Reflections on remote design research: The consultancy perspective

By: Sean Smith
Date: October, 2020
File under: Articles

2020 has been a year like no other (and we still have a couple of months to go!). The way we live, and work, has changed with a rapidity that at times has had our heads spinning. Back in March, U1 readily adapted to operating as a distributed team working remotely from our homes, a situation that is likely to continue at least through to 2021. We recognise that U1 is hardly unique in that regard, but over six months in we felt it was worth reflecting on what we have learnt and sharing some observations about conducting design research in this changed environment without compromising standards.

As a specialist design research consultancy, U1’s way of working over almost 20 years has predominantly constituted an in-person experience. Whether it is planning and conducting research, synthesis and analysis of research data, or engaging with clients to share research insights, in-person engagement with colleagues, clients and research participants has typically been at the heart of what we do. We routinely invited participants and clients into our purpose-built research facilities or were invited by participants into their homes or workplaces. All of these previously in-person interactions have now shifted online.

Remotely moderated research was already part of the U1 toolkit, but generally as supplement to in-person research allowing us to increase geographical scope of qualitative research where budget or time constraints worked against in-person research. What has been most interesting about our transition to running all research remotely research is how it has influenced the tools we use, our participant recruitment and the participant experience.

Tools we’ve used

Like many, we have used a variety of web-based applications for facilitating research, covering a pretty familiar rollcall of Zoom, Lookback, Google Meet (nee Hangouts), Skype and Teams. Whilst we are yet to come across the perfect tool that ticks off all of our research needs, Zoom has been our preferred tool for remote research. Zoom has a lot of handy features but perhaps most importantly, we have found it to have the lowest barrier to entry for participants, possibly one of the main drivers of its adoption by the general public during lockdown.

Our recruitment partners have been instrumental in assisting participants to download and  install any required applications or browser plug-ins ahead of any research sessions. This has saved us valuable time in interviews and workshops, allowing us to focus on the research questions rather than providing tech support. This period, along with our pre-lockdown  experience of remote research highlights the importance of recognising that what seems simple to us can be a challenging and stress inducing experience for others. Despite the best effort of our recruitment partners to prepare participants, we have had our share of participants on the phone in tears as they battle and fail to download and install a browser plugin. This is a participant interaction that never occurs in our research labs where the technology is all setup and ready to go as soon as the participant arrives. So, it is important that we remember that while these tools are great enablers for us, they can represent a significant barrier for others.

Zoom and Slack have also been invaluable in maintaining our culture of collaboration and connection. Friday pub lunches and daily coffee catchups on Zoom have been a feature of our lockdown experience, helping us to maintain some of the rhythms and non-project related interactions we were used to when sitting together in an office.


All researchers know that good recruitment is key to successful research and we feel that remote research has made life easier for our recruitment partners. Scheduling is much simpler as travel time and locations are no longer a factor, nor is finding someone to look after the kids. The available pool of participants is broadened as well, improving the strike rate of finding people who meet the recruitment specification. We have observed that remote participant “no-shows” are way down when compared to in-person research which helps keep projects on time and budget.

Participant experience

Prior to entering lockdown, we took all steps possible to ensure our research participants were at ease and comfortable with the environment and were over any stresses they may have faced on their way to attend our research. Our ability to manage the research environment was obviously diminished with the transition to remote research, so early on in lockdown we devoted some time in each interview or workshop to ask participants about their experience of remote research. Overwhelmingly we found participants were responding positively to the experience. Below is an example of the types of feedback we received.

“I find I’m using it more and more, especially in these times. Even my daughter’s dance class is in Zoom! It’s very easy to use.”

“Remote is really good. When the tech works and works well like this I feel much more comfortable doing it online. That’s fantastic! In fact, I’m in quarantine at the moment so this was the only way I’d be able to participate. Thank you for the opportunity.”

“Considering this is only the second time I’ve ever done it [remotely], it’s very easy. I don’t know if it would be much different even if you were here with me. Well, I guess you are here with me, aren’t you!”

“This is good. I don’t feel that it is any different. I’d do it in the future.”

What hasn’t changed?

Since entering lockdown, we have delivered projects for clients based throughout  Australia and collaborated with international partners on a global study. During this time our research has included straightforward usability testing for clients in the health, energy, finance and government sectors but has also involved exploratory research into the set-up and use of virtual digital assistants, attitudes and behaviours associated with choosing energy providers, and the information needs of franchisees and franchisors to name a few. The upshot being that whilst the way we engage with our participants and clients may have changed, the research and insights we are able to deliver have not.

What have we lost?

We do seem to have lost the engagement of a wider range of stakeholders in observing research. Whilst that is not the worst outcome, it does mean core stakeholders have to work a bit harder to spread the messages coming out of the research. In our experience, some of the most impactful conversations have occurred in our observation rooms as stakeholders from different parts of a business, who may be meeting for the first time,  come together to observe research. It is somewhat paradoxical that whilst it has never been easier to view research via live streaming, we feel there are fewer people beyond the core team watching the research as it happens.

The inability to get out in the field, or invite people into our research labs, has made it much more challenging to include people who have limited access to the technology that many of us are fortunate enough to consider ubiquitous. We should not assume that everyone has a smart phone or laptop or can afford a data or broadband plan. This is a divide we should always be mindful of, but one that is accentuated during an extended lockdown that restricts movement and interactions with others.

Where to from here?

We envisage that even when in-person research becomes possible and safe, remote research will continue to play a part in most, if not all of our projects. It makes sense to do so given the positives highlighted above. However, as an industry we need to remember that it can also represent a barrier to participation for some members of the community and introduce unintended blind spots to product and service design.

So, that wraps up our discussion of the collective consultancy perspective. In upcoming articles, members of our team will write about their individual perspectives and experience of transitioning from in-person to remote research.

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