’s not a work meeting over Zoom, it’s not catching up with friends over Facetime. So begin your session by calling attention to anything that might be especially awkward for either of you.”

Steve suggests pointing out that you might not be making eye contact, for example. Let the participant know that you’re going to be taking notes while they talk and that—even though you won’t look at them directly—you’ll be listening to them and watching what they’re doing.

“Eye contact works at a human perceptual level,” Steve stresses. “So it’s not clear that you can simply explain away something about how the brain works. But, at worst, it serves to establish the rapport and frame this session as a collaborative endeavor.”

You might also like: Task Modeling User Needs for Ecommerce Design.

3. Consider not using video or only doing so sparingly

We’re currently seeing a lot of articles about “Zoom fatigue”, which argue that the slight glitching of video, and the expectations for posture and gaze, are not sustainable for our mental health. So while it may feel counterintuitive, audio may actually be preferable for making a connection with another person. 

“Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s talk show Fresh Air, for example, is famous for eschewing any visual context at all for her interviews,” Steve points out. “Similarly, the psychotherapist's traditional couch serves to create intimacy specifically by avoiding looking at the other person.”

Steve therefore suggests beginning a remote session with video to greet each other, but then to keep it off for the conversational parts of the interview. Experiment and see what works for you—and for your participants.

4. Practice your facilitation techniques

Rachel Price, senior information architect at Microsoft, recommends two easy facilitation techniques that cost nothing and require no special tools or equipment (that we cover as items four and five). The first is that facilitation of any kind is a learned skill. 

“Remote facilitation just comprises another set of skills to master,” Rachel argues. “Unfortunately, you will not magically become a great remote facilitator just because it’s now your only option. You have to practice it intentionally. Fortunately, practicing is free and it only requires one person—you!”

"Remote facilitation just comprises another set of skills to master."

Rachel recommends using the increased time you have with yourself and working from home, to practice the things that you find difficult, so that you can become a better facilitator.

“Identify the parts of remote interviewing that make your skin crawl and practice them mindfully in all of your conversations until you have made real improvements,” she suggests. “Hate awkward silences? Practice creating them. Yep—create them. On purpose. Uncomfortable having a meaningful conversation with a stranger without seeing their face? Practice conversing with your eyes closed. Are you a babbler? Practice asking short questions.”

By practicing these skills over time you’ll get better and better, and become an excellent remote facilitator. Practice makes perfect!

5. Resist the urge to speak all the time and create silence on purpose

Rachel also points out that your primary job as an interviewer is to create space for another person to tell you stories about themselves, and to paint you a picture of their experiences. 

“You ask a question, the words hang in the air, and the other person responds,” she explains. “In music, we call this the sound and silence relationship. All of those beautiful notes mean nothing if there is no space to punctuate them and give them shape. The same goes for human conversations—if everyone is talking all of the time, nothing meaningful can come through.” 

Rachel highlights that when we are uncomfortable, which happens frequently in remote settings, we tend to “babble” and fill any silence, because being quiet seems bad. Instead, Rachel recommends the practice of embracing silence. 

“Create silence intentionally,” she advises. “When you do this, you give your research participant space to process and to speak with care. Ask a question and then close your mouth. Wait for the response. Let any silence wash over you until it no longer feels awkward.”

6. Ensure that your interviewing style is warm and neutral 

user research: person interviewing someone on a laptop

User researcher and civic design consultant Cyd Harrell agrees that it’s important to make sure the participant is comfortable and feels cared for (which might include turning off cameras to preserve the participant’s bandwidth for screen sharing).

Cyd recommends a warm, neutral interaction style, which is characterized by receptivity, interest, friendliness, and appropriateness. Here are her dos and don'ts to get it right:

  • Don’t be so afraid of leading your participant that you refuse to display any emotion during your conversation. Instead, show an interest in their plans, their desktop or workspace background, (“Cute kids!”), and their experience. 
  • Don’t react to what they say about your client’s product, but do react to what they say about their experience. 
  • If they express that something has been really hard, feel free—in fact, I really encourage you—to empathize. 
  • Don’t stay silent while the participant navigates or talks; instead, encourage them by frequently saying things like, “Oh, I see”, “Right”, “I hear you”, or even just “Mm-hmm”. That way they know you’re still present and interested. 
  • If your participant breaks down in tears (it does happen, as people may be dealing with a lot right now), say something like “That’s a really powerful story” or “I wish I could offer you a hand to hold right now”. Make sure you give them space to collect their feelings before continuing—or the option to stop if it’s really too much.

Cyd points out that, in a remote user research session, you’re providing a space for someone to share a piece of their life with you, and you want that space to feel comfortable and welcoming.

