Humanising Remote UX Research — Part 2
A co-written analysis of a diary study showcasing the takeaways on humanising remote UX research and insights of a remote meet-up with experts in the field.
We are Viola Miebach and Mohamad Safi. Our common passion and interests brought us to writing this article.
I, Mohamad, am a UX Designer with a background in Psychology and Research focused on understanding people’s behaviours and their needs to create meaningful experiences for stakeholders and users.
Viola, is a UX Designer with a background in Business Management and Marketing. Her passion lies within bringing forward technological transformation and humanising digital experiences and currently she is undertaking a Masters in User Experience Design.
Together we believe that it is possible to humanise remote user research and we want to share our takeaways from the diary study we conducted with you in this second part.
Having touched in the first part on how to collaborate with stakeholders remotely, recruiting remote testing participants, conducting an interview online, and how important building rapport is, this part will now go a little deeper into the following:
- Meet-up with thought leaders
- Downsides of conducting research remotely
- Don’t call it user testing
- Upsides of conducting research remotely
- Have a thought out plan
- Our settings and the participants’ environment
- Encouraging thinking out loud and frustrations
- Change it up
- Shadowing research colleagues
- The diary study
Meet-up with thought leaders
After our initial research on how to build rapport in a remote research setting and how not to lose the human touch shifting online, we decided to conduct a diary study ourselves. We invited thought leaders in the field of UX Research to participate in an online workshop to dig even deeper into the pain points and the experts’ opinions on remote research.
The downsides of conducting research remotely
First and foremost, shifting online sets you apart physically. Instead of communicating face-to-face in 3D, there is now a metallic piece of tech in between the participant and you. So what impact does this have on your research?
Physical language gives us indirect information and is key to conduct research. Gestures give us a lot of hints about how someone feels and thinks whilst using a product. Observing, interviewing, or testing a product with the participant through a screen brings up various challenges:
- Few physical language or gestures to observe
- Non-spoken communication is assumptive (and has to be validated a lot more)
- The engagement of participants might be unclear
- People act differently if they know they are being recorded
- The devices used by the participant cannot be chosen
- The participant might act differently online than in person
The conversation with the experts in the meet-up let us agree that remote research is demanding a lot more effort on validating the sure intuitions and instincts we can grasp whilst being in person. We see the participant through a camera, and cannot observe what is outside of the frame. We are tied to the 2D view of pixels that project the participant and their shared screen to us and rely even more on verbal interaction than ever.
Don’t call it user testing
As stated before, verbal information is so crucial when conducting user research. To build rapport successfully remotely, you have to consider your approach to communication and how it affects the participant.
There is a huge difference between conducting user research in person and online. Whilst being in person and giving the participant a device/product to test and brief them on how they can help us improve by giving feedback on the product, shifting online it might just be a link sent out, tested on the same device where the communication with the participant is happening meanwhile. That brings up some challenges for your remote research. People might feel like they are being tested themselves.
It is so crucial to brief the participant before starting to test that they are testing us — our products. Phrasing it as a great opportunity for us to collect the participants’ rich feedback takes out perceived pressure from the participants’ side of view regarding their performance.
Throughout a remote research session the participants may want you to help them, but as the participants are there to help you first, never ever make them feel like they are being tested. They are helping us!
The language we use or the way we phrase things can have a huge impact on the quality of our findings. To avoid making participants feel as though they are being tested we can simply address the activity as prototype testing or product testing. In doing so we implicitly direct the attention of participants towards the testing of our designs.
The upsides of conducting research remotely
Having stated all the downsides we unveiled throughout talking to thought leaders in the field, we now have some good news to share.
There is a silver lining to the shifting remote due to the pandemic — people are more receptive. Now the world is partially stuck at home and our leisure time is tied to our 4 walls. People are more available and willing to participate, so we agreed that the pandemic is good for B2B research.
Furthermore, there is an upside to the fact that the devices used by the participant cannot be chosen by us. People use their own devices in their own use case. And that is exactly what they will be using the products on in the future. This brings up huge opportunities in analysing the surrounding, the natural distractions, and the diverse use cases our product has to fit in. It helps us identify, clarify, and organise system requirements. We now can effortlessly combine user research with analysing the particular environment our products have to be tied to. We will touch on that in detail later on.
There is one more important upside to remote research. Safety. Remote research is Covid-19 safe and doesn’t make you go to places you might feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It saves you worries, time, and money.
So let’s continue with a detailed look at takeaways for improvement for remote research.
Have a thought out plan
It is true that going remote gives us flexibility in terms of time management, space, and participant reach. However, this also means that any additional time we save by not having to travel or meet with people in person is time we should spend on a plan that makes our sessions seem effortless to our participants.
Allocate sufficient time, budget, or material to make it as easy as possible for the users who help us design great experiences because in the end, it is all about them. When going remote, always consider that some technical difficulty may arise and we must be able to talk participants through it so they don’t become frustrated with the process. This can usually be prevented by having a quick call 10 minutes prior to the session to go over any doubts.
Our setting and the participants’ environment
In our previous article, we stated how important it is to have an adequate setting. The appearance is not only how we speak but also the background and the amount of space we leave between the screen and our bodies. If we get all of this right we improve the chance of establishing our trustworthiness but there is more to it. What is happening on the other side of the screen and how important is it to understand the context of our participants?
There is a lot going on in the life of our participants and most of the time we only get a glimpse of their behaviours or attitudes. Even though remote sessions present the challenge of being apart, there are many ways to overcome this obstacle and some experts agree that it might be even better for understanding users in their surroundings. First of all, participants get to use their own tech in a setting of their own choice which means it is closer to real-life than a controlled environment of our choosing.
