Posted by AnswerLab Research on Jul 9, 2020 7:06:00 AM

Remote research is on everyone’s minds’ right now as we continue to connect with customers safely during this time. Conducting research remotely ensures you keep uncovering insights to create products that succeed and comes with the added benefit of reaching customers in context.

There are a number of research methods that some teams assume are only possible when conducted in-person, including participatory design, ethnography, or any research with complex prototypes and devices. With some creativity, advances in technology, and a few adjustments to your moderation techniques, many of these methodologies are easily adapted remotely. We’re committed to remote research for the long haul, and it’s important to continue digging into complex methods in a year where digital experiences are more important than ever.

We’ve fine-tuned ways to keep successfully delivering impactful research to teams even when they seem too complex for remote methods. We asked our team about some of the methods that present the biggest challenges and their tips for making them run smoothly.

Meet up in VR

AR/VR research is typically done in-person due to device constraints. But one innovative way to gather insights remotely is to actually use the communication channels available in the device to conduct the session. This could mean meeting up with participants in VR for the session, which also has the benefit of allowing participants to express their feedback with the abilities and in the context of the actual experience. By joining the participant in the VR experience, the researcher gets added perspective as well as they experience the device together. In some cases, it’s also possible to have the participant share their in-device perspective with the moderator during a remote session via screen share. This method varies by device and product, but can be a great way of showing the experience and their interactions visually, rather than exclusively through verbal communication and feedback.

Swap in a virtual “red pen” to co-create together

Participatory design elevates participants to active designers and helps test concepts at all levels of fidelity, while inspiring new ideas as well. This kind of collaboration is typically very tactile, using sticky notes, markers, and pieces of paper to help facilitate the session. However, with advances in technology and tools built for online collaboration, we find it can be just as feasible to co-create remotely.

When you want to understand what participants don’t like about your existing concept, we’ll often give them a red pen and have them cross out whatever does not resonate with them. The researcher then guides the participant to explain their rationale, delving into their underlying needs and exploring what they might prefer instead. In some virtual collaboration tools, like Mural, for example, a virtual “red pen” can seamlessly substitute for a physical one, allowing the participant to mark up the concept and draw on the screen. 

Starting from scratch gives participants the opportunity to illustrate on a blank page how their ideal experience would look, function, and make them feel using a combination of words, images and sketches. While you can do this in-person using physical pen and paper, you can also do it virtually. For example, if you’re working to design a new app, we might ask participants to depict their perfect home page and key features using a virtual tool built specifically for conceptualization - or even using a familiar software like PowerPoint or Google Slides.

Improve observation and connection in group settings

Focus groups can be used to evaluate concepts and get valuable feedback on products, experiences, or messaging. The large group setting allows participants to build on each other’s ideas, spark new ideas and opinions through diverse conversation, and can provide a lot of rich data in a short amount of time. Focus groups often help you understand the most prevalent and unique use cases, wants, and needs. With video conferencing platforms, participants can easily contribute as they would in the lab, but from the comfort of their own home or office.

Try paying extra attention to participants’ reactions and interactions as you won’t have the same energy as if you were in person. Participants’ facial expressions, body language, and interactions with each other can be captured using webcam videos. In many video conferencing platforms, there are multiple options for views (gallery view, highlighting the speaker, etc.). Experiment with which view works best to properly observe the full group and glean these important interactions and expressions during the session.

With video conference in a group setting, sometimes it’s harder for each person to share their opinions. As the moderator, it’s your job to ensure each person gets the opportunity to talk. It’s trickier to jump in and build on others’ comments over video, so additional probing and facilitation is key. Sometimes this means having fewer people per group and slightly more time than you would in person. Tasks, creative exercises, and poll questions can also effectively be used within the video conferencing platform to gather data in a remote focus group.

Develop ways to observe participants in context

Exploratory research is often conducted in-person to give researchers a glimpse into the participant’s experience in context, in their home environment, for example. In-homes are hard to replicate remotely, but can be done with a few tweaks to your approach. To understand the environmental aspects, take a tour! Participants can use their smartphone to give a virtual tour of their home or workspace during a session, introducing and explaining each area as if they were giving a tour of their own museum. This helps the researcher get a glimpse inside the participants’ environment in a guided way, and hopefully, helps the participant start conversation in the process. You can also assign homework, like creating a collage or building a timeline, to help spark conversation and get participants in the right mindset for the session. Read more of our tips on remote exploratory research.

Conducting research remotely for the first time? Download our Guide to Remote Research for more tips and strategies.

Topics: Research, Remote Research