Doing Global Design Research… from Your Couch

At IDEO, we embrace doing things in person. When it comes to design research, we appreciate interacting with the people we’re studying in their natural environments, like their living rooms or offices. But when a global pandemic halts our ability to move around it’s important we prioritize the health, safety, and comfort of the communities we’re working with while being creative about fulfilling our needs as designers to do great work.

It’s easy to assume remote contact lacks intimacy, but today’s digital tools make a strong sense of connection possible even when physical proximity is not. In some cases, remote research can lead to better outcomes than in person research could have. Before I started my job at IDEO, I worked on a team that was about 50% remote workers. We held user research sessions, collaborative brainstorms, and even group celebrations from thousands of miles apart — and it worked. It made me a believer in the power of digital tools and remote work, and it taught me that human-centered research can be done via a screen.

Here are three things to consider when you’re planning for a digital research excursion in order to inform your design process.

A woman lounges along her couch with her laptop propped up on the arm of the couch. She is browsing on the laptop.
Illustration by Max Lackner

Geography might not be the most important part of your research plan

A global perspective is usually helpful when tackling large-scale problems. But depending on your questions, relying on geography to provide different perspectives may not always be the most effective approach.

As you plan your research, think critically about the range of perspectives you actually need. For example, if you’re studying the habits and needs of fishmongers all over the world, is it important to find research participants from a specific set of countries? Or is it more important to understand their needs in relation to the bodies of water they’re fishing in? If so, maybe you don’t need to travel to country after country — instead, you can reach out to a community of folks that congregate on a message board, or get in touch with a trade group that supports the people you need to talk to.

If you’re studying the way people interact with a digital interface that’s built in English, do you need to test the interface with someone in Korea, Japan, and China? Or do you actually need to talk to a person who speaks a language with non-Roman characters to understand how the translation affects your design? In that case, you might be able to have a video call with one person instead of separate trips to meet three.

Geography is a series of lines drawn in the sand. When global travel isn’t an option, challenge yourself to think about the impact of culture and geography differently. In the end, you may end up uncovering connections across people and cultures you wouldn’t have expected to find.

Rich stories can be told remotely

Storytelling is a huge part of design research. It’s our job to plan and facilitate experiences that allow designers to do the best work they can, and effectively share the stories of the folks who inspired that work. While we plan our research, we need to ask ourselves: In what form should we share stories with our teams and clients? What artifacts do we need to communicate stories effectively? When research is remote, those questions become even more important.

I’ve seen how effective in-person research is; intimate, personal stories are a great way to affect the hearts and minds of an audience. In order for our remote research to have that same impact, our tools need to capture glimpses of people’s lives in the same intimate way. While photos, notes, or audio clips might feel like an afterthought during a home visit, prioritizing media is key for remote research.

Ask folks for photos — of their homes, their most prized possessions, their pets. Have participants keep written or visual diaries. You could even build a digital exploration by collecting public social media posts.

Illustration by Max Lackner

Most importantly: However you approach collecting artifacts, make sure you have the express consent of your participants. Folks should know where and how their photos, videos, and stories will be used.

In order to collect these types of artifacts, you often have to pick the right research method — and there might not be just one method to capture everything you need. One pro of conducting digital research is that it’s much easier to be iterative. Try launching a survey tool with three to five participants to see what sort of responses you get. Then edit your questions — or maybe, based on what you learn, choose a new tool — in order to optimize for your goals.

Intimacy, rapport, and trust can’t — and don’t need to — be sacrificed

There’s a way researchers build trust with participants in person — eye contact, handshakes, nods — but what happens when we can’t share the same space? In place of face-to face-rapport, remote research must actively prioritize the physical and intellectual safety of participants. Establishing trust needs to be just as intentional when you’re working remotely. Ask yourself, “In what situation will someone feel comfortable speaking with me about this topic?”

Illustration by Max Lackner

When scheduling video interviews, build in extra time to get to know participants. Spend 20 minutes on the basics — introduce yourself and get to know the participant as a person. Asking about what music someone listens to, what they had for lunch, or what they’re currently seeing out their window can go a long way.

When planning your interview, consider that you may not need to do the interview with your entire project team. It can be intimidating to have a panel of near-strangers staring back at you from a screen. Instead, think about including a few light-touch interviews over time to build a consistent connection.

It’s also necessary to acknowledge that not every research participant will feel comfortable sharing information digitally. For example, while we often speak frankly about political beliefs or sexual orientation in the United States, sharing these perspectives could threaten research participants in other countries.

Not all people will feel comfortable having a research team show up to their place of work to learn what it’s like to be an employee in a certain type of career. But by empowering a research participant to take and submit photos from the best parts of their workday, we allow participants to capture moments that they feel are important, and allow them to exercise their best judgement about what information is okay to share with others.

Design researchers have a special super power: the ability to bring real people and their points of view into the design process in an authentic, three-dimensional way. As our ability to jump on a plane changes, our ability to get to the heart of people and their stories remains unwavering. Use these considerations to help guide your research projects so you can reach more people and create a stronger connection than you thought possible — even if it’s happening via a screen.

Design Researcher at IDEO San Francisco. M.Sc. from MIT focusing on the future of people, media, and technology. Cheez-It connoisseur.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store