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Reflections on remote design research: The consultant’s perspective (Part 1)

Date: November, 2020
File under: Articles

In a previous article we reflected on U1’s experience of transitioning from in-person to remote research. That article reflected the experience of the consultancy as a whole, in this article one of our consultants Luella Paine reflects on her individual experience.

What have you learned?

Over the past six months of only conducting remote research, I’ve learnt to use many different remote testing platforms. I’ve also had to come up with creative ways to conduct sessions to cater for different kinds of research projects, and for participants with different levels of technical literacy.

With all our projects we don’t want the extra layer of a remote technology (such as Zoom, Teams or Lookback) interfering with the quality of our sessions or with a participant’s perception of the product or service we are researching. As a team, I think we’ve done a great job working out processes to seamlessly onboard participants and get them comfortable with interacting in a remote environment.

What has surprised you?

I think discovering that you can still get deep insights and rich data via a remote setting was quite surprising. With usability studies, there’s virtually no difference in the process whether it’s face-to-face or remote. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised that depth interviews and contextual studies in a remote setting also yield excellent results. In a recent remote study, my participants walked me around their homes to demonstrate where and how they used their virtual assistants. It was just like I was there at home with them.

What has challenged you?

Becoming familiar with the different platforms that can be used for remote research was initially a challenge. Each solution definitely has its pros and cons. I don’t think we’ve found the ‘perfect’ platform but we now know each one intimately and understand how to optimise its use for the requirements of every project.

Having everyone on the team dispersed remotely really helped to road test each of the platforms and nut out workarounds when a particular piece of software was less than optimal, but the client needed us to use it for a specific project.

And just when you think you’ve nailed it, then there’s a whole other set of constraints to deal with if the participant is using a mobile phone or tablet as opposed to a desktop or laptop computer.

But after six months of using multiple platforms and devices for all kinds of projects I feel that we have nailed how to get the best out of any remote situation.

What are the positives?

The positives of remote testing definitely outweigh the negatives. For starters it means that we have a much wider pool of participants to access from both within Australia and worldwide. We are no longer limited by how far we can physically travel and it opens up opportunities to reach people in really remote areas.

I find that participants also like the convenience and comfort of attending sessions from their home or workplace rather than having to travel to our labs. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed fewer no-shows and cancellations than when we were doing the majority of our sessions face-to-face in our labs.

I also think participants are less inhibited by being in familiar surroundings and using their own equipment. I’ve run sessions with participants on their couch or bed and even in their car (no, they weren’t driving)! Likewise, participants are very comfortable with their own computers and devices, so you get far more natural interactions.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to finding a remote testing platform that does everything I need it to in a simple, user-friendly way. While our clients and participants would have no idea, sometimes we need to jump through a lot of technical hoops, or use multiple tools, to make our sessions roll out seamlessly for the required situation.

I would also really like to see my colleagues in the flesh! I haven’t been in the same room as any of them for over six months. While we have an informal remote catchup (a sit-down) every morning and there are numerous ways to collaborate remotely, I’d really like to pull up a chair and talk about things the old-fashioned way.

What will you take forward from the experience of the last 6 months?

One thing that working remotely has reinforced is the need to be prepared. While that was the same with face-to-face research, it’s been even more of a requirement with remote sessions.

Having that level of preparation, where participants have clear onboarding instructions and receive information about what to expect in a remote session, means that you can open up the session to expect the unexpected. Without the remote technology getting in the way, you are ready for the messiness of research – and that’s where the magic happens.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I would encourage anyone thinking about generative or evaluative research to consider the possibilities and benefits of reaching users remotely.

Even when COVID normal opens up the opportunity for face-to-face interviews, I think there is a real advantage in doing at least some of the interviews in a qualitative research project remotely.

Sorry. Gotta go. My participant has just arrived for a remote session!

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