Is remote qualitative research the new normal?

Author: Yob Dippel, Head of User & Market Insights Emakina NL

The pandemic has forever changed the way we conduct qualitative research and fast-tracked our reliance on digital tools. While we were forced to press pause on our trusted on-the-ground user observations, we also saw lots of positives come out of this unusual situation. Did COVID-19 evolve qualitative research methods for the better? Let’s look at how things have changed and the five ways in which you can maintain high standards for your findings.

Thinking on our feet

When the world went into lockdown, the UX community had to reconsider and adapt their entire way of doing UX research overnight. Clients also had to make a mind shift away from seeing remote research as the budget option or something that is somehow less impactful.

There were many growing pains to work through, such as budget cuts, ever-shifting timelines, online meeting fatigue, recruiting diverse participant pools (that are also digitally savvy), and having to keep track of many communication platforms at once.

One of the most important parts of research – talking to and observing users face to face – was simply no longer an option. The drawback of this is that you’re less able to observe body language or conduct natural ethnographic studies. Not everyone adapted to Zoom and Teams like a fish in water. When you speak to researchers about those early days of lockdown, they’ll say that it often took half of the meeting time just to teach people how to use the tools! Particularly older participants would struggle with new technology logins or doing complex tasks via a webcam. Understandably, the technology barrier could mean prioritising those who are technologically advanced, excluding those who aren’t.

The upsides of remote research

Over time, people got used to a new way of living and working, forging interesting innovation in the qualitative research space. We now rely on a range of remote tools for qualitative insights. Take video-calling tools like Zoom and MS Teams. These have broken down international barriers, enabling teams to conduct interviews with users from around the world. We can now poll a much more geographically diverse population. Remote research saves a lot of time – especially with hard-to-pin-down audiences like corporates or B2B clients. There is less coordination of travel to get people together in a pre-arranged location. Research teams now have access to online panels of increasingly digitally experienced people, resulting in more opportunities for unmoderated research.

The interesting thing: none of the top tools were designed for user research specifically. Yet, collaborative, multipurpose tools like Figma, Slack, Zoom, Miro and the Google/Microsoft office suites dominate UX research tool kits. Miro, for example, is used by 65% of people polled by the 2022 State of UX Report.

Both workshops and research synthesis can be structured on collaborative digital tools. The report found that research findings are also shared synchronously, whether through live (including virtual) presentations, slide decks or summarized reports.

5 best practices for awesome remote research

Speaking from experience, here are some top tips to help you capture rich insights through remote research.

1. Be totally transparent about the process

The more you tell respondents about how remote research will take place, the less delays you’ll have on the day. Brief them from the point of recruitment on the tech platforms to expect so that they can tell you what they have available. Keep them in the loop if there will be any downloads involved or forms to complete, and share exact steps for log-ins. If everything is super clear and rehearsed, you’ll have fewer technical issues to deal with. 

2. Use active language to collect deep context

Because of the distance between researcher and participant – and not being able to read visual cues – focus on using active rather than passive language. For example, instead of asking someone to “tell” you about their frustrations or success, request that they “show you” or “capture a…” or “share an example of your…”.  You want people to think deeper about their choices and attitudes. Provide them with “what if” or “if you could choose another X” options.

3. Be intentional with the scope of your research

Sometimes you need to get a sense of what the problems are first. During the explorative or foundational studies, participants should have the freedom to share more ‘out of the box’ ideas. However, for evaluative studies, you’ll use a much narrower scope since you already know what’s important and you’d want to drill down into very specific user activities.

4. Use collaborative online tools

Virtual whiteboards like Miro allow for a more efficient and playful way of working and brainstorming, with less loss of valuable info. For example, participants can be given timed challenges or show their feelings by sharing memes/gifs/pictures. It also makes it easy to cluster insights together and to analyse findings in one ecosystem. Figma goes a step further, showing stakeholders what UX designers are working on in real-time, allowing for rapid feedback and iteration on digital prototypes and wireframes.

5. Always record feedback (with permission)

In case you miss anything, it helps to have audio and video recordings of user interviews to look back on during reporting or ideation. Remember to ask user permission first.

The shape of things to come

So, is remote research here to stay? It’s likely going to be a hybrid research model for a while, with a careful return to in-person sessions again, while for many situations we can continue to choose the efficiency and effectiveness of digital interviews or focus groups.

For example, during the inspiration phase of a project, broad ideas can be gathered with quick in-person user interviews. These ideas can then be verified through more specific desktop research and remote user interviews (leveraging online panels of users with targeted demographics) – with these findings synthesised into actionable insights using collaborative digital tools such as a Miro board. 

It will be interesting to see how remote research evolves over the next few years. Perhaps we’ll increasingly use virtual reality for product sampling, or maybe we’ll all soon meet in the metaverse, conducting interviews via our digital twins?

If you need fresh insights and are considering remote research, get in touch with Yob Dippel from the Insights team today!

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