Remote Design Research & Synthesis

How we’ve modified our holistic, human-centered design processes through a digital lens during COVID-19.

Samantha Schak
Mar 31, 2020 · 5 min read
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As a holistic experience design agency, our day-to-day work is predicated on building genuine connections with the people. Client kick-offs, in-field user interviews, workshops, and research synthesis are often at their best when pen-to-Post-It ideas flow fluidly and boards fill with energy and excitement. Sessions like these are important for building trust with a client, and for project teams to clearly and creatively define the problems we’re solving.

What do you do when a pandemic forces you to cancel plans to fly to three cities in five days to conduct a dozen rounds of in-home interviews? You don’t panic, you call your airline, and you bring it all online.

In the face of COVID-19, we’re not just updating our interviewing process — we’re using this as an opportunity to take a holistic look at our entire research practice and each touchpoint before and after remote interviewing sessions.

While we’re in the process of shaking things up, we thought it would be a great opportunity to share a look behind the scenes of our evolving approach. If you’re a design researcher or experience designer used to certain ways of facilitating recruitment, conducting interviews, and setting up design activities, these insights and tips are for you.

Part 1 of this series will cover recruiting, prepping participants, and a sample communication timeline. Part 2 will include example activities to run with participants and research synthesis.

Step 1: Tighten Up Recruitment

Great research rests on having the best group of participants — this doesn’t change in an online-only world. It’s your first and most important consideration. We’re still thinking about participants that would be best for the project — cities vs. suburbs, hot vs. cold climate, advanced degrees vs. no degrees, and on and on.

Nothing has changed here: Make sure you have clearly defined criteria for finding users including:

  • Demographics
  • Interest Areas
  • Geographical Location
  • Competitor Alignment

The screener questionnaire you use while prospecting for participants is also an important consideration, especially for remote interviews. Only dedicated folks will want to spend 20 minutes on a survey, so consider (and be upfront about) how long your survey will take to complete. Other questions to consider: Can your survey be completed in public, or are privacy and complete focus considerations? Can it be complete on a phone, or are there components of your survey better suited for desktop computers?

The balance of the data you capture vs the time commitment it’ll take for user replies can also be tricky. When conducting remote interviews, it’s natural to want to add more questions to get a better sense of the person on the other end of the survey since you won’t have an in-person discussion.

We typically run several early rounds of screener surveys to gather as many participants as we can, while ensuring the most qualified participants are easily identifiable — and available — before scheduling 60–90-minute virtual interview sessions.

Step 2: Prep Your Participants

Call each of your confirmed participants to make sure they’re prepared for their interview. This time on the phone is also helpful for establishing trust with participants, especially if your research involves more difficult subject matters like personal health or finances. Any hesitation to discuss difficult subjects exists even more strongly over a conference call with strangers.

We always have one point of contact who handles recruitment, calling, and emailing participants, and who will also be present in every interview. Establishing and ensuring continuity in communication is another way to ensure you’re building trust with participants early and that it compounds with each interaction.

One way to think about it is like walking into a museum. Without knowing how the museum is organized or any stories about all of the art or artifacts housed there, museums can be cold and impersonal. But if you’re instead met at the door by a friendly docent who enthusiastically tells you all about the special exhibitions on display or even offers to give you a tour, your whole museum-going experience will be unforgettable.

Step 3: Communication Timeline

Communicate early, often, and with a very clear purpose. This will diffuse any doubt, build even more trust with your participants, and will help them show up to their interview comfortable, prepared, and ready to help.

Here’s an example timeline we’ve used recently but isn’t much different from our approach for in-person interviews.

7 Days Out

  • Call your participant to finalize their interview date and time, making sure the time selected is their time zone. This is also a great time to figure out what type of technology they are using if you haven’t already done so in your screener.

3 Days Out

  • Send any release forms they‘ll’ need to sign before their interview.
  • Also include a video walkthrough of any tools you’ll be using, including the conferencing tool.

💭Tool Tip: Loom is free, easy to use, and a great way to show the tools and introduce yourself to the participant.

1 Day Out

  • Send an email confirming their session with important reminders, making sure they’ll have their laptop or phone ready, that they’ll be in a well-lit and quiet space, and for them to join the meeting a bit early to test their video and audio.

Reframing Your Process & Building Empathy

Recruiting and interview prep can be dry and arduous. Building surveys, combing through responses, and email-tag while trying to nail down schedules and filling all of your time slots is a lot of administration and logistics. You typically don’t start the relationship with your research participants until you walk in the door to interview them.

But now, “walking in the door” isn’t happening with remote sessions, and recruiters have an opportunity to reframe thinking about their entire process leading up to remote interviews. It’s a good time to become more like a tour guide and actively communicate with your participants throughout the entire process. Have one person welcoming participants, give them a glimpse of what they’ll be covering during the interview, set expectations, and make themself available for any questions participants might have will help build strong personal connections.

A Note on Empathy

Remember to have empathy tuned up to 11. You won’t be able to read body language and tone as well with remote sessions, which makes all of your participant preparation even more important. If you feel someone didn’t understand a question or becomes uncomfortable at any point, prepare your teams to spot the signs and address anything that comes up.

In part two of this series, we discuss how to adapt your activities, conduct remote synthesis, and touch upon important accessibility considerations for more inclusive and impactful remote sessions.

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