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Our Favorite Remote Research Methods for Product Design

Now that we’re all a few weeks into social distancing, the realization that our tools and creativity enable us to do far more from afar than we previously thought possible is one that’s dawning on many.

Last month we had a number of projects that had been planned for in-person research shift to remote research. Happily, we were prepared, as our twelve-strong research team has plenty of experience using a range of remote research methods and tools.

Here we are — not even remotely deterred.

While we don’t believe that remote research will ever fully replace in-person testing, remote research certainly has its merits, and those merits happen to be especially valuable at this time of limited in-person contact. We’re excited to explore the strengths of remote research while expanding our practice of it.

In this post, we’ll discuss four of our favorite remote research methods:

Each is illustrated by real-life examples from members of our research team who give glimpses into how they’ve been able to use the tools.

Pivoting from In-Person to Remote Research

To give you an idea of how they’re employed, the chart below notes some of the ways we’ve transitioned our planned in-person research into remote research using some of these methods.

Because we have experience using them all, we know they’ll yield great insights for our clients at various stages of product design and release.

Pivoting from in-person to remote research methods

(Click to enlarge.)

Remote research has always been a major part of the consumer and technology industries, but it’s rarer in the medical device industry. However, as more medical devices move out of specialized spaces like hospitals and doctor’s offices and into our homes, the value of remote research becomes more apparent.

As more medical devices move out of specialized spaces like hospitals and doctor’s offices and into our homes, the value of remote research becomes more apparent.

Remote research works particularly well for early stage research such as identifying user needs, testing early concepts, and understanding workflows, whether it’s part of developing a new product or revamping one that’s already on the market.

That being said, in these unusual circumstances, remote research should not be ruled out for any research objectives without thorough evaluation. This includes considering remote research methods even for human factors validation / summative testing. While the FDA has not yet issued specific guidance related to human factors validation, their guidance with respect to clinical trials in light of COVID-19 suggests that updating your protocols and reports based on the impact of COVID-19 may be necessary, so long as it is justified.

Our Favorite Remote Research Methods

There are a huge variety of remote research methods out there and we can’t cover them all. In this post, we’ll discuss a few methods that our team uses regularly and share a little bit about how we’ve implemented them to get results for our clients.

Online Interviews with Interactive Elements

Remote interviews can take many forms, including co-design sessions, concept feedback, expert interviews, and journey mapping/experience mapping. We can use videos to show product use and share concept models remotely over webcam or set up digital whiteboards for journey mapping or co-design sessions.

We make these interviews effective by ensuring that we treat each session like an in-person interview, which includes adding visual and audio cues and sometimes even using a slide deck to lead the interview.

Because of these interactive elements, we may add additional team members to manage the technology and interactivity of the interviews while the main researcher moderates the session. This is a good time to get teammates from other disciplines involved in the research as notetakers.

remote research methods: online interviews with interactive elements

Digital Whiteboards Enable Remote Co-Design“When challenged with creating journey maps completely from scratch to illustrate a user population’s experience with a medical device, we knew that co-design would be the best method for us to gather rich data quickly. We faced an obstacle: this user population would not be able to join us in person due to comorbidities associated with their disease. As a solution, we structured the study to run flexibly either in-person or remotely.

We faced an obstacle: this user population would not be able to join us in person due to comorbidities associated with their disease.

We created digital whiteboards including journey frameworks built out by participants just as they would have done with Post-it notes and stickers if we had met in person. When COVID-19 began to affect our studies, this one quickly transitioned to all remote sessions. All participants are now calling in to build their journeys with us, even though they may be miles away.

A standard phone interview would have left us without any visual artifact from our research, but these remote co-design sessions are yielding clear, actionable direction for us as we build out our final journey maps.” — Jemma Frost

Remote Contextual Inquiry

A main way we complete foundational research at the beginning of a project is to do contextual inquiry. There’s no replacement for being on site and observing participants in their real-life settings, but we can get pretty close with remote research by doing diary studies and online bulletin boards. These tools allow participants more time to reflect and think critically about their experiences.

Diary Studies Inform a Journey Map: “When working with a client that provided eyeglasses direct to consumer, we recorded the purchase process, out-of-box experience (which includes unboxing and first-time use), and then the first two weeks of use in a variety of environments.

The diary approach allowed us to explore a variety of key customer touchpoints, as well as conducting analysis along the way (reported out on purchasing decision and then out-of-box before full completion of study). The participants recorded video diaries, but in many cases we provided them with a prompt for an activity or area to consider before recording their video.

At the end, we provided the client with a summarized journey map with (including emotional highs and lows) and recommended adjustments to the customer experience they were providing.” — Maddy Ross

remote research methods: in-home video observation

In-Home Video Observation Provides Insights: “Capturing a user’s natural behavior in context is one of the biggest challenges in user research. Often, the presence of the researchers alters the way participants behave. A remote-video contextual observation is a useful tool to capture consumer behavior in its natural environment.