You might also like: 3 Strategies for Collecting User Feedback Onsite.

7. Acknowledge interruptions and be a “human” researcher

Customer experience strategist Meena Kothandaraman, one half of human-centered research practice twig + fish, stresses the importance of maintaining a level of human connection, regardless of when remote studies are carried out. 

“A learning objective is always the focus of the researcher moderating the session,” she points out. “A participant shares stories and experiences in whatever way we have enabled them to articulate them—usually with an activity-based protocol.”

In any remote setting, however, interruptions are a reality, especially at the moment when most people work from home. Meena advises to remember that if you’re conducting sessions while participants are in their homes, it’s where they have permission to be themselves, and be enveloped by their environment. 

“A home can be wrought with distractions, from family members—big and small, furry and not-so-furry, loud and quiet—to food preparation that needs attention, or ambient noise from exterior surroundings,” she explains. “Bring that into your research purview, and make it part of the conversation. Ensure the participant is not compelled to share an apology for their home or their circumstance.”

Meena also recommends reducing the stress on the participant by acknowledging and even including a child, pet, or simply a beeping device that needs to be turned off. 

“Discussing interruptions—though they may be tangential to the learning objective—vocalizes the human reality of a home,” Meena encourages. “We often extend our remote sessions to accommodate for these realities. We find that by including anomalies into our interactions, participants are moved to a state of calm to continue. Many times, it results in a bit of fun as well, which relaxes everyone involved.”

8. Embrace the conditions that people use your client’s product in

Behzod Sirjani, founder of independent research practice Yet Another Studio agrees that in the present situation many of us are in—at home—environmental factors play a critical role in shaping how we want to and can use products. 

As the artificial study environments that researchers often spend significant time and energy creating don’t really work under the current circumstances, Behzod recommends embracing these conditions while conducting your research, so that you can learn more about the real experiences that customers have. 

For moderated user research, he suggests the following tips:

  • Instead of ignoring technical issues, spend time diving into them. If the internet connection drops, ask how often that happens and the kind of impact it has on the participant’s work. 
  • Maximize, rather than minimize, interactions with families and pets (with consent). Similar to technical issues, acknowledge that the shared space many of us are in means shared time. Boundaries are much easier to negotiate when you’re not at home and in an office. Don’t pivot your whole research plan, but accept and embrace these kinds of moments in your moderated sessions. 
  • Have a back up plan. Just like it’s important to over-communicate in a remote context, it’s important to have alternative stimuli or discussion questions in case things do not work as you planned. 
"Boundaries are much easier to negotiate when you’re not at home and in an office."

In the end, instead of trying to hide the messiness of life in your user research, Behzod encourages user researchers to embrace it. 

“These situations arise when people use your client’s products, and pretending that they do not exist doesn’t help us better serve our client’s customers,” he cautions. 

9. Design a simple online exercise to deepen your understanding of people’s needs

When interviewing people, we can only go so far with questions and answers. Therefore, service designer and researcher Yanna Vogiazou often introduces exercises to get a deeper understanding of participants’ needs and motivations. 

“These are not tied to a particular product or prototype, but rather function as conversation triggers,” she explains. “They help us tap into the underlying drivers of people’s behaviors. For instance, we can connect with participants from different cultural backgrounds by probing the meaning of visual metaphors or sketches. Or, we can ask people to select and organize items, based on what matters to them most, then share their reasoning with us if they are comfortable doing so.”

Yanna acknowledges that connecting to the people we interview and getting inspiring stories and insights is harder to achieve online. To overcome that challenge, she recommends diversifying our interaction beyond the question-answer dynamic with easy to do activities.

“It can be as simple as sorting visual cards or images into categories, such as ‘activities I enjoy’ and ‘activities that are not for me’,” Yanna suggests. “Try an easy drag-and-drop interaction within a given framework that anyone could do online. This gives participants moments of self-reflection, and enables them to play an active part in your investigation. For design researchers, this opens the pathway to the ‘why’ questions that we seek to answer.”

user research: drag and drop exercise
A playful drag-and-drop exercise, created by Yanna Vogiazou, in the visual collaboration tool Mural. Designed to trigger deeper conversations around motivations and barriers when pursuing fitness goals.

10. Get creative with your tech setup

User research expert Cyd Harrell acknowledges that it’s fairly easy to set up for a remote interview since most people are familiar with videoconferencing by now (otherwise you can help them get set up, of course). Approximating contextual research and ethnography (which observes people in their natural environment over the course of a few weeks) is slightly more challenging, though, as you’ll want to see more than a floating head or a shared screen. 

