How to Run Remote User Research (Like a Boss!)

I’ve worked as a user researcher for InVision for over 3 years, and have had the amazing opportunity to grow our research practice. Establishing internal guidelines to make research reliable and accessible to our team is one of my passions. Remote user research is a necessity for our team at InVision–it’s a core part of how we work.

This week, I’ve partnered with InVisioners in San Francisco, Toronto, Berlin, New York, London, and Atlanta to run a remote research study–all from my home near Cleveland. Some folks don’t know this, but InVision is a fully remote company, our team spanning more than 25 countries.

I’m here to share tips on how to run remote research studies smoothly and efficiently.

Why remote research?

When you’re working with an agile team, remote research allows you to fit many user sessions into a single day and iterate quickly. It can be an extremely valuable addition to your research tool belt.

I’m a huge advocate for including everyone in user research. At InVision, this can mean making research accessible to a team located in seven different countries, and coordinating across three different time zones. I rely heavily on remote user interviews and moderated usability tests in my research practice to help make this happen.

Just as there are two sides to any coin, there are times when remote research isn’t the right choice. For example, remote research doesn’t work for ethnography studies and contextual interviews. Those methods rely on embedding yourself in the user’s environment and workspace.

Ask yourself a few questions about your project before diving into remote research:

  • How important is observing the user’s environment?
  • Do you need to observe how they interact with others or physical objects?
  • Is your target audience comfortable with technology?

If these questions raise any red flags, reconsider remote research. Think about your ultimate goals and choose your method wisely.

But, if you’re looking for fast, flexible research with a global audience…let’s dive in!

Location, location, location

Remote research lets you to reach out to users who may otherwise be neglected when recruiting locally for in-person sessions. As a design-driven SaaS company, we at InVision tend to talk to a lot of “Silicon Valley-type” companies. We can fall into a trap of thinking only about those users, so it’s important to diversify. Remote research allows you expose yourself (and your team!) to new people in new geographies who challenge your assumptions.

Convenience for participants

Conducting interviews may be the highest priority on your list, but it’s definitely not number one for your participants. Remember that even if you are providing compensation, participants are still doing you a solid.

When I was in New York earlier this year, I used the opportunity to try to schedule on-site visits with a handful of customers for a research project. I received several rejections, but each of them offered to hop onto a video call instead.

I get it–booking meeting rooms and preparing for office guests is such a time commitment. A conference call allows them to skip the setup investment and get right to the discussion.

Easy on the budget

Remote research can be done affordably. As long as you’ve got a laptop, you already have the tools necessary for remote interviews and usability tests. You don’t need fancy labs, plane tickets, or proprietary software, though it can make it a lot easier. Here are a few tools I use to conduct research:

Bonus: It’s free to use the basic version of all this software, so you can try it out and see what works for you!

Tips for better remote research

Be engaged

I shouldn’t have to tell you to be interested and engaged with your participant, but this is so important during remote research. When you’re leading an interview or usability study, do not try to multitask. That includes checking your email or responding to Slack messages. Spoiler alert: Everyone on the call can tell.

If the research you’re conducting isn’t important enough for your full attention, you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

When you’re on a video call it can be challenging to pick up on micro expressions and social cues. You’ll find you have to be more engaged than usual to make a connection. Mute your Slack notifications, silence your phone, and close your other browser tabs so you can devote your attention to your research.

Lights, Cameras, Action!

Keep those webcams and video streams on.

It can be difficult to empathize with people over the web. Actually seeing the person on the other side of a remote research call has a huge impact on helping you make connections.

From my experience, participants in a call will give more thoughtful responses and be open to unpacking their thinking if they can see who they’re talking to. When cameras are off, it’s easier to brush off questions or oversimplify responses.

Don’t rely on memory recall

One big issue with remote research is that you can’t tap into your contextual memory after the call. When you conduct five interviews in a day, your process and surroundings don’t change. This can cause all your sessions to blur together and recall can be difficult.

I advise researchers to record their calls so they can refer to them as they distill their findings. Recording user sessions means I don’t have to rely on my own memory to reflect on learning, though it can add a considerable amount of time to synthesis.

Don’t forget to get permission before hitting record!

Emphasize screen sharing

If you’re working on researching a website, web app, or software, remote research can really shine here. Instead of talking about their experience, ask participants to show you. You’re talking to people who are likely in their work environments, on their work computers, without anyone awkwardly looking over their shoulders.

Contextual recall comes into play when a user opens your web app or website during a session. You’ll get great insights as they recall their experience, and you may also notice interesting ways they use your product.

Have a backup plan

Remote research has its fallbacks, with technical issues being number one. Don’t worry, I’m here to help.

After three years of mostly remote research, I’ve learned a thing or two about issues you might run into during these calls:

  • Audio or video not working for either party
  • Connectivity issues…how reliable is your café’s wifi?
  • Computer basically explodes

I’ve been able to set up my own remote research risk management plan to handle surprises like this that may come up. Here are a few things I do:

  • Stay calm. Most people are nice, patient, and understanding.
  • Have an extra set of headphones handy.
  • Charge your phone before remote research, in case you need to tether or switch to your phone for the interview.
  • Have a way to reach the participant via email or phone in case there are issues.
  • Keep a doc with necessary links (to the prototype, for instance), which is shared with anyone on your team who is joining the research sessions.
  • Have an alternative video conferencing method handy, in case there is an issue. Be ready to jump to Google Hangouts, Skype, etc. if needed.

If you often have your team on a call with you, familiarize them with how you run remote research. They, too, will be prepared to handle any issues that arise. My computer crashed once in a call, and my colleague was able to step in and take over while I got myself up and running again. Life saver!

Find what works for you

As with any process or practice, you’ll need to find what works for your team.

Remote user research works well for our team, and we feel like we’ve ironed out a lot of the wrinkles. You can get a ton of insights quickly, affordably, and in a user-friendly fashion. This frees up our team to focus less on logistics and more on the actual outcomes of research. At the end of the day, we’re all looking to understand our users and build better products.

I hope you can use these tips to level up your remote research practice. Share with your team, discuss, and fine-tune them to get better insights for your practice.

Stay tuned for my next piece on how to distill research findings with a remote team!


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