12 tips for doing moderated remote user research when face-to-face isn’t an option

Like everyone, we’ve found ourselves having to adapt to a very new set of circumstances over the last couple of weeks, and learning to deal with a level of daily uncertainty whilst trying our best to continue doing our jobs.

On reflection, it’s amazing how little disruption there’s been so far to our regular flow of work, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been tough, and we’re still figuring things out as we go.

Remote research was something we already did before coronavirus, but now that it’s the only option if we want to speak to users or watch them interact with prototypes, we thought it was worth sharing some tips based on what we’ve learned so far doing user research during a global pandemic.

Before we get into the tips, it’s worth stating that research still matters. Indeed, understanding users in a world that’s changing from one day to the next can help companies decide how to navigate a crisis and prepare for what comes next. You might even find that some niches are easier to recruit participants for than usual – many people suddenly have more spare time, and are craving human connection in all its digitally-mediated forms.

But there’s also a greater weight of responsibility on researchers than ever – along with respecting our participants and being flexible with changing schedules, we need to think carefully about how any research we’re engaged in reflects on the organisation it’s for. The last thing we want to do is add pressure at an anxious time or undermine a brand’s reputation at such a delicate time.

By getting the practical stuff working smoothly, you’ll hopefully have more headspace to think through the human aspects of conducting research in a strange new environment.

Here’s the TL;DR

(Or the ‘too long; didn’t read’…)

  • Send detailed instructions in advance
  • Create a virtual room
  • Test the whole setup
  • Have their phone number at the ready
  • Record the session
  • Use a second screen or a printer if you can
  • Take your time
  • Ask the participant to mute their mic when not speaking
  • Introduce anyone else on the call
  • Schedule wrap-up time
  • Channel your empathy
  • Speak to other researchers

Send detailed instructions in advance

Sending detailed instructions to participants ahead of the session will help minimise any faffing with tech on the day, and will help them understand what to expect.

The calendar invite for each session should also include any key links they’ll need to access, and a reminder of what they need to do, plus a number they can reach you on if they have any problems.

Be sure to include preferred browsers and/or devices where necessary.

Create a virtual room

We’ve been using a tool called Whereby to create virtual replicas of all our real-life meeting rooms, including our usability lab – that means rooms can be booked out in the usual way via our shared Outlook calendars, and webcam, audio and screenshare functionality are taken care of. We always prefer video for face-to-face conversation rather than just having an audio call.

Test the whole setup

The exact mix of tech you need will depend on the research method you’re using. If it’s a stakeholder interview over the phone, there might not be much to test, but if you’re doing moderated usability testing or a card-sort, for example, participants will have links to open, you might need to see their screen and so on.

Whatever your setup looks like, make sure you test it internally with a stand-in participant and note taker(s) before cracking on.

Have their phone number at the ready

If your participant hasn’t joined the meeting on schedule, give them a quick call to check everything’s OK and that they’re still able to continue with the session as planned.

Record the session

We use OBS to record our remote research sessions – this means we can go back and take a closer look at something if necessary, and having everything recorded helps with rich playbacks to stakeholders that couldn’t attend. Always ensure you ask the user’s permission to record, and let them know why you’re doing that. If you don’t have access to OBS, here are some other useful screen recorders.

Use a second screen or a printer if you can

We appreciate many people work from laptops, but we’ve found that having your script or discussion guide on the same screen as everything else is not ideal when recording the display. If possible, get this on a second screen, or print a physical copy ahead of the session.

Take your time

It’s a good idea to wait a second after the participant has finished talking in case there’s a lag, and to allow more time generally for tech setup and issues. There’s also a chance that people will naturally want to talk a little about the crisis we’re living through, and will simply appreciate the chance to chat to someone new, so again, allow a bit of extra time for that.

Ask the participant to mute their mic when not speaking

Don’t be afraid to ask participants to mute their mic when they’re not talking; hearing an echo of your own voice on the line can be off-putting to say the least.

Introduce anyone else on the call

This might seem like an obvious one, but introduce any note-takers on the call and explain why they’re there. Have as few people on the call as possible, and turn off their video to minimise distraction.

Schedule wrap-up time

Add 15 minutes onto the end of your sessions to discuss what you and any colleagues observed and organise notes into a collaborative template. We’ve used Miro for this, and it’s so handy to see all our participant notes captured on virtual Post-it notes, side by side!

Channel your empathy

The human skills needed to do research well are more critical now than ever.

Everyone’s experiencing anxiety right now – we have a responsibility to pay extra attention to our interactions with participants, whilst also being kind to ourselves. Emotional intelligence is more important than any other tool you have.

Set reasonable expectations of your research, participants and each other, given the situation, and celebrate the value in the insight you discover.

Speak to other researchers

It’s already something of a cliché to point this out, but the paradox of this mass period of self-isolation is that, in many ways, it’s strengthening our sense of community and interconnectedness. There’s an opportunity here to reach out to other researchers (in and out of your company), share stories with them, learn from them, grow your network, and move the discipline forward together.

Some online communities we love include:

And for general reading, it’s worth keeping an eye on:

If you have any remote research tips of your own, we’d love to hear them – you can Tweet us @Computerlovers.

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