The Advantages and Pitfalls of Remote User Research
As user research has moved remotely over the past few months due to COVID-19, researchers are contending with new challenges as well as opportunities. I recently joined a panel of researchers for Boulder Startup Week to discuss our experiences and best practices for performing user research remotely.
As a company that often conducts research remotely, our team at Tetra Insights has extensive experience with this format and are well acquainted with the advantages and pitfalls of remote user research. Let’s take a look at each of these in depth.
Advantages of Remote User Research
A More Diverse Pool of Participants
We have conducted most of our research remotely for several reasons. First, it allows us access to non-local populations. With a broader pool of people, we can identify and recruit the ideal participants for each of our projects. We find this gives us better data and more accurate results. And, our budget-friendly approach lets us avoid flying researchers across the country (or farther), which allows us to function with a lean and nimble team.
Convenience for Participants
With traditional in-person research, recruiting participants has unique challenges. For people with 9–5 jobs, it’s a big ask to request they take time off of work and perhaps commute to your place of research. Therefore, you might have to be willing to offer a larger incentive. Conducting research remotely requires less of a time commitment on behalf of participants and less investment in incentives.
We can also allow people to access studies in ways that are most convenient for them. While video conferencing is most common, there are options for other formats such as video diaries, in which participants record themselves answering survey questions at their convenience.
Pitfalls of Remote User Research
Challenges Creating Deep Personal Connections
For researchers, establishing trust and personal connection between ourselves and our participants is critical. Developing a relationship with our participants often allows us to get to a deeper, more emotional level than is possible during remote research, leading to more insightful takeaways. And, during in-person interviews, the researcher can glean interesting information via non-verbal cues and body language.
Getting to this level is generally much easier to do in person, but it’s certainly not impossible to be done in a remote setting. The key is to attempt to create personal connections with things such as pre-interviews, e-mail communication, and ensuring the participants understand exactly what to expect.
Between video conferencing, internet connections, and computer glitches, technology snafus can interrupt remote user research sessions. Therefore, it’s important to have a backup plan. Additionally, it’s a great idea to reassure your participants that if a technical issue occurs, it’s not their fault and you will simply do the best you can. Especially during the pandemic, when tools such as Zoom and Wi-Fi can become overloaded and slow, we all need to give each other some grace when it comes to technology.
Access to Special Populations
While technology keeps most of us connected, it’s important to remember that not everyone has access to computers, the internet, or smartphones. Keep in mind that if a phone call is the best you can do under the circumstances, that’s generally better than omitting people without access to technology from your participant pool.
Other populations such as children or the disabled often require a caretaker to be present during interviews, and that can also present a problem while conducting research remotely. If you do conduct remote research with vulnerable populations, be certain you take all precautions lawfully and ethically.
While there are challenges in conducting research remotely, there are also exciting opportunities. Researchers are having to get creative and be flexible in their processes while maintaining integrity. At Tetra Insights, we believe documentation and a clear process are the keys to success for remote research.