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Designing Remote Qual Studies To Capture Rich Contextual Data

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Context colors the moments that tell your user's story; it's the texture behind those challenging "Why" and "How" questions that can be hard to feel through traditional research methods.

Traditionally, researchers use in-person guided methods or surveys in an attempt to answer these "Whys" and "Hows," ensuring the conversation gets to the root of what’s important for their research goals.

But for companies managing their research through agile sprint cycles or with limited research budgets, fieldwork is all too often a luxury that’s an infrequent option at best.

Enter the smartphone, your pocket field researcher. It’s ubiquitous to and comfortable for research participants, helping you capture the context that was once thought to be impossible. With a high-quality camera in their pockets that’s accessible at the spur of the moment—and a level of comfort and candor with mobile devices that’s difficult to establish with another person—participants are equipped to provide more qualitative data than ever before.

But leveraging the smartphone requires new considerations to unlock its full potential. Designing for this new remote interview modality takes more than loading your normal interview questions into a new tool. Unlike surveys, researchers collect live-at-the-time entries from everyday moments, and there often are several submissions over a span of minutes, days, weeks or months. Unlike the interview format, there’s no way to redirect a participant in the moment—meaning the researcher must plan in advance how to prompt the participant to provide the right kind of data on the first take.

As early evangelists of mobile research who have worked on thousands of remote qual projects, we’ve arrived at a series of best practices for designing these studies.

The top four considerations we recommend working through are using active language, properly leveraging triggers, setting the right frequency, and calibrating your aperture. Together, they ensure the on-time collection of robust, thick, and easy-to-digest contextual data.

Let’s elaborate on what you should be thinking about within each consideration:

Getting into a “show me” state of mind using active language

When using face-to-face contextual methods such as in-person interviews and focus groups, the participants are asked to "Tell" the researchers things or "Talk about" subjects. Seasoned researchers will pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues as participants are asked questions. Are they wincing or nervously tapping? Are they responding immediately, or is there a long pause? These and other tells could indicate that a question needs to be rephrased, reframed or skipped.

With remote research, the distance between participant and researcher necessitates more careful consideration of the language used. A user can provide a rich view into their lived experience via an entry on their cellphone. But from prompts through instructions with the separation between parties, "Tell me" just won't cut it; remote research demands active rather than passive language.

Instead, you’ll want to use language that is experientially grounded, like "Show me...," "Document your...," and "Capture a...." You want participants leaning into their answer—they need to feel that they have the space to take you and your team along.

Compare these questions:

  • Tell me about a time a service provider let you down.
  • Show me moments when you receive bad news from a service provider.

The second is better calibrated for remote insights than the first: It helps fight biases like recall and desirability by situating the question as close as possible to the moment of interest.

Participants show and document their bad news moments as they happen, as opposed to recalling them. It also focuses the participant on that moment or experience, allowing you to unearth ephemeral but vital aspects of the situation—the context that shapes perceptions, attitudes, and choices (e.g., "How often does this provider communicate bad news?" and "If given the choice, in what way would you prefer to receive this bad news?”).

Furthermore, active language encourages participants to stand up, walk around, point the camera out, and pull in context, getting you richer data. Participants can document steps in their research process, capture stops along a tour of their home, or show sketches of their ideal version of a product. This isn’t just a survey, after all. With active language in your research prompts, you’ll fully take advantage of this key benefit of remote qualitative research.

While active language is essential to targeted data collection, participants also will need to know when it’s the right moment to capture and document an experience.

Prompting a response with well-designed “triggers”

If active language helps get the "What?" of contextual research design, triggers are the "When?" Triggers are the mental cues that alert scouts to the right kind of experience, activity or state of mind to capture for the study. Often tied to a time of day, behavior, or location, they’re intended to prime your participants so they’re on the lookout for the right moments.

Traditional contextual research delivers co-presence; with it, researchers know what they’re looking for and can prompt participants when they see an action or behavior they want a participant to explain. Remote contextual research, by design, puts researchers at a distance—participants need to know when to use their phones to capture and document an experience that researchers are interested in. This requires a mindset change for researchers, who need to consider how to prompt people to provide necessary responses instead of evoking it in conversation.

In the simplest form, triggers are created by adding a "When..." to your activity's description. However, triggers can be nuanced depending on the research interests of your organization.

Triggers can be specific and granular or high-altitude and expansive, as seen in these examples:

  • Product usage triggers ask participants to focus on their interactions with a specific product, service, or category of products. For example, "...when you're using the Uber app."
  • Behavioral triggers are grounded in a specific action, such as "...when you need to get somewhere quickly."
  • Location triggers ask participants to document experiences in specific places, e.g. "...when you're leaving work."
  • Cognitive triggers focus on the intuitions, perceptions, and attitudes of participants, such as "...when you're thinking about privacy."
  • Emotional triggers rely on how participants are feeling in specific moments, e.g. "...when you're feeling rushed or hurried."

