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More, Broader, Faster: A Brief Intro to Effective Remote Research

Here’s a succinct, back-to-basics primer on how to maximize the impact and efficiency of your next remote study

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

Well-run remote research allows you to “be there” without being there. It’s one of the most versatile tools in your research toolkit.

And it often get a bad rap.

If you’re poorly prepared, remote user research can be frustrating and ineffective. But with a little prep and know-how, it can be a remarkably efficient way to do research at scale—whether you’re tackling a quick round of usability testing or diving deeper into discovery research.

Here’s a quick primer you can use to start leveraging remote user research smarter. With practice, and thoughtful planning it can be an effective, integral part of the way you work.

In our next webinar, we're bringing on our savviest remote researchers for a deep-dive on remote best practices. Join us 4/2 at 1PM CST (all participants are sent the recording). 

If you’re poorly prepared, remote user research can be frustrating and ineffective. But with a little prep and know-how, it can be a remarkably efficient way to do research at scale—whether you’re tackling a quick round of usability testing or diving deeper into discovery research.

Nikki Anderson

Moderated vs unmoderated remote research

At its most basic, there are two types of remote user research: 

Moderated remote user research: You’re in direct, real-time contact with a participant, asking questions, and responding to the participant’s answers/actions.

Unmoderated remote user research: The participant answers predefined questions or completes predefined tasks on their own, with no researcher present. This is reviewed at a later time by the researcher.

A few benefits of remote research...

There are many benefits to using remote research as a tool, including:

  • Remote research can really cut down on time, effort, and cost on the operations side. It is significantly easier to recruit participants when they can simply sign into the session from their computer rather than coming into an office. You can also incentivize with a lower amount of money when asking someone to participate in remote research.
  • It allows for a larger location and demographic audience. Right now, I’m working at a ticket comparison website in Germany. Germans happen to be our core user base, but they’re not our only one. With remote research, we’re able to expand our learnings to a global level, and we don’t get stuck just talking to one type of user.
  • Most participants that I reach out to are interested in being a part of research, but would rather take video call over an in-person session any day. Now, this doesn’t always work. But, if you are open to the idea of remote research as a strong possibility, you can talk to a lot more people by taking advantage of the convenience of remote research
  • Remote research almost always lends itself to faster results. I once conducted six research session in a matter of 2.5 days, which expedited a lot of design decisions. I was able to do these sessions so quickly because five out of the six were remote. I hopped from one call to the next and didn’t have to travel further than the nearest conference room.

And a few words of caution...

  • If you’re doing unmoderated remote user research, be extra sure that your instructions are clear. Users can misunderstand tasks or questions. If they’re supposed to think out loud as complete tasks, they can forget to narrate. If they get stuck, you’re not on the other line to troubleshoot or offer support. 
  • If you’re dealing with ethnographic inquiries, sometimes field research is necessary. In other cases, you can use a diary study tool to observe users in their natural environment. Think carefully about your study design, and how much access to direct observation you'll need to meet your objectives. 

How to be a remote user research champion

1. Decide if running your study remote will help you meet your goals/objectives.

First things first: decide if remote user research is a valid option for the particular project. I ask myself the following questions:

  • What am I trying to achieve? What are the project goals?
  • How important is observing the user’s environment? (And do I have the right remote tools to observe those interactions remotely?)
  • Is the target audience comfortable with technology?

Through these questions, I am really trying to narrow down whether or not remote research is an option for this study. Depending on the toolkit I have, and the complexity of the study, there are times when I’ll focus on recruiting for in-person sessions.

2. Decide on your methodology.

Will you be conducting moderated or unmoderated user research? Depending on the complexity of your questions, or tasks, a slightly longer, moderated remote session might be more valuable than unmoderated sessions. 

3. Assemble your toolkit. 

Before jumping into a remote user research session, I make sure you have the tools in place you need to make it successful. In general, you’ll want: 

  • A reliable tool for video conferencing/. At a minimum, it should allow you to record sessions and share screens. Some tools specifically built for remote research will have additional features—like the ability to share stimuli, transcribe automatically, and edit video in-platform. 
  • Many remote research platforms will help you recruit participants (dscout Recruit allows you to submit screeners and handpick “scouts”). But if you’re sourcing your own participants, you’ll want a tool that allows them to digitally sign and confirm consent—like Docusign.
  • If you’re running an unmoderated study—you might want to invest in a more robust remote research tool. It should send participants instructions, facilitate participant communication, outline steps (study “parts”), and records responses. Tools like dscout Diary enable a lot of different unmoderated remote use cases—from shopalongs, to unboxings, to prototype validation, to needs assessments, to in-person experience evals, to persona or journey mapping research
  • If you’re evaluating something digital, you might need a simple tool for testing prototypes, like Invision.
  • Some tools also give you the option to follow-up with users if you have any additional questions for them, and this can be extremely powerful in further understanding the user when evaluating unmoderated research sessions.

    For example, if you run a longitudinal study with dscout Diary, you can easily schedule a follow-up interview with them through Live. If you have a gut-check to validate, or need to probe for more context, scheduling some moderated research can really enrich your study. 
  • Never underestimate the value of a quiet room, so you are able to hear the participant properly.

4. Prepare for the unexpected.

  • No matter how good the technology you’re using is, there’s always a chance for connection errors, delays, or users confusion. Expect this to happen, and do your best not to get frustrated with a participant’s WiFi is weak, or something goes awry.  
  • If you’re unmoderated testing, make sure you write extremely detailed instructions for them. Have colleagues read over the instructions to see if they make sense. Even better, have your friends and family also read them over, as they will generally have the same amount of context as your participants.

5. Be engaged.

  • Make sure to turn on your video is on, the quality is high, and the lighting is okay. It is always nice to see a face, and it makes it much easier for you to convey more subtle emotions. 
  • Whenever on a video, I tend to over exaggerate a bit. For instance, I make my voice louder, smile more, and slow down my speech. Other than that, I typically act as similar as possible as if I was in person.
  • If the connection gets bad, make sure to take a second to repeat what you just said and ask the participant if they have any questions. If you miss what they said, always ask them to repeat themselves. 

6Always use screen sharing so the participant can show instead of just telling.

  • Every single time I conduct remote research, I tell the participant they will be sharing their screen during our session in an email beforehand. I write up instructions on how they will share their screen, and ensure they join the video call with the appropriate platform (desktop or mobile). This enables us both to be as prepared for the session as possible.

7. Have a back-up plan.

  • If something is simply not working on either side of the conversation, make sure you have a back-up plan that you can easily share with the participant. Before I go into a research session, I make sure I have the participants phone number or email so, in the case of issues, I can immediately contact them. 
  • Have another video conferencing system ready and easily accessible, just in case something isn’t working with the original platform. 
  • It’s always helpful to know when it is okay to scrap the call, and try again later. If we simply cannot connect or are not able to hear each other with lag, and enough time goes by, I will reach out to the participant with an option to reschedule. 

8. Test links and settle in before a moderated session.

  • Make sure you test everything beforehand including: links to consent forms, video conferencing or instructions. I have sat in a video conferencing room for 25 minutes waiting for a participant, just to find out she was doing the same in a different room because I sent her the wrong link. 
  • Slightly less related, but it is also beneficial to show up to the call 5-10 minutes early to make sure everything is in working order, and just in case the participant decides to log on earlier.

Overall, remote user research, when well-planned, can be a really great tool for any team—especially if there is a tight budget or deadlines. Although we’d love to be booked full of in-person sessions, remote research can give us reliably great insights when it’s not practical to have participants come into the office. Next time you are thinking about a user research project, I highly recommend you give remote testing a try. 

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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