However, we are constrained to the pixels projected by the screen as there is only so much of the user’s context that can fit into our displays. In our latest conversation with local thought leaders, the idea of asking participants to use the camera on their phones to send a picture of their set at a specific time of the day was well received. We can make use of technology or even a drawing of a mental map of their home to gather more information about their space and the type of distractions that person might have around them to make better design decisions.
Encouraging thinking out loud and frustrations
As moderators and facilitators of UX Research one of our goals is to capture our participants’ natural behaviours and feelings towards our ideas and to do so we must first help them get to a state of mind where they feel at ease. When we successfully have them in this state of mind it is more likely that thinking out loud will occur. Here are some of the benefits that this technique can bring to the table:
- It improves participants engagement with the activity
- Allows venting about the product to understand frustrations
- Normalises awkward silence and considers it to be a window of opportunity to better understand discoverability issues.
Having a clear communication plan that allows people to feel comfortable saying what they think while they perform a task is essential for our work. We should always be encouraging participants to think out loud and this is again accomplished by proper language use. For example, we can set the scene by telling interviewees and testers that we expect for some things to go wrong, that it is completely normal for them to feel frustrated at a given moment and that our work (and the experience of more people like them) can greatly benefit from their honest reactions.
Even though we want participants to think out loud, we should also embrace the power of silence. At first, you may feel the need to help participants achieve a task or jump in and fill the awkward silence but you must stay strong as many times this is when we can grasp a users’ true frustrations or even an insightful aha moment. According to our expert panel practice is everything. The next time you find yourself in this awkward moment try:
- Counting to 55 before saying something
- Think about the silence as a helpful indicator of aha moments
- Trust that the participant will speak up if something is not clear
Change it up
Another interesting approach that came up in our meet up was making the most of the time. We are used to conducting “single piece” interviews or testing sessions when we can in fact design a workflow that allows for multiple interactions with participants spanning over a period of several weeks. Stripe partners shared an article on designing remote ethnography in which they also posit the benefits of diversifying interactions with users. They propose that multiple touchpoints with participants, in a variety of formats, can paint a more complete picture of their behaviours and attitudes because they are not restricted by a single moment.
An example of a remote research journey can include 3–5 sessions and this is where we can play with time. We should aim to make these interactions be easily digestible, meaning that some sessions can be quick like the initial ice breaker and others can be lengthier like a virtual shadowing to observe participants performing a task. We can also send pre-task exercises to later have a conversation about them.
Having a variety of exercises or activities will not only improve the likelihood of capturing different perspectives but it will also help with participant engagement.
Shadowing research colleagues
The technique of shadowing someone to observe their behaviours and approaches on something is widely implemented in user research. The idea is simple, the researcher accompanies a participant and observes how they use something within their natural environment.
Other than observing participants, we now want to embrace a different kind of shadowing; You as a UX researcher can learn and pick up on rich insights if you ask an expert in the field to shadow them whilst conducting remote research. In our meet-up, Kristine Kalnina (an expert in UX research) mentioned how you can boost your skills as a remote researcher. You can help your colleagues in their projects by participating as an interviewee or tester and learn best practices from them to apply in your projects. The more you participate in research activities the better you will become.
The diary study
Having talked to colleagues and friends in the sector researching for our first part of this series, we quickly understood that there are lots of different use cases to share, different experiences to have a look at, and a need for talking about common experiences and pain points. So we decided on facilitating a natural conversation among experts in UX research.
We were looking for the contextual understanding of experts in remote research to follow up on different experiences and use cases we gathered in order to fully understand the challenges and the frameworks of humanising remote research.
This meet-up let us discover the rich insights we stated earlier in this article regarding the techniques to follow on remote research. But it also was a case study itself.
How can we ensure facilitating a successful workshop whilst hosting it online?
Facilitating meet-ups and moderating the conversations among experts remotely is a whole sector we haven’t touched on yet.
What didn’t work so well
- Even though 24 people signed up, just 7 showed up (spread the event even more)
- Introverts and extroverts have an even bigger gap online (while some people are unmuting continuously to give their rich feedback, some might have the camera off, stay in the background, and just observe)
- The battle of who is to unmute first (there has to be a structured plan on how you order each person’s verbal input, as there is no technical support on who is to speak first)
- A variety of communication options makes it harder to be across all the messages quickly (unmuting and speaking, texting in the chat, reacting to a statement with an emoji,…)
- Reasonable internet bandwidth is needed and due to audio optimisation for speech, the ‘natural sound’ almost vanishes
What we think worked well
It was crucial for us to have everything planned out. Most importantly after having run a pilot session, we agreed on fixed roles we will have in the meet-up. And we can truly recommend having 2 people hosting a remote meet-up. So let’s have a look at the roles:
The Facilitator: Makes sure the link is working, that everyone can access the Miro board, that everything is sticking to the timed agenda, is sharing the screen whilst the quiz is being played or collaborative tasks are being done, answers all questions regarding tech-issues & also participates in the conversation.
The Moderator: Introduces and does the Icebreakers, asks follow-up questions, explains tasks, and is the main communicator in the meet-up, moderates through the whole session.
Conclusion: We are remote UX research fans
We believe that it is possible to humanise remote UX research. Of course, it will never be as humane as research in person, but with the right tools and techniques, you are able to rock it!
The secret ingredient for us is: Talk about your experiences. The UX community is truly open to communication and collaboration and with a continuous conversation among experts in the field, we bring all our forces together and embrace the technological transformation. We UX designers can bring the 3D feelings to remote research, the human touch to the pixels in the screen, and the empathy for everyone recently shifting online. Thanks to all the rich insights from the participating experts in the meet-up!