Remote research: finding the new natural habitat
10 guidelines for in-context research in a time of separation
We love embedding ourselves in natural habitats. I’ve joined contractors on job sites at first light, observed patients navigate medical equipment in their homes, and shared hors d'oeuvres in the living rooms of music aficionados as they discuss their favourite albums.
Now, more than ever, I’m missing that unfettered access to the people (and their habitats!) that we design for. Among other benefits, being shoulder-to-shoulder with people helps build empathy for end users, contextualise the problem space, and expose hidden product and service opportunities.
With multiple remote projects underway, the team has had a chance to adapt and adopt new best practices for research that would have otherwise been conducted face-to-face. From planning, to running, to synthesising research – here are 10 guiding principles for moving research remote.
1. Experiment with new tools
Relying solely on face-to-face video interviews as a replacement for in-context research will fall short.
- Capture contextual data. Remote diary tools like dScout afford the benefit of capturing longitudinal asynchronous data. This type of collection can provide meaningful clues into lifestyles, locations, and adjacent opportunities that in-person observational and ethnographic-style research illuminate.
- Make co-creation and collaboration easy. Platforms like Miro and Mural allow you to conduct card sorts and whiteboard exercises with participants in real time to mimic the richness you’d get out of an in-person table-top session.
- Let participants get hands-on. If you have the budget and an adventurous mindset, experiment with sending sanitised kits outfitted with prototypes or research artefacts to interviewees. Include clear on-package instructions and pre-paid return slips. This method is critical for meaningful physical prototype feedback.
2. At the same time, keep security and usability at top of mind
Before being tempted into new platforms or technology, consider the barriers and risks.
- Take the perspective of the participant. Consider your audience carefully and opt for simpler processes with limited transitions between platforms. Better to have a basic interface than a distracted and flustered participant.
- Follow compliance and security guidelines. Look for tools that are HIPPA and GDPR compliant and have a professional look and feel. Many common video platforms, particularly the free versions, are not compliant with important regulations for safeguarding personal data.
- Redesign for digital delivery. Participants may not have access to a printer or scanner. Ensure that release forms are intelligible, straightforward, and redesigned for digital signature.
3. Collect more data, not less
Static, shoulders-up interviews risk a ‘tell me’ monologue rather than the rich ‘show me’ experience you get in person. Multi-touchpoint research provides layers and context.
- Build activities into your discussion guide. Values-based activities can help get to underlying motivations more effectively than rote question-based inquiries. Activities like an open card sort can be effective for understanding how a participant combines and classifies information. Plus, activities make for a more engaging conversation for participants and facilitators alike.
- Incorporate pre-work or post-interview activities. Layer in additional touchpoints to develop a longitudinal relationship with your participant. Participatory design – photo capture, collage, self-guided home tours, or selfie-style videos – completed before, during, or after a sit-down session are a small lift and capture information that would otherwise be out of view.
- Go hybrid. Pairing larger quantitative surveys with a smaller number of qualitative interviews can be a valuable way to add more data in your arsenal if you are short on budget and can't swing a large qualitative field sample.
- Use desk research to round it all out. Lean on publicly available data to fill in your knowledge on the problem and opportunity space. Explore analogous business scenarios and experiment with qualitative socio-cultural listening approaches through social media to help bolster or disprove an insight.
4. Add time buffers in the project plan
Planning activities can take longer in today’s conditions. Consider allocating additional budget and time for these activities, particularly if this is your first rodeo in remote research.
- Acknowledge constraints on recruitment. Even though more people are home, many have new demands on their time and additional layers of distraction. For example, parents with caregiving responsibilities may be less able to provide dedicated time during the daylight hours for research activities.
- Pilot, pilot, pilot. You’ll want more time to test software/tools before getting started with your participants. Allow time to pilot your interviews and activities, particularly if any of these formats or styles of data collection are new. Pilot with individuals who span the tech-savvy spectrum to help identify usability road bumps.
- Bulk up your visual assets. If you are using activity-based learning, focus attention on putting life and colour into research stimuli. You may be able to get away with lower-fidelity stimuli or visual gestures as in-person thought starters (particularly in exploratory or generative research). It’s harder to confer confidence and control without quality assets in a digital environment.
5. Meet participants where they are
Developing an appropriate level of rapport and trust is always important and can be harder when you don’t have the benefit of sharing space. Connect over the universal experience that humankind is sharing right now while keeping the focus on them.
- Acknowledge challenging circumstances. Build in time at the front of any session to have people share, if they are comfortable, how their habits and behaviours are flux. It may feel off-topic, but it will impact the larger problem and opportunity space you are exploring.
