Adapting to Remote Research: rethinking your research plan

Cynthia Risse

The impact of COVID-19 on our daily lives is huge. People around the world are stuck at home, they have limited social contacts and activities outdoors. For us, as User Researchers at Mirabeau, it presents quite a few challenges. What to do when we can’t engage and experience alongside our target group? Or can’t see them interact with the things we design?

We suddenly have to rethink our research plan and get creative to adapt to these current situation. But we can make it work. Let’s look at some tips, common methods and tools to fit your remote research plan.

General tips for remote research

When doing remote research, preparation is key. Try to prepare your setup, tools and templates upfront. Do some test-runs and don’t forget to prepare a back-up in case something still goes wrong. Also make sure your participants feel as confident and comfortable in participating as possible. Try to send any templates or tool manuals upfront or have a little introduction call to break the ice, run a test, explain the tool or answer any questions they might have.

Now, let’s look at some common methods and tools for your remote research plan…

Creating consensus

As User Researchers we often need to get a shared understanding of something with our stakeholders or project members. Think about the framing of the problem or agreeing on a research plan at the beginning of the project. If you want to collaborate in real time, we recommend to use live, digital whiteboards to share ideas. You can even use post-its like in a ‘normal’ war room. Nice tools for this are: Miro or Mural. When you want to gather input or feedback (on e.g. your research plan), we suggest to use shared, online documents like Dropbox Paper or Google Docs as it allows other people to add, comment and review. Need to quickly discuss ideas with your team or get their input? Chat tools like Slack allow to quickly share ideas and feedback in threads. They even include the ability to use fun emoji reactions for voting.

Interviews

Doing remote interviews is not that hard, as it allows us to use everyday communicative practices like (video) calling. It’s best to see what technology your participants already have on hand: most of them already have something like Skype/Facetime installed on their laptops or phones. Want to record the interview for later annotations or reports? Quicktime and Lookback are great tools for this (don’t forget to ask your participant for permission).

User observations

User observation is one of the methods that is considered one of the most challenging when it comes to remote replacements. Observing people while they are doing some tasks is hard to follow in a digital world, since you will miss certain off screen cues like facial expressions. But with a little creativity we can try to get as close as we can. For the live observations/shadowing you can ask people to use their phone when recording their tasks or actions. They can use software that’s mostly already on their phone, like Facetime, Whatsapp or Skype. Or with just a little more effort, you can provide them with a wearable video camera, such as a GoPro, to get live recordings as they easily move around their environment.

Mapping techniques

In our usual projects where we can work in-person, we like to organise project war rooms where we create live journey maps on the walls, filled with lots of insights on colorful post-its (like a mini-museum). This way we can easily map insights and show it to everyone who walks in. In order to keep this co-creating property, we suggest to use tools like Google Sheets, Mural and Miro or InVision Freehand. Some of these tools offer great templates to save you some time.

Adapting to Remote Research

Workshops

In comparison to in-person workshops, remote workshops (e.g. co-creating sessions) require a bit more attention when it comes to facilitating. Try to get yourself a reporter that will make notes (including chat questions as they will disappear) and a co-facilitator that will help you drive the exercise. Before you start with the workshop, set up some ground rules: use the chat or hand raising for questions and ask everyone to mute microphones if they are not speaking.

In order to make sure that everyone will engage and contribute during the workshop, introduce all participants at the beginning of the meeting. During the workshop, make sure that you incorporate enough energizers and breaks and assign tasks to different groups or individuals to keep an even contribution.

Adapting to Remote Research - Miro

As most workshops include a presentation and an exercise, you might want to use conference calling tools such as WebEx, Zoom (tip for groups with 25+ people), Whereby, Google Hangouts or Skype for the presentation part. For the contribution part you might want to shift to tools like Google Draw, Mural, Miro or Trello. They offer great ways to brainstorm or create together. It’s best to have your participants to do silent brainstorming first, as it creates space for everyone to individually contribute to the session.

Usability testing

For both moderated and unmoderated we like to use a tool called Lookback. It allows us to record the screen of our participants, their interactions (clicks,taps, touches, hovers etc.) alongside their face and voice (very important for non-verbal cues!). Once a record is completed and uploaded it appears on Lookback’s website where you and your collaborators can view, discuss and share them.

Adapting to Remote Research - Dashboard

As most participants will not know about this tool, we advice to write an easy and clear ‘how to’ email or schedule a short call with the participant and walk them through the steps. If you are interviewing employees, keep in mind the strict privacy and security rules that some companies might have.

Collecting your insights

With all of our research happening digitally, insights and findings might easily get lost in different files and research reports. This is the time to start using digital insight repositories as a record of all the research that you have done. Tools like Trello or Airtable offer nice ways to track all these findings and insights and share it with the team and stakeholders.

Need help or advice?

If you’ve got any questions or need help to set up Remote Research, please get in touch and let’s see how we can help.