How American Express Kept Rapid UX Research on Track with a Remote Backroom

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Aug 14, 2020


Rapid UX research at American Express

This week, we hosted a webinar with UX leaders from American Express to hear how they pivoted their in-person research program to entirely remote methods this spring. The team's quick shift has ensured they keep a pulse on how their customers' needs are evolving in the current environment and create digital experiences to meet them.

To hear about their move to remote research, watch the full webinar below in conversation with Evan English, Vice President of Product Design & Research, and Dana Chrisfield, Director of UX Research, at American Express.


Before the pandemic, American Express had an established biweekly research program in partnership with AnswerLab called Rapid Labs to support the needs of multiple product teams. Previously run in-person in New York, product and design teams observed from another room to watch customers interact with design concepts and debriefed findings in between each session, ensuring they walked away with a clear and aligned view of next steps.

This spring, as we all shifted to remote work, they needed to find a way to replicate this experience remotely. This challenge also came at a time when several new hires joined their team. Figuring out this new way of working created a unique bonding experience and empowered them to work together as a new team. With customer needs evolving at a rapid pace, keeping their user testing program running smoothly has been crucial in finding the best ways to support customers digitally in a changing landscape.

Successful remote research takeaways

Research begins days before your sessions.

To ensure research is a success, you have to put in the prep work. Dana spoke about the need to help product teams understand what they want to learn from users early on, so her team can decide the best method to answer those questions. In the week leading up to research, they capture assumptions from product and design teams of what they expect to learn from research and how they think participants will react during sessions.

Articulating your assumptions encourages you to think deeply about what your expectations are and, ultimately, frees up space for you to learn new things. During sessions, you can reflect on how those assumptions fared and then use them as a framework for your debriefs.

Thoughtfully designed virtual collaboration can exceed in-person engagement.

While their team was worried about missing the in-person participant experience, their primary concern was losing the magic of the observation room. The debriefs and in-person conversations that happened during research played a critical role for stakeholders.

Without a physical back room, there’s obviously more logistical set-up. Their teams now observe and debrief over video. A dedicated Slack channel allows observers to capture notes, research updates, findings, and other commentary. Their team also uses a whiteboarding tool to add observations using virtual sticky notes in real-time during sessions.

What American Express discovered is that they not only replicated backroom interactions remotely; they improved them. The dedicated Slack channel keeps an active log of all notes and conversations for those who can’t join every session, unlike the transience of in-person communication. People don’t have to take separate notesit’s all up there on the whiteboard for easy, real-time viewing. And while there are always people who are more talkative or shyer in the actual backroom, they found that video tends to equalize this dynamic. It’s easier to ensure everyone gets a chance to talk in debrief sessions over video with some intentional moderation techniques.

Articulate your team’s needs before jumping into a tool.

We heard a lot of questions from webinar attendees about which tools are the best for creating a successful virtual backroom. But first, take a step back to identify your team’s needs. What collaboration methods did you use during in-person observation? Do you need a virtual whiteboard, or would a chat room work as well? Is it essential that you’re completely invisible to your participants while observing? What is your primary need? Start there and investigate potential tools accordingly.

Talking with participants at home offers more honest interactions.

A benefit of remote research is you’re speaking with participants in their natural home environments. They’re in a more comfortable space, and we see the impact of that in sessions. Dana noted that, at home, participants tend to be less performative than in the lab environment. Having greater comfort gives a more honest and natural interaction. And, you'll benefit from seeing customers interact with your products in the context of their typical environment.

Learn more about American Express’ UX research journey or download our Guide to Remote Research for more strategies on up-leveling your remote research practice. 

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AnswerLab Research

The AnswerLab research team collaborates on articles to bring you the latest UX trends and best practices.

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