Remote User Research: Being there when you’re not there

Remote User Research: Being there when you’re not there

As researchers, we value our face-to-face contact and encourage fellow researchers to conduct in-person user research as much as possible. It helps us build rapport, read users body language and for those of us that love to be surrounded by people, it’s a chance to meet and get to know our users!

However, things have changed, and so have our ways of working. So how do we conduct effective research when everything is done remotely? How can we read how people feel without looking at them? How can we break the ice when we can’t shake hands?

If you’ve asked yourself some of these questions, you’re not alone! We’ve faced these challenges and have realised that your emotional intelligence and soft skills are going to help you more than you might have imagined.

In this article, you’ll find five tips to help you get the most out of your remote research sessions by mastering your soft skills.

Adapt to your participants’ needs

Chances are, your participant is new to our world of information sheets and consent forms. But they might also be unfamiliar with the technology we’re using and what’s expected of them. As researchers, we should be flexible to the individual needs of the participant.

Try learning more about participants within your recruitment process by asking a few questions. Anticipate common problems like connectivity issues by asking them to rate their internet connection or their experience with the tools you’ll use. Learning about these things from the start lets you adapt your communication with them. If they don’t have much experience, suggest a five-minute call to test the technology. It’s also important that the participant sees you as approachable, otherwise, it might be difficult for them to reach out when they need help or support.

Be flexible and accommodate their needs – make it clear that you’re available to answer questions at any time.

Build rapport

We want every participant to have a positive experience. It’s part of our ethical responsibility as researchers. Making sure they feel comfortable plays a big role in this. It also gives us better data. Participants are more likely to be open and honest if they feel confident and comfortable.

A huge advantage of face-to-face research is that we can read body language and facial cues. We can interpret and adapt based on what we see. Of course, remote tools present some challenges to building rapport. With little or no body language to read, it can be difficult to connect.

Try taking additional time to break the ice at the start of a session. Although time is of the essence, those extra minutes will help ease the mood, avoid awkwardness and build trust. But rapport doesn’t end at the introduction. If there are breaks between tasks or natural stopping points, then use the time to check in with the participant and see how they’re doing.

Be considerate

When working from home, especially during Covid-19, the chances of being a facilitator or participant to be home-schooling or expecting a parcel are high, as now two worlds have merged into one. If that’s the case, be patient as we cannot avoid a doorbell ringing or a young kid looking for their parents' attention from time to time.

At the beginning of the session, let the participant know that interruptions are understandable and make sure to reiterate it throughout the session whenever is needed.

Be mindful that you’re a guest in someone’s home. As such, be patient and considerate in the participant’s space and anticipate that it won’t always be a quiet, undisturbed environment. They might have a TV on in the background or be working from the comfort of their sofas. Bear in mind that we don’t know what they are going through, and it is important that they always feel relaxed. Little suggestions such as giving them time to grab a snack or a notebook if needed for your session, will be helpful.

Remote research can be intimidating

You have your research planned and you’re ready to go. You brought your brief, some notes, and even a script with a list of tasks or questions. As a researcher, there are lots of things to consider while researching because you want to get the best data in a limited timeframe. However, if it’s stressful for you, it might be even more stressful for the participant. Make sure you set the expectations beforehand: what do you hope to get out of this session? How you are going to use the data? What do you need from them?

Empathy shouldn’t just be about the topic you are researching but also be shown in regard to the proceedings themselves. They might be slow, they might struggle or not know what to say. Be reassuring. All feedback is good feedback. It’s ok not to have the answer and an “I don’t know” can still be helpful. And be mindful of your actions too. If you’re typing up notes whilst the participant is speaking, make sure you let them know, as they might think you’re distracted.

Reassure participants they will have all of your attention. Using a few encouraging words will help express your empathy and understanding.

Practice the art of facilitation

If you’re running a session with multiple participants, it can be hard to accommodate everyone. Keep in mind the different personalities of your audience. We all express ourselves differently, and some people take longer than others to collect their thoughts before speaking. It can be hard for participants to articulate their thoughts in lively group discussions. To tackle this, think of other ways people can express their thoughts without speaking. Tools like Miro and MURAL can be useful for those that feel more comfortable drawing or writing, rather than talking. Try asking participants to note down their thoughts on digital post-its rather than expressing them verbally.

Pay close attention to how much each participant is engaging in group conversations – remote research makes it easy for participants to shy away from conversations. We must be mindful of what they are comfortable with, but some gentle encouragement can often help a participant to bring forward their thoughts and join the conversation.

It can be as simple as asking a simple question directly, like ‘Do you agree?’. But of course, be careful not to push people to talk if they’re uncomfortable doing so.

Conducting user research is hard, let alone doing it remotely. We need to hone our soft skills if we want to get rich and reliable data while providing a positive user experience. Mastering soft skills won’t make the challenges and technical barriers go away. However, we believe that the constraints and nuances of remote research can be used to our advantage to reinvent ourselves as researchers and reconnect with users in ways we had never imagined before.