This requires setting up a video camera to record users 24 hours a day over multiple days. We’ve observed that most participants lose awareness of the recording and behave completely naturally after one to two days.

A remote-video contextual observation is a useful tool to capture consumer behavior in its natural environment.

In a project for a consumer tech company I conducted a few years back, we learned a lot about passive and unintended usages of the television in addition to how participants use it actively. We gained insights on how TV is used with mobile devices; how it serves as an educational tool for kids; how it become the connector between family members; and more generally, how TV serves as a part of family living. The video also allowed us to analyze the usage of TV over time, by different users and in different situations. The insights drove the development of a ‘Family TV’ concept.

While there are certainly limitations on where this methodology can be used (e.g. toilet paper usage in a pandemic?), the result often yields surprising insights into consumer behavior.” — Ryan Chen

Online Usability Testing for Digital Products

We’ve been using online usability testing for digital products (websites and apps) for years, but now’s a good time to examine the merits and methods. These sessions have the ability to expand or contract to fill whatever amount of time is needed to provide the feedback necessary.

Online usability tests of one feature can be as short as five minutes. They can be real-time moderated sessions or asynchronous unmoderated sessions that participants can take on their own time. One benefit of these sessions is that they are recorded and can allow for a little more examination of the tasks.

Online usability tests can be real-time moderated sessions or asynchronous unmoderated sessions that participants can take on their own time.

Most of the online tools out there have their own panels to make recruitment a little bit easier, especially for general population users. These types of sessions allow us to quickly gather targeted usability data on key features.

remote research methods: online usability testing

Online Usability Testing Identifies App Pain Points: “Recently we completed a project for a med-sumer smartphone app to help people change a behavior. Online usability testing was one part in the four-step research process and was built in to give us rapid, asynchronous usability data. This test was about 20 minutes of participants’ time, explored four to five main tasks in the app, and was completed with 30 general population participants.

It took us a little over three weeks to set up the testing prototype, select and setup an online tool with tasks and a participant screener, recruit the participants, run the test, review the results and get some actionable insights to improve the app.

We identified three major fixes to the app, a few minor design tweaks, and identified some areas to consider for the overall app experience to be included to de-risk the next research phase of the study, the home use testing (including onboarding and program advancement over time). We were able to make highlight videos from the participant recordings to illustrate where confusion was and what to fix within the app.” — Alex Visconti

Quantitative and Qualitative Surveys

Surveys are a flexible, remote research tool that can be used to answer a variety of research questions at any stage of the product development process, and they are often lower-cost and quicker than in-person testing.

In these constrained conditions, surveys can be a good way to address pressing questions that were planned to be addressed during in-person sessions that are now postponed. With many people at home, the response rate may be even better than usual.

With so many people at home, the response rate for surveys may be even better than usual.

Surveys can be used to collect qualitative data from a smaller group of participants or quantitative data from a large sample that can be analyzed statistically. For example, we use surveys to identify unmet user needs, prioritize features to be implemented, select among concepts, and predict effectiveness of potential product improvements. Quantitative surveys in particular are an excellent complement to qualitative methods because they can confirm which insights are likely to generalize to the wider population of users.

remote research methods: quantitative and qualitative surveys
Quantitative Survey Probes Disuse of Software Features: “Right now, we’re helping a medical device manufacturer understand how clinicians use the features in their software. The manufacturer knew that some of the new features were not being used by as many clinicians as they expected, and a set of remote interviews revealed a number of different underlying causes for this.

Some users were not aware of the feature, some users expected the feature to work differently, and some didn’t see the value in the feature. To be able to address these issues adequately, our client needed to understand which of these underlying causes was playing the biggest role in disuse for each feature, and how effective various possible solutions (like tweaks to the software or marketing approach) would be.

Our client needed to understand which of these underlying causes was playing the biggest role in disuse for each feature, and how effective various possible solutions would be.

Using a quantitative survey, we’re collecting data from a sample of users that we will be able to analyze statistically to understand the primary root cause of disuse for each feature, and whether potential solutions make a substantial enough difference to users to warrant implementation. This is a great example of how qualitative and quantitative methods can work together to provide a more complete picture of user behavior and de-risk business decisions.” — Sarah Fairchild

Remote Research Coming On Strong

Remote research has its benefits and challenges (we’re working on a blog post about this!), but we’ve found it to be useful in so many ways. We expect that the time spent learning and perfecting these remote research methods will come in handy in the future as the world meets the considerable challenges presented by COVID-19 by becoming more flexible and accustomed to working — and researching — remotely.

Read more blog posts from the User Research team.