The Who, What, Why, and How: Uncovering Foundational Insights with Remote Exploratory Research

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Jun 23, 2020

When you need to uncover big picture insights about your users and their needs, you need exploratory research. Customer circumstances are constantly evolving, especially now, and it’s important to stay connected to what your customers need to remain competitive. It’s not enough to only focus on evaluating the usability and function of your product or service. You also need to take a step back to uncover user problems you may not know about, identify opportunities for differentiation, keep up with the ever-changing digital landscape, and ultimately, make a bigger impact.

There’s always an eagerness to lead with technological capabilities or business goals. Many product teams think if they have the capacity to create something and it achieves their business goals, it’s worth investing in. But if you don’t understand its desirability and practicality for your customers, you may end up wasting time, motivation, and resources developing something that won’t succeed.

What is exploratory research?

Exploratory research drives innovation by leading with user’s mental models, behaviors, unmet needs, and road blocks. Also known as generative, foundational, or discovery research, these methodologies facilitate a holistic, empathy-first understanding of current and prospective users - who they are, what they believe, how they behave, and why they think, feel, and act the way they do.

Traditional evaluative research, like usability studies, assesses how well your goods and services meet the user needs you already know of and determine the ease at which they interact with your experience. In contrast, generative research helps generate new ideas by deeply understanding high level questions about your users. It lets you think beyond the product, prototype, or experience to gain big-picture feedback and uncover product opportunities.

Exploratory research can be done using a wide variety of methodologies, including:

  • In depth one-on-one interviews dive into big questions one-on-one with your customers. This format allows for open conversations to explore various topics.
  • Ethnographies enable the researcher to observe customers in their natural environments. Typically, you would spend 2-4 hours in context at home, work, or in their natural environment, picking up contextual behaviors and habits. (We’ll share some tips for how to accomplish these remotely later on.)
  • Diary studies can also be used to dig into big picture questions with prompts for your customers to answer from their own environment over a period of time. 
  • Contextual inquiry is similar to a diary study, but instead the researcher asks the participant a set of standard questions at the beginning and then observes behaviors in their natural environment. You may even ask the participant to observe and record data based on their habits, things they witness, or what they do in different environments. 
  • Concept testing can be used as a part of exploratory research, but this lies on the edge of what exploratory research entails. We find that once you’ve uncovered foundational insights from one of the methodologies above, concept testing can be used to ensure your ideas will actually deliver on and meet the needs you’ve discovered in earlier phases. In combination with another methodology, concept testing can help you make sure your next steps are on the right track.

How do I conduct generative research remotely?

While some exploratory methods are best conducted in person, others benefit from a remote approach, allowing people to participate easily from the comfort of their own homes. With the help of a number of technology platforms and options, participants can give researchers a real glimpse into their worlds without even stepping into the same room.

Conducting generative research remotely is ideal anytime you’re researching something that exists within the digital landscape. If you’re trying to understand how your customers interact with apps on their phone or use products and services online in their day to day, having these conversations remotely via screen share can be a great way to capture information. In person, you’d be looking over their shoulder at their computer or phone screen the entire time anyway. However, anything that relies on understanding how people interact with a physical environment can be more challenging when done remotely.

When it comes to remote exploratory research, there are a few approaches we recommend to ensure effective and impactful research:

Find ways to build rapport

One challenging aspect of conducting exploratory research remotely is building rapport over video. People are more comfortable giving feedback on targeted questions about a product in a usability test than talking about their lived experiences. When you’re diving into exploratory questions, make sure you’ve taken the time to properly introduce yourself and build some trust.

Ideally, you build rapport with your participants prior to diving into the research questions. In-person, this usually takes the form of introductions as they welcome you into their home. When conducting research remotely, you need to consider how you’ll build that rapport and replicate that small talk in a remote environment. Try introducing yourself via an email to the participant a few days before the study or prepare some questions to break the ice at the beginning of the video call. You might also include a diary study prior to one-on-one conversations to help get the conversation moving. As a moderator, you can type responses to their entries to build some rapport and familiarity ahead of time. 

Take a layered approach to uncovering insights

When you really want to get to know your users, we recommend a three-pronged approach: a survey to learn more about who is using (and not using!) your product or service, a diary study to assess how, when, and where your service comes into play, and last, in-depth interviews to explore the why behind these choices. This “trifecta” approach can be conducted entirely remotely and sets you up to understand your users and their needs deeply. Each method builds upon and expands the insights and findings from the previous one.

Assign homework

For remote exploratory IDIs, homework can help prepare participants for the session and spark meaningful conversation. For example, if you want to understand what they would consider an ideal-state, you might ask participants to create a collage or drawing that symbolizes and encapsulates their perfect experience with a service like yours. If you want to know about their background, you could ask them to create a timeline of key moments in their lives or bring photos that help spark specific memories. These activities get participants in the right mindset for the session and give the moderator concrete ways to dig into the participant’s opinions. There are countless types of homework or pre-session assignments you can use within your study, so think critically about what would help you spark conversation and try it out.

Take a tour

Some exploratory studies require the researcher to interview the participant from within their own home to witness their environment, build trust, and observe behaviors in context outside the lab. While we’re conducting research exclusively remotely, the environmental parts of in-home visits aren’t as easily replicated. Building in a tour can help - 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.

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

Written by

AnswerLab Research

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

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