The combination of active language with triggers creates the prompts that participants will use to gather the context you crave. Active language grounds the data in the experiences of interest, while triggers provide guardrails and prime participants to know when the moment is just right.

Dialing in the right frequency

Triggers also can be either immediate or exploratory. Some questions require a single, immediate response to get the right input. For others, the participant is asked to go and do a specific activity to answer the question, or wait for an experience or event to occur in the flow of everyday life and then document it. These exploratory instances are best observed through remote research, because researchers can have participants show them the moment—instead of telling them about moments in retrospect.

This raises the question, do you want a conversation or a collection? The answer will shift the manner in which your questions are designed. Remote contextual platforms are robust enough to handle either (or both!).

Conversation: Participants respond to questions once

When targeting a conversation-based input, participants answer questions worded similarly to a survey questionnaire—soliciting a single output. For example, here’s a conversation-based frame for remote research that examines how people plan trips:

  1. Describe your travel superpower.
  2. How often do you use it when planning for travel (Never to Always)?
  3. In a 30-second video, describe how you acquired your superpower.

Here, the questions are phrased in a manner that suggests a one-time answer. Ostensibly, a participant only has one "superpower" for travel. If your research challenge calls for an interview replacement tool, thinking about your questions like a conversation is the way to go.

Collection: Participants answer questions repeatedly

Many remote contextual platforms, including dscout Diary, shine when used like a diary, where participants submit multiple moments of interest to you and your organization. Whether steps in a process, items in an inventory, stops on a tour, or entries in a diary, thinking of your contextual research activity like a collection grows input volume, offers a longitudinal perspective, and increases the reliability of the data.

The trick to structuring your questions so you can capture a collection of moments is to keep them open-ended. This means more than simply text boxes; questions should be worded in ways that make them applicable to the variety of environments, experiences, and things participants might document.

The importance of matching your active language and trigger to the research goal is most evident in a collection or diary-style frequency. Here is how the "travel superpower" question might look when expanded into a collection:

  • In a sentence, what goal are you trying to achieve with your travel superpower?
  • In a 30-second video, take us to the scene—show us how you are using your superpower to meet this goal?
  • How often do you use your superpower for this goal (Never to Always)?

Here, the questions are open enough to apply to just about any travel-related moment, from deal-hunting to checking in. With several responses per participant, you'll be able to track how a subject uses their “power” over the course of a family vacation, identifying what kind of superhero traveler they might be.
The final design consideration asks for the study boundaries—what actually should be included in your conversation or collection? This is known as the study's aperture.

Setting the right aperture for your research lens

The open nature of remote contextual platforms like dscout requires consideration about what will and will not be collected. The power of the smartphone offers unprecedented access to participants' lives, but you’ll overwhelm your participants if you don’t put boundaries around what you want them to capture.

The aperture sets the boundary conditions for your study. Just as when a participant veers off an interview topic and a researcher corrects course, so too does the aperture maintain the frame for a study.

Apertures can be very wide or very narrow. Compare these prompts:

  • Show me moments when you're feeling productive.
  • Try out our to-do list app for a week, showing me moments when the app works really well or really poorly.

Neither is better than the other; what's important is to be mindful and strategic with one's aperture.

For foundational studies, you’ll typically use a wide aperture. To allow organic and novel moments to be shared, give participants more control over what they show you and the range of what you can learn. For example, how do participants define productivity? What do moments of productivity look like? Product and design teams might have a specific vision for their next iteration, but letting scouts decide what's important, meaningful, and worthwhile to show can uncover entirely new possibilities and directions for a product.

You’ll typically use a narrow aperture for generative or evaluative studies, when you’ve already determined what's important and want to learn more about very specific activities. If investigating a to-do list app, a narrow aperture would ask participants to download, try, and record high and low moments with the app for a week. But even in these cases, try to ask questions in a way that allows participants to enlighten you and broaden your perspective with more context from their lived experience.

How to Get Started

To begin applying these considerations, combine the questions in a contextual research statement:

"Over the next [duration], I want [who] to [active language] [frequency] moments when [trigger].”

This statement will ground and focus your team, and help you frame the study so participants know exactly what you expect from them. After you have a rough draft of your contextual research statement, move to the things you'd like to know—the things you want them to SHOW you.

Here’s how this could look for a study on voice-connectedness and voice assistance:

To get you started with your own contextual research statements, we created a worksheet for building statements and designing projects that you can download here. Print out several of these and start brainstorming project ideas, keeping in mind our four design considerations:

  • Use active language: Extend your vision with the camera in participants' pockets, using "show me" prompts.
  • Trigger your participants: Prime your participants to capture the right moment.
  • Capture multiple moments: Gather the conversational data you need but leverage multiple moments for richer insights and context.
  • Set your aperture: Ask questions that encourage participants to open your eyes to their context—and the new insights that can provide.

Together, these considerations should help you and your team collect more impactful, empathy-building contextual research from the comfort of participants’ phones, to arm you with the insights needed to improve, iterate, and grow.

Ready to start building research in the dscout platform? Sign up for a free account.

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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