Eight expert tips for transitioning from in-lab to remote user research

How to transition to remote, while still remaining user-centric.

Mary Luong, Ph.D, offers some best practice advice on how researchers who are used to in-lab, in-person UX research can transition to remote, while still remaining user-centric.

In the meantime, here are Mary’s top tips for running remote user research while making sure participants are as comfortable as possible and continue delivering valuable UX insights.

1) Don’t be too technical

Regardless of whether you work in the tech sector or not, your business and industry has jargons and acronyms. Be mindful that the people you are talking to may not know your business, even if they are your users. So whether or not you’re new to remote research, try to avoid anything too technical or niche.

2) Be succinct

This is not time for you to talk, this is time for the participant to talk. You want to be as succinct as possible while providing enough information so the participant knows what you’re asking.

Speaking of asking, try to create space in your study to ask for more. You want to get the richest data possible, and that rich data comes from the open-ended prompt of “why?” And there are lots of ways to phrase this. Say, “Tell me more.” Prompt with words like, “Elaborate” and “Describe.”

3) Listen better, for longer

If you’re not used to doing in-person research or moderated research, be mindful of the fact that you need to listen longer, and you need to wait longer after you ask a question. Give the participant time to formulate their response and to organize their thoughts as they are answering.

This is important because you’re losing a lot of body language signals because you’re staring at them in a tiny, little window on the screen. So paying attention to everything the participant is saying, and the way they’re saying it, is vital. And remember to ask for more!

4) Over-recruit participants

The simplest way to get your full sample size is to over-sample. If you think you need 10 participants for a study, recruit 15. And the reason is, in the current environment, the no show and abandonment rates are increasing.

If you’re used to doing in-person research, participants feel a deeper commitment when they agree to physically show up to your lab on Thursday at 6pm. In remote studies however, an invitation link does create pretty low friction for joining a study, but it also makes it pretty easy to ignore.

People will also suddenly quit in the middle of your study; perhaps because there’s a small human having a nuclear meltdown in the corner. Your participant doesn’t care about you and your study. They’re going to go take care of their small human.

5) Test your study extensively

Researchers routinely test their studies anyway, but what I’m saying here is to test your study (and have other people test your study) as if they are actual participants. This is not just mashing the keyboard to put in some characters in an open-ended response box. This is not typing, “blah, blah, blah.” This is pretending as if you are an actual participant when you’re testing the study.

Why? So you can look at the data that your remote research platform is collecting. Your testers’ data becomes a preview of your participants’ data. These data then have the potential to give you some really interesting insight into the following: “Am I asking the right question? Am I using the right question type? Should I be using a rating scale versus a multi-select?”

6) Spend more time running a tech check

If you’re doing remote moderated testing specifically, please spend extra time doing a tech check of the moderator’s and participant’s environment, hardware, software… all of it, together, the night before participants are due to join your scheduled session.

It’s definitely more work for you, but you don’t want to be a researcher who spends the first 20 minutes of your hour-long study just getting the technology working. You’ve effectively cut your study data down by 33%, and nobody wants that.

7) Building rapport is even more vital while remote

An important thing to remember: the participant’s natural environment is no longer their normal environment. Nothing is normal about the participants’ environment right now, as they adjust to working from home or just living their lives during stay-at-home orders.

Therefore it’s really important to build rapport with your participants. Let them understand what it is you want from them. That all you’re looking for is their honest feedback. There is no such thing as right or wrong.

Use all those phrases that we use as researchers to let the participant know they’re not trying to pass a test. Let them know what the expectations are, maybe say something about the goal of the research, or the goal of the team if you don’t want to expose the research itself.

In this pandemic, there are new participants joining remote research panels. People are coming in, they’ve lost jobs, they’re supplementing income. Be mindful that some of these new participants are going to be brand new to remote research; help them understand what you expect and that you value their time and respect their situation.

8) Don’t be afraid of mistakes, use them to your advantage

Mistakes will be made. I accept that it happens every time I speak. Don’t be afraid of them. The cool thing about mistakes, especially in the context of research is that they are opportunities. They create opportunities for more research.

They also create opportunities to learn something you didn’t know. There are beautiful, great “Aha!” moments in mistakes. Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail 99 times. I learned 99 ways not to make a light bulb.” There are opportunities in every mistake. So embrace them, expect them, and forgive yourself.

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