Mixed method user researchers know the value of synchronicity in their work. Being with a person, in their environment, offers an exclusive opportunity to glean the right, contextual insights.
In our current moment, however, fieldwork isn't tenable. As a result, many have turned to remote approaches to moderated research, finding that the modality can augment—and even extend—their practice. Below are some guidelines for building a stronger remote moderated research practice, and some advantages to leverage when moving remote.
Operations + reach = A (more) scalable practice
Broaden your backyard
Human-centered thinkers want to improve an experience or product for all folks, not some. Diverse, variegated samples help make sure more voices are heard. This is challenging when one only conducts fieldwork in one's backyard (so to speak).
Remote fieldwork can enable equal representation in research samples. A recommendation based on a theme, generated from all four corners of a country, induces much more confidence than one based on a single state (or even a single city). Searching for and weaving in those voices on the margin is achievable when remote modalities are harnessed—many participants only need a smartphone or computer to get started.
In the field, the whims of logistics and uncertainty often play an outsized role on data collection. The stakes are high—travel costs, scheduling, location availability—and the moments with folks are precious. Remote tools offer flexibility for both researcher and participant for those inevitable unexpectancies. The research becomes less precious, and small hiccups (a missed appointment, traffic) don't derail the whole project. Purpose-build remote tools offer a host of backstops to keep you on-track while respecting the time of the folks working with you.
There are also plenty of topics that, even with the most affable, other-oriented moderator, are challenging to discuss in-person. The physical distance afforded by remote modalities can present a safer, more invitational space for participants to open up, explore, and disclose their authentic perceptions and beliefs. Furthermore, remote lets you go where you might not have been invited (or allowed) previously. Dinner tables, bathrooms, those micro-moments in the car before entering a retail location...all these are nearly impossible to plan for in-person, but with the right research design are feasible with remote.
Translating designs for the remote “field"
Regardless of the activity type, research goals, or sample size, some considerations should be made before kicking off any remote moderated user research study. These will help respect the time of your participant as well as make the most of your sessions.
- Do I have a modality preference: desktop vs. mobile? What technical specifications does a participant need to have to participate in the project, and how can you communicate those?
- How many observers/collaborators will join the session? Do they know how to use the platform and communicate with you? Have you synced with these folks ahead of time?
- Is there additional consent—legally or informally—that must be produced before starting a session? Could the participant reveal sensitive information if sharing their screen? Do you have the necessary document and/or statements prepared?
- (If conducting prototype or concept work) Is the prototype available to share and is it final(ish)? How will you send that to the participant (e.g., a share link, sharing my screen)?
No-brainer use cases and applications
Remote moderated tools are very flexible, supporting the classic 1:1 interview or conversation and a host of product, innovation, and experience project types. The access and candor, as well as the perspective offered makes this approach perfect for:
- Omnichannel journeys — How are people moving from desktop to smartphone and back again? With remote platforms' screen sharing features, see what they see and their face, then watch how they move to another modality to accomplish a goal.
- In-Home product trials (IHUTs) — Curious how holiday shopping looks during a pandemic? What about an unboxing, setup, and initial impressions study? Station a desktop or smartphone on a table and ask participants to narrate their experience. This has all the benefits of in-homes, while being safe, more scalable, and faster.
- Concept or prototyping — Feedback is richer and more contextual when a person interacts with an early experience in the environment (and on the device) they would normally. Capture the interaction, their facial expressions, and invite stakeholders.
- Interview "plus" — When paired with a remote diary, moments, or survey activity, a follow-up or debrief conversation can be vital to getting the whole story. Show your app concept after a week of folks using your competitor's or debrief after a quick concept comparison study to dig into why they chose the winner they did. Remote moderated work augments and extends your unmoderated UX research toolkit.
This is by no means exhaustive. With remote (smartphone) mobile research, you can capture POVs from stores, aisles, and corners of folks' life that are integral to how, when, and why they engage with your experience.
(A note on remote focus groups vs. remote 1:1s: Given the potential distraction and increased chance of technical mishaps, focusing sessions on one person at a time goes a long way to ensuring higher-quality data. Folks can still show other people during their session—if that's of interest to your questions—but keeping the attention on one person helps the participant and you.)
(Some) best practices for starting
- Pilot: Technical issues will happen, but understanding what your participant will see and experience during the session goes a long way toward smooth reaction live. Be sure to include stakeholders and/or collaborators if possible, especially if they plan to "sit in" on any sessions or activities.
- Inclusive messaging: Meanings can be mixed or misinterpreted when coordinating with folks via email or text, so use care when crafting. Offer details on study goals, rough activity types (especially if they need to prep), and ask for any accommodations that will make the session useful (e.g., accessibility considerations with the tech). These show participants the work is not merely transactional, which helps build rapport and comfort.
- Pace scheduling: You've recruited a great group, finalized the prototype, and tidied your interview guide...bring on the sessions! Remember, moderated work can be overwhelming: the data are diverse, from video and transcripts to your own (and collaborators) notes afterward. Build time in-between sessions to sit with the data before jumping to the next. You'll be fresh for the next one and product sharper insights.
- Intros are vital: Your participant may have had 50 other video calls the day of your session, so be sure to start with something interpersonal (as opposed to jumping in). Do they have questions about the session (or who is also viewing)? Have you got their name and pronouns? These small exchanges take your sessions from clinical to conversational.
- Less is more: You will want to ask a lot, and you will likely run out of time. Prioritize what you must ask or have folks do, but leave time for the unexpected. You'll also want to leave time at the end for a "Wrap it up for me" or "If you had to summarize this in a sentence..." Often, things bubble up in the participants toward the end, making for sharp and pithy framing.
- Markers save: Many moderated tools (like dscout Live) offer a clip or marker feature, wherein time-stamped pins can be set during a session. When reviewing the video and transcript after, these markers can jumpstart your analysis, especially when your stakeholders have marked or pinned a few things. This also keeps you focused on the participant, in case they mention something worth exploring in more detail.
Data from moderated remote sessions can be overwhelming at first, but start with your driving questions, hypotheses, or thesis: What motivated the sessions in the first place. Then, inventory your available data (e.g., screenshares, front-facing video, transcripts, collaborator notes) and determine what will fit with your deliverable needs (and timeline!). Here are two pathways to consider:
- Text-oriented — Start with the transcript and search for those markers and pins. What quotes from participants support your conclusions? What themes do the transcripts suggest? What is the frequency of the themes and what video/audio/screenshares can you produce to support those themes? Here, the sessions allowed for candor and authenticity and the media data are less important.
- Media-oriented — Starting with clips or pins is still a good idea, especially if the sessions are complex (e.g., jump across devices). If it's a journey project, look for the steps and begin clipping videos that show what's going on. For prototyping work, find the "highs and lows" and string video together to showcase a pain point (or delight) shared by multiple users. Supporting with frequencies or a "pain/delight" scale rounds out the report.
Analysis capabilities are constrained by the platform of choice, but in general starting with primary questions to answer, inventorying data streams, and then moving to themes works well.
Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.