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Effective Remote Project Management for Experience Researchers: Three Tactics for Impact (& Sanity)

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

When the way we collaborate changes, so must our strategies. That's why we took an end-to-end look at remote project management best practices.

Pre-Kickoff: Set boundaries & determine work habits

Project management in a fully-remote working world requires a bevy of planning and outlining practices. Whether a quick-hit qualitative feedback or a months-long diary study, the physical distance between you and collaborators/stakeholders requires more explicit planning and accommodation-making. "On-the-fly" isn't a recipe for success or a positive experience.

Before meeting with your client, align on team context. Without a shared physical office, we lose intel into folks' routines, preferences for meetings, and work styles. Don't assume that your work style is shared by colleagues (or stakeholders!). Ask:

  • What does your workweek look like? What is it from 1 (low) to 5 (ahh!)?
  • Are there blocked times for the unexpected, the personal (e.g., childcare, a walk), or the alignment?
  • What is the team's work preferences? Who is sharper in the morning, who likes late-night analysis, and who is the time-zone queen?

These questions could be posed (and answered) in a meeting, across an email, in a messaging channel, or with a worksheet (see below). Aligning on these operational, routine, and preference habits aid in a smooth(er) kickoff and alignment across your team. If you're a team of one, asking these questions of your stakeholder or client will show commitment to the project and the quality you hope to deliver in your recommendations.

In-"Field": Adaptability, flexibility, repeat

Research projects generally, and remote projects in particular are subject to unexpected, frequent, and potentially direction-shifting changes. From budget and method changes to scope creep and even PTO, the best plan can fall flat if it's rigid. To build in flexibility, start with the stated goal of the project; stakeholders may change a path's direction, but the end goal may be the same. As things kick off and get running, inventory and interrogate the ways you and your team are working.

Specifically:

  • What is the client's preferred mode of communication; how about the team's? What kinds of information ought we exchange over email, message channel, or video conference?
  • What frequency of meeting best fits the team, the stage of the project, and the tasks needed to progress? Analysis may be heads-down and quiet, while synthesis and share-out preparation noisy, synchronous, and rolling.
  • What level of involvement should the stakeholder/client have? How to weigh that to the work the team must accomplish? Some involvement might engender empathy for the work; it might also lead to never-ending feedback.

As with kickoff, there is no right answer, only more or less clarity, preparedness, and flexibility. What fits your team for project A might not (likely won't) for project B. UXRs are naturally people-oriented, curious individuals who often enjoy a collaborative workshop. Creating a shared calendar that not only tracks a projects status but also clearly outlines work preferences and changes keeps folks focused, supported, and stakeholders informed.

Analysis: Carefully consider synchronicity

Analyzing open-ended, experience or innovation data remotely is rarely a first-choice for UXRs and designers. It's hard to beat the mind-meld that a foam board, some stickies, and a rich dataset produces...but there are lots of close approximations in the research tool space. Many play up real-time synchronous (i.e., at the same time) element of collaboration, which is sometimes appropriate while other times overwhelming. Carefully considering the necessary analysis methods and the temporal frame in which they are more effective will help make the best use of everyone's time and keep to deadlines.

Instead of a laundry list of tools to consider, think about the goal of each analysis activity and match it to the strengths of your team and the appropriate format:

Synchronous is best for:

  • Language-intensive sessions like macro-level comments, framework discovery and iteration, and aligning on messaging
  • When a comment bubble just won't do
  • Idea-firming sessions where several hypotheses and explanations are being tested

Asynchronous is best for:

  • Tactics on design, layout, or format; feedback that can be "OK'd" or checked off by team members
  • Initial perspective gathering using exports like transcripts or cross-tabs
  • Code or theme application and/or data cleaning/culling/preparing

Very often, synchronous analysis session are preferred for their co-presence, which can be helpful when dissecting complex or ambiguous data. This meeting format can be taxing, however, and can impact the effectiveness of folks' ever-narrowing time. Ask these questions before pressing "join" on a video analysis session:

  • What will users be interacting with? Is the tool accessible? How intuitive is it or how familiar will other users be? Will the modertor be driving or will each user have some autonomy?
  • How will ideas be captured and shared? Will this be post-it style? Is there a designated note taker? How can ideas be shared in the moment?
  • What will communication look like? Will it take place via chat? Via breakout groups? Is the group small enough to do a regular video call or will further structure be necessary?

Bonus: Don't forget the rituals

All this planning, scheduling, conferencing is still being done largely without physical co-presence, which is a major reason so many folks get started in the experience research space: the connection. Provide opportunities to share and celebrate work.

Rituals—casual collisions and rituals are something that form organically, over time for teams and we don’t always create the space for them in remote teams—whether that’s because of video call fatigue, stress, awkwardness, or just time. Being intentional in creating rituals helps your team feel united, even if it’s something as simple as sharing building in time to share what everyone is doing for the week or having “office hours” for teammates to bounce idea off of coworkers they don’t get see casually any more.

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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