It’s 7pm in the UK. I started my day talking to someone in Tokyo, before moving to Manchester, and I’ve just finished up in San Francisco. Eighteen timezones. 14,645km (give or take). And no jetlag.

Chris How
Chris How
1st June 2021
World map with lines of travel from the UK.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been globetrotting to carry out research as part of a design project for UCL (University College London). It’s an institution that prides itself on attracting students from all over the world, and across all the nooks of the UK. It’s important that the work we’re doing is informed by their voices and needs.

For me, honing my remote research skills has been one of the positives of lockdown. Although I was no stranger to remote research my go-to method was always the more controlled environment of a usability lab.

Now I can see the advantages of a blended approach in many more projects. A combination of some in-person and some remote sessions is a way of extending the geographic reach and diversity of the participants we talk to.

I don’t think it’s just me that’s improved my skills. Participants have become noticeably more comfortable using the technology and talking on screens. It’s been a while now since I’ve had to talk someone through how to share their screen or how to open the chat window to find a link to a prototype.

Having done multiple projects and numerous research sessions during lockdown, I’ve been reflecting on what helps to make remote research successful.

Selecting your software

I started counting up the different bits of software we use in most sessions. I soon ran out of fingers. There is no one tool to use, rather a hotchpotch of bits and pieces. Some are free to use, others are available with licences and subscriptions.

Within sessions, it’s common for me to simultaneously be using software to screen share (Google Meet, Zoom, Teams), a way to record the session (OBS studio, Scre.io plug-in for Chrome, Screenflow) and a way to share stimulus (Figma prototypes, Google docs, Typeform surveys and polls).

Our preference is to have members of the project team and clients observe research in real-time. To ape a participatory backroom of a research lab we livestream sessions on a private link on either YouTube or Vimeo. We then guide those observers to collect structured notes in a shared virtual space such as on a Miro board, in Airtable or a Google sheet.

Our toolkit for remote research is not limited to just the sessions. Calendly has become indispensable for inviting participants to book days and times that fit their schedule. Its automated calendar invites (in local timezones) with screen-share links is a huge timesaver. Incentives can be conveniently sent as Amazon vouchers. Then there’s the sense-making. Automated transcription software (Descript, Otter.ai, Rev.com) and collaborative cloud-based tools for synthesis and analysis have made this part of the process a collective—if still distanced—activity.

When it comes to technology and remote research, I’ve found success mostly comes from two factors:

  1. Playing around with different tools to find the ones that best fit the budget, timeframes and needs of the project. With new features and updates appearing regularly it’s useful to keep an eye open for opportunities to expand the tools you use.

  2. Having a practice run to iron out the gremlins. The more tools in play, the more potential for hiccups. You want to be concentrating on the participant in the session, not worrying about the technology being used to run it.

Putting participants at ease

It’s not a huge leap from facilitating in-person to remote research. There are some small changes to be mindful of to make the sessions easier for the participants and yourself.

One big positive change I’ve noticed is that participants seem more relaxed and open by being in their own environment using their own technology and at a time that better suits their lifestyle.

Even so, it’s still important for the facilitator to make the participant feel comfortable. A free-flowing conversation is harder when there’s a screen between you.

In tackling this I make a point of always being on a call five minutes early so that a participant is never left waiting in a digital void. Then in the introductory chat, I acknowledge the technology might let us down and I tell them what to do if either of us freezes on screen, has distorting audio or connection issues. Being upfront about potential issues helps participants know chaos is to be expected and embraced.

As I’ve done more remote sessions I’ve come to accept that I’ll get through fewer tasks and questions than in an in-person session. Pauses for blips in technology and asking for clarifications because the sound temporarily dropped out are all part of the medium.

Hello world!

The great thing about remote research is it’s more convenient for a wider cross-section of your audience to take part in sessions.

You’ll likely need to elongate the duration for research. Don’t expect neatly timetabled back-to-back sessions. And you’ll need to be more flexible with your working hours to fit the lifestyles and locations of your participants. But broadening the conversations beyond who’s available on a set day in a set location can only improve the insights you gain.

The choice shouldn’t be between doing remote or in-person research sessions. A blended approach is often viable and desirable and gives you the best of both worlds.

Right, I’m off to prepare for tomorrow’s travels to Buenos Aires, followed by Newcastle and Seville.