Remote research by default (or: you probably should have been doing this all along)

Chris Marmo
May 25, 2020 · 10 min read

Instead of focusing on all the ways remote research fails to replicate the face-to-face experience, think about the possibilities it opens up.

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In response to social distancing restrictions that have been implemented around the world to slow the spread of COVID-19, people working in design (UX, service or policy) and research (user, social, market, etc.) have been grappling with what it means to do their work in restricted ways.

After years or decades of advocating that product, service or policy directions be informed by lived experience, genuine understandings of human needs and behaviours, and most recently by the inclusion of users in the decision-making process (through methods like co-design), it can seem like an insurmountable challenge to have have many of the those methods removed or diminished. It can seem like it’s too hard.

You shouldn’t despair, though. Rather than scrambling to upgrade your Zoom account so that your user interview can go longer than 45 minutes, you can think more productively and creatively about the opportunities that conducting research remotely provides. Like any design constraint, social distancing shuts down some possibilities but opens up many others.

Broader range of participants

First, remote research allows you to address common diversity and inclusion challenges of in-person research.

Design has a problem — historical and still pressing — of only designing for ‘users’ that are easily accessible, are able to participate, or who meet some pre-determined idea of a ‘target’ or an ‘average’ user.

While any researcher worth their salt makes earnest attempts to include a diverse range of participants, the reality is that many of these participants are simply not able to participate.

Some people cannot make it in to your research facilities for an hour on a weekday for an in-person interview — not now and not pre-pandemic either. That list includes single parents and other full-time carers, people with mobility challenges, and of course, anyone who lives outside your city.

These are both spatial and temporal challenges. Research is mostly good at including people that are nearby, with spare time, and with the means to come and go as you require them to; they’ve got to fit with your schedule and your project plan.

Planning your research to be remote by default allows you to work with and around these constraints in ways that will improve the validity and richness of your data and insights.

As an example, Paper Giant recently worked with Atlassian to conduct research with knowledge workers. Using remote research methods, we were able to speak to people in workplaces from multiple countries in North America, Europe and Australasia. This is far more representative of Atlassian’s user base than if we had only interviewed participants local to us, and helped us avoid treating Australia’s workplace culture as universal.

Remote research also allows you to speak to people who might be uncomfortable with the intensity of a one-on-one interview in unfamiliar surroundings.

For example, autistic people commonly report finding eye contact overwhelming, but no one quite makes direct eye contact on video calls anyway, so this is one less thing they have to manage.

Research shows that non-native speakers, people with auditory processing disorders and people with high anxiety “often prefer text channels so they can have more time to process messages and craft responses.”

Visibility of broader range of activities

A face-to-face interview is great because you get the context of a person’s response and you also get to use your observational research muscles: you can observe body language to understand what might be left out of verbal responses, and you can watch what people do, not just listen to their description of it. You still get to do that remotely (say, over a video call), but designing your research to be remote by default allows you to access a wider spectrum of behaviours over a longer period of time.

In our work with Atlassian, we spent an hour interviewing each participant over Zoom, just like we normally would in-person. We did all the things we usually would, such as having a note-taker and priming the participant ahead of time so that they could come to the interview prepared. But we also created ways for participants to report back to us what they were doing, why and how, and what they thought about all of that, no matter when or where it occurred to them. (We paid participants for their extra time.)

We also asked participants to respond to a daily question over a two-week period. For example, as this was happening during the COVID-19 shift to working from home, we asked people to share a photo of their work-from-home set-ups and talk about how they were preparing to leave their offices.

Asynchronous responses are fresher responses

When you interview someone at a pre-arranged time, you’re asking them to remember incidents or events that may have happened days, weeks or even years ago. It’s human nature to forget situations or misremember details. But asynchronous communication allows a participant to tell you about something immediately after it happens.

For the Atlassian project, we were interviewing participants about collaboration with colleagues and the key tools and software that they use. The tools we gave them to communicate with us gave them a structure to instantly report an actual moment of interaction with a colleague, what it was about, and how it happened. It’s a higher-fidelity insight.

This also took pressure off the participants because they didn’t have to remember — they could just tell us what they literally just did. This allowed the interviews we conducted with them to run more smoothly, and it gave the research team an opportunity to follow up with their own questions.

Interviews are unfamiliar and pressured situations. If you’re paying for people’s time, they might feel anxious to ensure you’re getting what you need from them. It’s very common for people to feel like they’re not being valuable, because what you’re interested in as a researcher is often very mundane to them.

Similarly, the research team can feel pressured to get everything they need out of an interview because they know it’ll cost money and time (both of which may not exist) to get back in touch to follow up.

Designing your research to allow asynchronous communications alleviates many of these pressures, both for participants and the research team.

Building a collaborative understanding rather than extracting information

In traditional, face-to-face interviewing it’s by definition always quite extractive: you ask a question, they give you an answer, and then there’ll be a follow-up question and answer. The dynamic is really one of the researcher extracting from a participant the data that they’re interested in.

Remote research creates the conditions for more collaborative knowledge-building between yourself and the participants. It’s more of an open dialogue over time — you’re not just relying on that one hour that you have to get everything you need from a person.

In the Atlassian project, we had our ‘official’ research interactions, but then we maintained a relationship with that person for about two weeks afterwards. That allowed us to do synthesis on the data as we normally would, and then also play back some of that synthesis and validate it with participants. It gave them the opportunity to correct our understanding if we hadn’t got it 100%, or tell us new things that our synthesis brought up for them.

