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Why we are embracing remote user research

  • 17 August 2020 / By Zena Zerai
  • UX Research and Design

As designers, COVID has not only changed where we work, but how we work. Previously lots of our user research was conducted face-to-face, either we invited participants to come to us or we visited their homes and places of work. However, since lockdown began, we’ve had to embrace remote UX research; observing and interviewing users without having to leave the house. We know remote research won’t always work as it remains essential to pick the right research method for your research objectives. But, having done exclusively remote research for a number of months now, we’ve seen some clear reasons to make it a bigger part of our research toolkit.

Greater flexibility with schedules 

Remote research means time savings for both the participant and the researcher. From the researcher's side, conducting research from the comfort of our homes saves time on the logistics, for example booking meeting rooms for research or the time it takes to arrange interview slots. With virtual research, depending on your recruitment tool and method, things can run with as little as a day's notice, meaning more immediate learnings at your fingertips.

For participants remote research means not taking time out of their day to make an unfamiliar journey to your testing lab. In some cases this will involve booking time off work or getting childcare. We recently conducted research with parents of young children, doing this remotely meant they were able to get their partner to take over childcare during the interview or conduct it while the baby was asleep next to them! From our point of view this gives us greater flexibility with time slots, removes the delays of unreliable transport and means we get a larger group of participants to choose from than we would have if travel was required. With unmoderated research, participants get the added convenience of participating when they wish.


Women on a video call

Home environments foster comfort 

With face to face research, the unfamiliar environment of the testing lab can lead to 'the Hawthorne effect', this is where participants alter their behaviour due to their awareness of being observed. This has a significant impact on the quality of the research and something that with remote research we can eliminate to some degree. While participants are at home they are already in a more comfortable and familiar environment. We of course need to factor in other interruptions, but that is part and parcel of their everyday environment and how they may likely be using your product in their everyday life.

"I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination"

Jimmy Dean

A broader range of participants 

A big plus with remote research is the ability to generate a wider, more representative pool of users participating in the research. While face to face has its benefits, it does have its drawbacks in limiting the number of participants to those that are local or have easy access to your testing lab.

With remote research, you can cast your net further and become more inclusive by accessing those hard to reach participants. This could be regional or even international and if you have a targeted or niche user group it certainly makes life a whole lot easier.

This means better insights and data, and ultimately building better products for our users.


Rapid & focused learning

Other benefits we've seen are often minor but impactful. For example the person conducting the research interview on video call can maintain a level of eye contact with the participant whilst reading the full script, something you can't do in-person. The notetaker is also able to message the interviewer privately to ask questions or offer suggestions, without interrupting the flow of the conversation with the participant. The results of online card sorts or surveys can also be fairly quick and already digital. Additionally when it comes time to synthesise your findings, it's easier to get time to focus, turn off distractions and interruptions, thus enabling deep work and hopefully deeper learnings.

There are still challenges

While I rave over remote research it doesn't come without its challenges. Zoom fatigue is real. We have learnt that taking the time to decompress after interviews is imperative, in addition to avoiding full days of research interviews and spreading them out where possible. Not all participants (or researchers!) have reliable internet connections, so be sure to factor this into the interviews and send tech instructions and information to participants beforehand.

Building rapport takes longer on zoom, so consider longer introductions or a panel of participants you can speak to week on week, depending on the type of research you are doing. We have found some users are uncomfortable seeing themselves on screen (who isn't?!) and may prefer to talk freely without video. While this may remove the ability to read facial expressions, we have actually found this can work well, enabling participants to feel more comfortable to talk freely.

Finally it is important to remember the digitally excluded, consider alternative methods of contacting them via telephone or through a relative. Overall, patience and flexibility is key to ensure you are engaged with your participant.

As it seems we won't be going back to full time normality for a long time, we will continue to embrace and learn ways to improve remote research. Of course remote won't replace the full spectrum of research, but in these uncertain times it is important to be adaptable and creative and there is nothing designers enjoy more.


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