The remote research guide

Remote research sessions can be tricky to configure, so here’s a guide to help you on your way.

A women sitting a home desk setup conducting user research.

Research plays a fundamental role when designing experiences that meet the needs of users.

There are many ways in which we can gather insight, but you need to consider the constraints and the objectives of the research carefully.  

All methodologies have their pros and cons when it comes to gathering robust insight in an efficient and valuable way. Here we’re going to focus on conducting remote research because it's topical and a fantastic practical tool.

Remote research can provide you with the opportunity to speak to any customer you wish in their own environment, be that home (as is most common right now) or work.

This makes remote research a great way to gather insight in an accessible and flexible manner. And it can bear insights which impacts what you design. Without further ado, here’s a guide on how to get started.

Planning starts with the problem, not the solution

Planning is a fundamental to any research method - it’s crucial when running remote research.

The more you plan, the better the outcome. In order to decide if you’re considering the right methodology you must have clarity about the objective of the research and where you are in the project.

Ask yourself: What is the problem we are trying to solve?

Only by asking ourselves what it is we want to find out can we understand if remote research will help us to gather the insight we need.

Finding the right people 

To capture the right insight, you need the right people. Noting down what you need in terms of profile, demographics and any additional attributes in a recruitment brief is where to start. Once agreed, you can begin to recruit.

We have our own fieldwork team who are trained in getting the best quality participant to meet the research objective. If you don’t have your own fieldwork team, a clear recruitment brief will help external recruitment partners.

When recruiting for any research, it's important to explain how the research sessions will run. Participants need to be comfortable engaging in the research and understand how they’ll be asked to share their opinions. This gives them time and space to consider any limitations they might have.  

An essential aspect of recruiting for remote research is checking their comfort level with digital tools.

Comfort levels will vary depending on the problem you’re trying to solve e.g. the comfort levels in over 65s when researching banking experiences will be very different to the comfort levels in under 30s when researching retail experiences. Regardless, ensuring participants have a reliable internet connection is a must.

With remote research you have improved access to participants. Travel requirements are taken out of the equation and you can speak to a wider pool of users than those able to visit labs or other contextual settings like a shop or a bank branch.

Scheduling remote interviews requires flexibility but the timings will vary depending on who you need to speak to and in what context e.g. do we want to speak to people at home or at work?

Try recruiting for remote sessions over a few days; offering multiple time slots will allow people to fit the sessions in around their lives and give time to focus. 

All things considered, recruiting participants for remote research can be easier and take less time. This has a knock-on effect on travel costs and incentive cost when compared to other forms of design research.

Planning for every eventuality 

With remote research, you need to plan for things you have limited control over. Plan thoroughly to ensure all potential technical pitfalls are covered and the participant feels supported.

Once participants have been recruited, the researcher should send out digital invitations and clear instructions to participants.

This starts with an introduction to the moderator for the participant, letting them know a bit about yourself and what to expect. You could include a photo of yourself at this stage to form familiarity prior to the session. This can help establish focus when you begin the research as the participant will recognise you.

An overly complicated setup will only stress participants and this will impact your remote research sessions. Keep it simple and you’ll be set up for success.

This means sending step-by-step instructions to participants on how to connect to a session - take a software agnostic approach where possible and flex to what they can use. The instructions should be simple and include imagery to avoid confusion. Make sure you send instructions a few days before a session and follow-up with a check-in to offer additional support.

Try running five minute pilot tests with each participant to ensure their set up and internet connection will work for a full remote research session. This is also another great way to warm up participants, build rapport and reduce dropout rate. 

Technical difficulties are part and parcel of remote research - it’s important to plan for every eventuality. Have a plan B and a plan C, and advise participants at the beginning that if something goes wrong, you’ll contact them on a specified channel, so they know where to look for support.

The session itself

During a remote research session, seeing the body language and facial expressions of your participants is more difficult - but you still need to pay attention. It can also be challenging to gauge a participant's general demeanour. This does not mean that the research lacks validity or robustness, these factors just need to be considered when conducting the analysis.

You can do things to alleviate this, such as having a more general warm-up. This will help you understand how your participants express what they’re saying via body language and help you gauge their demeanour during the research.

Go back to research basics at this stage. Your interview discussion guide should be well structured - make sure each task or section is introduced clearly. Questioning should be clear but not exhaustive - allow room for organic twists and turns.

Remember to ask one question at a time and allow for longer pauses to encourage participants to finish their train of thought.

Don’t forget your tools

There are also unmoderated tools that you can use - when appropriate to the problem you’re trying to solve - such as survey tools, card sorting and other task-based tools. All of these come with a level of setup and planning to ensure they’ll provide the right insight.

It’s worth piloting the flow of the interview if your participants need to use any tools and making sure each participant has access and knows how the tool works before the session.

Developing a library of tried and tested tools saves time. They can be a useful data source in their own right, augment your remote research insight and provide interesting outputs for analysis purposes.

Be sure to encourage collaboration 

With any research, encouraging collaboration is important.

This includes stakeholders viewing research to see how participants use and react to their product or service first hand. When conducting remote research you can do this by allowing observers to dial in and view the session on a separate, muted line.

There are also virtual collaboration tools that we use to share notes and insights during sessions and after, Miro and Mural are two go to staples. This fosters a sense of shared purpose and helps your insight go further. If the stakeholders can’t attend the research video recordings can be shared and used to collaborate post-facto.

Analysing remote research

Analysing remote research is no different to any other design research.

Look for themes and patterns in the insight, calling out issues, questions and points of consideration from the conversations with users. It's the job of the moderator to translate this insight into actionable design recommendations.

Make your analysis interesting, think about your narrative and how you bring insight to life - nobody likes a lifeless deliverable. Talk to your design friends.

Wrapping up

Remote research is a great tool to talk to people in a wide variety of locations and environments.

It has many positives in terms of efficiency and flexibility but like any methodology it also has its limitations.

When it’s possible using a variety of methods gives you the richest insight but, when it’s not, never stop getting data from your customers which will help you improve experiences for them.

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