I think we’ve all had times when we look back on an interaction and think “Damn, I should have said…” or “that’s a way better way to explain it…”. In our experience, participants appreciate the opportunity to come back and clarify their thoughts with us.

By designing your research to be remote by default, you’re empowering participants and you’re giving yourself a better chance to have a valid understanding of what’s going on. It also creates a more equal relationship with participants that is less extractive and more about curiosity and confirmation.

Giving people different tools to express themselves with

When you move away from the face-to-face interview as a default mode of data collection, you give participants more choice on how they present information to you.

In research, we talk about ‘priming’ participants, where you give them a task or a question ahead of time for them to complete or think about. This is commonly accepted as leading to more productive, relaxed conversations.

Preparing a pre-task of some variety is a great way of empowering participants with richer storytelling tools. Instead of relying on their memory or on an off-the-cuff response to your question, you might prepare a diary template for them, request that they bring certain objects or artefacts, or ask them to think about specific examples a week or two before the interview. This is a great way to help participants help you. It gives them more time.

We have had the privilege and opportunity to conduct research into grieving and memorialisation a number of times. One example of ‘priming’ in these projects is to ask people ahead of time to find a photo of a loved one who has passed away. Our research in these contexts is often emotional and challenging, because we’re interested in the challenges that people have faced when navigating the administration or bureaucracy when someone close to them has died.

By asking them to find a photo to show us ahead of time, it primes them to talk about this person in a way that is less likely to trigger negative emotional responses. It also allows them to tell their story in a more meaningful way, so that we better understand their perspectives.

This is an example of an activity that people can conduct asynchronously; the researcher doesn’t need to be part of it. Thinking about things that people can do before and after your interactions with them can help your research uncover deeper understandings.

Better client relationships: empowering the client

Up until now I’ve been discussing the researcher–participant relationship, but the researcher–client relationship also benefits from the collaborative knowledge-building that remote research encourages.

Most people think collaboration is likely to be the weak link when working remotely, but in my experience remote work actually allows you to do a lot more collaborative analysis and sense making throughout a project, compared with a process that relies on everyone being in the same place at the same time.

Even with very frequent playback meetings and a physical presence at the client’s offices, the majority of staff are simply too busy to attend. This is even more so for staff who aren’t part of the core project team.

As with the research itself, remote work provides an opportunity for asynchronous input. People can access data (like transcripts, videos and images) and emerging insights at time that suits them, with enough time to prepare feedback, interpretations and contributions in advance of a session, and then contribute back after the session if they have more to add. A digital workspace (like a google drive, or a slack channel) is one that people are able to easily re-access again and again, it’s not just a whiteboard in a room that they don’t have the key to.

Throughout the history of Paper Giant, we’ve learnt that the success of projects is often dependent on how active a client can be in the design process, and how robust those shared understandings are as a result. Remote research expands the possibilities for both participants and clients to 1) understand the process, and 2) feel like they’ve been part of it.

Planning for the challenges of remote research

Inclusion is a challenge as well as an opportunity when you’re using digital tools for research — such tools rely on digital literacy and digital infrastructure that people might not have. It’s worth remembering here that It can mean a phone-call; it can mean sending something through the post.

This means you need to know who your users are and take into account any kind of access or inclusion issues they may have. For example, when Paper Giant has worked with participants with low literacy, we’ve designed comics as a way of getting people’s feedback on stuff rather than relying on words — those can be sent through the post. We’ve also used Easy English principles in documents for people with acquired brain injury.

Another challenge is just basic bad infrastructure — a connection that drops out, a mic that stops working. Although in-person interviews are not immune to that either, as anyone who’s ever had a research interview interrupted by a fire drill can attest.

And while remote research gives you more of a window into someone’s life, and lets you meet them in their own space, that can come with challenges as well. You’re not getting the benefit of a private, protected space to have a conversation, you’re just part of their daily life. If they have kids they need to wrangle, that’s just going to have to be part of the process.

Some participants may not feel able to speak freely, depending on who else is at home, and you’re less able to read body language. Your intuition is less likely to pick up on, for example, if somebody’s feeling impatient or that it’s not a good time to talk, but they’re feeling obligated because you’re paying them.

Some of these challenges are unavoidable, but others can be managed or turned into advantages if you design your research with your specific users in mind — just as you would for in-person methods.

Instead of focusing on all the ways remote research fails to replicate the face-to-face experience, think about the new possibilities it opens up. If you haven’t been designing your research this way, even before the constraints of social distancing, then you’ve been missing out on opportunities to make your research deeper, more collaborative, and more inclusive.

Paper Giant

Writing and insights from the team at Paper Giant, an…

Chris Marmo

Written by

Design researcher and co-founder of Paper Giant, a strategic design studio based in Melbourne, Australia. Doctor of anthropology, designerly intents.

Paper Giant

Writing and insights from the team at Paper Giant, an Australian strategic design consultancy. We help you understand and solve complex problems, together with your customers and communities.

Chris Marmo

Written by

Design researcher and co-founder of Paper Giant, a strategic design studio based in Melbourne, Australia. Doctor of anthropology, designerly intents.

Paper Giant

Writing and insights from the team at Paper Giant, an Australian strategic design consultancy. We help you understand and solve complex problems, together with your customers and communities.

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