Cyd recommends trying out the following options in a remote setting (so long as your participant consents):

  • Carry out distanced diary studies using an app like dScout to prompt your participants to collect photos, short videos, and audio snippets.
  • Create your own solutions and send prompts and responses back and forth via text message (as almost everybody has access to SMS in 2020).
  • Use a program like FaceTime or Google Meet that allows your participant to flip the camera, combined with a screen recorder on your end, to do live walkaround research, and record it for your team.
  • Repurpose the “Live” features of social media accounts to have a participant broadcast their experience to your team.
  • Combine these methods with shipping paper or physical prototypes to your users if you’re researching something that isn’t digital—it takes a little advanced planning, but it’s doable.

“Think about what you really need your participant to show you in order to answer the research questions you have,” Cyd concludes. “Then brainstorm ways people show similar things to each other in non-research contexts. There’s always a way.”

You might also like: Lean UX: A Guide for Remote Teams.

11. Conduct contextual remote user research with WhatsApp

user research: person taking a picture of drink cartons in their fridge
To show culture and context, gotoresearch requests WhatsApp photos and videos of common daily activities related to the study topic.

It can be tricky to get the level of depth and context needed to tell a real story when remote research is your only option. UX research agency gotoresearch uses WhatsApp as a low-cost, casual-yet-trustworthy, secure and easy-to-integrate method of data collection during a study. 

“Whether utilized as homework post-interview to follow up and dig deeper into a topic, or as an informal diary study with loose prompts, WhatsApp provides a cohesive communication method for text, voice, photos and video clips,” design ethnographer Kelly Goto, founder and CEO of gotoresearch, explains. “Fortunately, most participants already have it downloaded so onboarding is frictionless. We have a company-specific account, which can also be used as a desktop app using a QR code to keep work and personal lives separate. There is no limit on video, which allows for more freedom when sending clips.”

For global research, gotoresearch tried a pricey platform that was cumbersome, expensive, and difficult to set up a few years ago. After some trial and error, they decided to go with WhatsApp and found it was cross-platform and worked in all countries for people with varying levels of tech experience. 

“It ended up being the easiest and most effective method we have used to date,” Kelly reveals. “We've recently used it for a global study focusing on health and well-being across 15 countries during COVID-19. Capturing contextual moments in almost real-time is easier than most researchers think.”

12. Rethink your user research toolkit

Alba Villamil, an independent user experience researcher who specializes in the social sector, stresses the importance of ethics when deciding to carry out research. 

“We should constantly ask ourselves if the value of our research justifies a participant’s time and effort,” she points out. “COVID-19 has left many people burnt out, grieving, and traumatized. So even if we can accommodate participants’ schedules and create a comfortable remote environment, some people just won’t be in the right headspace. It’s our ethical responsibility to prioritize their wellbeing.”

"We should constantly ask ourselves if the value of our research justifies a participant’s time and effort."

For that purpose, Alba recommends revisiting our research toolkit and considering methods that won’t burden participants. This includes secondary research (or desk research), which draws on pre-existing studies like academic papers and publicly available reports, and passive forms of research for the many cases when we really do need to collect original data.

“Passive data collection allows us to analyze how people recount their experiences without the influence of a researcher,” Alba explains. “For example, we can use social media platforms to study people’s unprompted questions and opinions about our client’s products and competitors.”

Alba also suggests analyzing discussion forums like Facebook Groups and Reddit, which can help us identify social trends in the types of questions and concerns people discuss. It’s important to remember, however, that even if these posts are publicly available, we should still protect the privacy of the group’s members. 

“Although people opt into using these social media platforms, they did not opt into our studies,” Alba cautions. “We need to de-identify any posts and establish processes for accessing and sharing this data within our organization.”

There may be also extra consent considerations that need to be examined, which you should check with a legal advisor to be sure.

Adapt, experiment and over-plan

Things are currently very different and challenging—for you, your team, your participants, and your clients. That’s absolutely okay. It’s a chance to really consider the benefits of remote user research and embrace its constraints, including those that are specific to COVID-19. 

People are doing what’s best for them right now, which might mean last minute changes, higher dropout rates, and sessions that get interrupted or cut short. Be kind, patient, and considerate. Expect things to go a little wrong and prepare alternative questions or activities. We’re all human—try out a few different methods to see what works for your project. It might take a little more effort to adapt and you might need to over-plan, but the tips covered in this article have shown how effective remote user research can be to understand your clients’ customers from a distance. The lessons learned will help improve the projects you’re working on and boost your user research skills in the long run. 

Do you have any tips for conducting remote user research? Let us know in the comments below.


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