- Give a clear idea of what to expect. Given the uncertainty that remote research may carry, it’s doubly important for participants to understand the trajectory and goals of the conversation. Sharing a simple diagram upfront with a storyline of how you’ll use their time can be a simple way to do that effectively. If the conversation is veering off track, this diagram can be a useful guardrail for shared reference.
6. Establish tech transparency and a contingency plan
Be clear and concise in instruction with participants before the session and outline requirements (a working webcam, reading glasses if necessary, a fully charged computer). If your budget allows, give participants an opportunity to test/set up tech prior to the session.
- Lay out a plan for what happens if connection is lost. Reiterate this at the front of the call, in addition to including it in written materials before the session. You want to take all guesswork out of it for your participant.
- Reassure that technology hiccups are common. Some participants feel responsible for issues that are out of their control. Diffuse that pressure. Their attention should be on the questions and activities, not the technology.
- Practice your improv skills. You’ll need them. When there is catastrophic technology failure, have a list of the critical information you can still capture with just an audio connection.
7. Overschedule length of the sessions
You don’t want to feel that one technology trip-up and a long introduction risks timeboxing you out of activities or lines of inquiry.
- Double down on a warm up. You may want to schedule more time than typical to make sure this happens in a digital environment. Making people feel comfortable is just as important as in in-person research.
- Expect that folks are keen to talk, especially in quarantine. Be patient. Try to use what might feel like a tangent as an opportunity to identify underlying needs or motivations of the speaker before redirecting.
- Overcompensate for lost body language cues. Our ability to read body language (and confer information with our bodies) is dulled remotely. Begin to make up for this loss by planning more participatory activities with people which provide avenues for self-expression.
- But know that video fatigue is real. It’s still important to overschedule the length of each session so that nobody feels rushed, but do your best to keep it to 90 minutes or under.
8. Support the facilitators
Remote facilitation can be exhausting, particularly if facilitators are managing technology or doing live capture on a shared screen or digital whiteboard.
- Prepare for difficulty in keeping focus. While we may have been able to get away with it in person, scheduling six back-to-back sessions is simply not feasible in this new reality. Let’s face it – it's harder to stay engrossed in the participant experience while facilitating remotely.
- Build in breaks between sessions. One benefit of remote research is that, unlike time in the field, it’s easier to step away for a few minutes for fresh air to reset and refocus the mind before the next session.
- Ensure IT management coverage. If you are a sole operator, consider if you can successfully facilitate while playing IT support. When possible, have a secondary facilitator to troubleshoot or queue activities so that you can keep focus on the participant.
Wrapping up research
9. Construct session ‘SparkNotes’
Conducting sessions online means that we miss the benefit of pairing sensory or embodied memories with participants like we would in-person. Because of this loss, participants can blend together in our memories more easily. Establish systems to help you remember the high points to make synthesis and video/audio review more efficient down the line.
- Prepare digital debrief sheets. Any facilitators, notetakers, or observers should have a debrief prompt sheet to guide a quick, aligning conversation after each session. Do this at the end of the day, before your sessions lose definition.
- Collate participant data into a digitised, sortable grid. This is good practice for any project, but especially now. Keep data and coding schemes up to date and in a sharable format with the team (we’ve experimented successfully with tools like Airtable). Bonus points if you include top-line notes from your quick debrief so you have a scannable inventory of highlights to loop back to.
10. Mix analogue and digital methods for synthesis
Don’t expect your digital whiteboard tool to fully replace your old in-person practices for synthesis and analysis.
- Dedicate digital and physical space. Just like you might at the office or studio, dedicate a wall at home that becomes your synthesis space that you can routinely walk away from and revisit. We’ve had good luck mixing these tried-and-true analogue methods (sticky notes on a wall and whiteboard markers on a home office window) with collaborative digital spaces (Google Docs, OneDrive folders, and Miro or Mural boards).
- Maintain momentum. Keep routine stand-ups and check-ins with the project team, just like you would in person. Rituals like these keep pace and momentum. Check-ins and interim share-outs ensure that synthesis is as collaborative as it needs to be.
The value of engaging face-to-face is irreplaceable – nothing can replace what we learn from being in natural habitats. But as the weeks wear on, we’re finding that these digital spaces afford tremendous benefits. The silver lining in all of this is that these new constraints are making us better researchers. We’re thinking even more critically about participant engagement, accessibility, and expanding our toolset in new ways to capture insights and opportunities for clients. As the adage goes, from constraint comes creativity.
Organisations should be listening to and learning from their customers, especially in times of change. New behaviours and motivations right now are meaningful signals to understand. Our team helps decode those signals and uncover the opportunities for innovations that stick.
I’m confident that we’ll be in the field again. But in the meantime, join us in testing the boundaries of what’s possible.