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5 Key Tactics for Productive Remote Research Collaboration

The transition to work from home creates challenges—as well as opportunities. Here are five ways to help your team keep up the work remotely. 

Recapped by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

The Studio—an innovation lab within dscout—knows a thing or two about collaboration.

Pre-COVID, Stefani Bachetti's team would often surround itself with foam boards, deck slides, cross-tab print outs, and stickies. Lots, and lots (and lots) of stickies. Truly impactful research comes from the steeping, immersive methods leveraged by The Studio...most of which were conducted in-person.

With the transition to remote work (and collaboration) here are some ways Stefani and her team are conducting rigorous contextual analysis remotely, and some tips for staying sharp as you work from home.

Bring the office in

Many of us are most efficient—especially in analysis and collaboration—when we have the right tools. Research on cognitive schema suggests that humans are primed to behave in particular ways when environments trigger or prime such a response.

Our offices, packed with colleagues, spaces, and tools ready to support us, need to be translated to our homes. As such, Stefani suggests her team specify a space in their homes for research work, specifically analysis and synthesis. Moreover, that space should have the tools for making such work possible.

Consistency is the key here. Knowing that in this space work of a particular kind "gets done" helps smooth the transition from work-work to home-work. The Studio researchers can make their distributed work setups feel more like the productivity-boosting spaces they're used to with this mirroring (it's hard enough to conduct "How might we?" sessions over the phone!).

Digital and analog

As that mirroring would suggest, The Studio pairs analog analysis methods, like storyboarding deck slides or clustering on walls, with the digital tools they're using to stay synchronous and coordinated.

The brain works through mixed methodological data—a go-to for The Studio—best when it has mixed modalities to sift through, and this means physical artifacts. Writing, posting, arranging, linking, and the physical acts of analysis helps our brain stay grounded in the data, leading to sharper, more accurate conclusions.

With all day remote meetings, bringing some physicality of analysis to collaboration check-ins keeps The Studio's methods similar, even while at home. In simpler terms, many times it's just easier to show than tell, and that means holding up papers, printouts, even photos to work through complex, rich data sets.

There are times where screens are shared and typing is simultaneous (more on that in a minute), but for the early, formative analyses, wherein frameworks are still solidifying, finding ways to mix modes keeps sharpness and fights the malaise that staring at a screen can produce.

Tech stack analysis

Stefani's team was already using a wealth of digital tools that, post-COVID, became more important. Think G-Suite, Zoom/Hangouts, Slack/Teams, a CRM, Trello, and on. Smooth distributed collaboration requires alignment on how, when, and why to use each of these platforms: When is a communication with a client and email? When is it a comment in a doc? Are all meetings video?

In addition to thinking more fully about the existing tools her teams were using, Stefani added a few to augment their in-person collaboration: A digital whiteboard like Miro lets her team start clustering, theme generation, and even storyboarding—all at the same time. When paired with a video meeting simultaneously, it gets close(er) to the shoulder-to-shoulder co-analysis that The Studio is known for.

There's no "right" answer, but there are answers that better align to the kinds of data and information communicated, the work style of one's team, and the expectations of a stakeholder or customer. The only wrong answer is not thinking about this—Stefani recommends holding a series of quick syncs to outline preferences, scan capabilities documents, and just make some selections. The best digital tool is the one you'll use, so it might just be a matter of picking a few and sticking with them.

Weave stakeholders in

Remote shareouts lose their punch if they're just like any other virtual meeting. To fight monotony, Stefani's team has worked diligently to weave stakeholders into more of the analysis, collaboration, and early-shareout process.

One example involves early readouts of major data themes and the invitation of prioritization from stakeholders. They’d ask for gut-reactions and feedback on where they might want The Studio to dig more deeply.

To make this happen, she groups stakeholders, assigns each group a color, and asks them to scan the to-level findings, marking what they'd like to share with the wider group. Everyone works and marks up the same slide deck increasing visibility and showing cross-team interest points. Her team is better-aligned on stakeholders curiosities, and the customers feel more in control and engaged with the work (it also has the secondary benefit of bringing empathy to the process that is qualitative experience research).

To keep everything guardrails, she inserts agenda update slides into the share out decks with timing expectations. This way, everyone is playing by the same "rules'' and knows what to expect; someone from The Studio team facilitates the sessions or one person checks on several to keep things moving. At the final readout, customers are more engaged and can better actionize the insights, leading to lasting change and effects.

Extra considerations for participants

Stefani also stressed the importance of staying flexible in participant expectations to adapt to a fully-remote world.

Customers and users that comprise the heartbeat of "user" research are also facing unprecedented uncertainty. Some are looking for ways to earn extra money and are therefore more motivated to be study participants, while others are in the "stop everything" and focus on only the essentials mindset. This can impact interview schedules, survey completion, and time-in-field for methods like journey mapping or persona diary studies (often in the toolkit for The Studio).

Clear expectation setting with stakeholders is important, especially with regards to when data can come in. Depth is paramount with many qualitative or mixed-methodological studies, and when timing is disrupted, staying open, positive, and accommodating goes a long way toward ensuring high-quality, strategy-setting data. Stefani advises building in padding for each and every stage of the research process, from recruitment through analysis. Staying flexible will help ensure a strong number of completes; it will also reinforce a collaborative research ethos, which is important now more than ever.

UXRs' distributed reality poses several challenges, but also opportunities. The speed of innovation in the digital tool and tech stack world has created a wealth of options for UXRs looking to maintain rigor and output at a distance. Staying flexible, over-communicating, and building in adequate time for analysis (knowing it's likely to take longer) are ways to keep your collaborators, stakeholders, and users happy in this time of fraughtness and anxiety.

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.

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