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Remote Research Steps into the Limelight

Remote research techniques bring speed and efficiency to any new product development plan. Learn when you can best apply remote research to your process.

Sam Moon

July 24 th 2020 | 10 Minute read

Whether it’s up-front strategy or late-stage validation, performing research with your target users and stakeholders is essentially a law of product development. Unfortunately, research of any magnitude requires something that’s not always in abundance: resources.

Leaders need to be creative when faced with the inevitable lack of time and/or money when it comes to research in product development. Just because research has been done a certain way in the past, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best way.

As the world becomes increasingly digitally connected, an alternative to tried-and-true, in-person research is remote research. Remote or virtual research has its own advantages and disadvantages compared to contextual research and other traditional methods. But when done well, remote research can also help you get the most bang for your buck, take advantage of the “shrinking” world, and be more agile.

What is remote research?

It’s all in the name. Over the last few years, remote research has come into its own as a powerful, standalone tool – not just a backup solution. A plethora of tools are available that allow teams to perform research activities that are similar or analogous to traditional methods. The result is a similar data set with a reduced need for boots on the ground.

Before you cancel those flights for your research team, let’s make a few things clear: In-person research is still a relevant and powerful tool. There are no shortcuts in the research process. Stakeholder research, no matter the method, is vital to the development process. Remember that virtual research should be approached with the same care and planning as contextual research. The key insight is that, when properly deployed, remote research has its own traits that can benefit your process.

The advantages and disadvantages of remote research

The first question your team may ask about remote research is where it is best applied. Can remote research be used for contextual/ethnographic research? What about usability testing? Yes and no. The key to best utilizing remote techniques is realizing they are not a 1:1 substitute. For every area where remote research is deficient, there is a complementary area where it shines.

In our eBook, Managing Conflicting Research Data, we described three general types of research: Strategy and Discovery, Testing and Confirmation, and Structured Research. Let’s start by evaluating the relative strengths and weaknesses of remote research solution through each of these lenses:

Strategy and Discovery

On the surface, strategy and discovery may seem like a poor fit for remote research. This is typically the domain of ethnographic or contextual research, which both rely heavily on being on-site to observe user behavior within an environment. There’s no denying that remote research is inherently weak in this area. No matter the quality of your webcam (and you should always use video for remote research to maintain some semblance of context), it will never capture the same granular detail as being able to move around the space witnessing events with the naked eye or handheld camera. Placing a 360-degree camera in the environment can mitigate this issue by allowing a broader sense of the interactions taking place. The trick is getting the camera into the space and properly placing it within the environment.

Several alternatives do exist. Whether it’s as simple as an online diary study or as extreme as extended video observation (with permission of course), most information gaps can be filled when combined with an online interview. Extended video observation actually has the advantage of reducing the Hawthorne effect as the subject may completely forget they are being observed.

One area where remote research excels during strategy and discovery is co-creation. Services like Miro, Mural, and many others provide digital versions of whiteboards and sticky notes. These services also offer templates for creating mind-maps, journey maps, or any other activity in the design-thinking handbook. This is a godsend for anyone who has ever hauled around a plastic storage bin overflowing with markers and sticky notes (say nothing of the Post-it® Easel Pads). When the session is over, there’s no documenting and/or packing everything up for transport. It becomes a living document in the cloud where the adhesive on that important sticky note will never wear out and fall off the wall.

Testing and Confirmation

It is admittedly more difficult to perform usability testing and ergonomic studies remotely. As an example, think about a surgical tool. Short of sending the device around to users (possibly with the assistance of a local sales rep for safekeeping), there’s not a good analog for being there in-person and observing the surgeon’s ability to use the device.

But just because remote research isn’t optimal for focused ergonomic testing doesn’t mean it has no value for gauging usability. For years UI/UX designers have used tools like InVisionApp and AdobeXD to share and test digital interfaces. Some services can be paired with other plugins to capture taps and touches as the user navigates through the interface, along with recorded user feedback. While typically used for touchscreen interfaces and apps, simply inserting an image/rendering of the corresponding device and creating clickable zones around physical buttons allows users to get a feel for the integrated hardware experience.

Structured Research

Structured research (i.e., documented formative and summative testing for submission to the FDA) is extremely rigorous and healthcare focused. The opportunity to use remote research is significantly smaller here than in the other two categories. The need for testing a production-level device on a simulated anatomy during summative testing is likely too high of a hurdle to clear.

Formative testing often utilizes similar techniques to research performed during testing and validation, meaning more opportunities for using remote methods. The ability to easily record, transcribe, and analyze remote research output actually dovetails nicely with the need for rigorous documentation during structured research. For summative testing, remote methods may be suitable for tasks like evaluating IFUs, labels, and the previously mentioned GUI focused efforts.

Remote research is not the ideal solution for every research task, but it can be for many activities. Interviews, co-creation, inconspicuous observation, click-tracking, and user interface studies are all tasks that are well-suited for remote research.

Why should you incorporate remote research into your standard toolkit?

Remote research has long been viewed as the backup plan. That needs to change. When deployed correctly, remote research is a standalone tool with its own strengths that can add significant value to research efforts. Stop thinking of remote research as a substitute, and start thinking of it as a complementary piece. In other words, it doesn’t have to be one or the other (remote or in-person).

So how can remote research methods benefit your development efforts?

User research doesn’t have to be an ordeal

Consider the pain points associated with most research trips: booking hotels and flights, setting up wireless hotspots, charging cameras, working around the schedules of research subjects, wasted productivity during travel – the list goes on. Most of these issues are minimized or eliminated through remote research. All of the time and money spent transporting people and supplies around the globe can be redirected back to development – or more research!

By using remote research techniques, your researchers spend less time on peripheral tasks and more time gathering and analyzing data. They’re not forced to spend their evenings hunkered over a laptop in a hotel far from home so that they can document their findings while the information is fresh. Instead they’ll be at or near their work space, increasing efficiency while conserving valuable budget.

Take advantage of the shrinking world

As the world becomes increasingly connected, research is no longer limited by locality. The ability to access and target new and untapped markets will continue to expand. Remote research tools will only become more sophisticated. Existing barriers will be broken, allowing you to reach both new and current customers.

In the process, you can also build a broad customer base that knows you listen to their wants and needs. The benefits are myriad: rolling out products or services with a distinct advantage and high customer value, identifying previously unseen shifts in market trends, and truly walking-the-walk in terms of delivering on the promise of stakeholder centered design.

Not only are you able to reach more stakeholders with remote research, but you can also ensure that they’re the stakeholders you want to speak to. The ideal cross section of users can be accessed instead of interviewing certain stakeholders simply because they’re located within a convenient geographic cluster.

Reducing the impact of location on research doesn’t just apply to customers but to internal teams as well. Historically, a small group of researchers is tasked with going on-site to gather and document information before synthesizing data for use by the rest of the project team. This often leads to information being lost in translation. Remote research allows additional internal stakeholders to be passive observers of the research process. Designers and engineers will have insight into why certain conclusions were reached instead of simply receiving a data-dense handoff package with little context.

Be more agile

In-person research has a tendency to feel formal due to the time and resources devoted to making it happen. The discussion guide needs to be finely tuned since there will be only one chance to talk to certain stakeholders. And you think the prototype needs to be production-equivalent so that users understand it.

  • The stakes are much lower during remote research. Since the need for a physical prototype is significantly reduced, the lead time for that expensive model is eliminated. You can start planning research activities earlier, which reduces the risk of going too far down the wrong path and helps your technical teams quickly define solutions.
  • Interview protocols and visual aids are easily modified during remote research. This isn’t to suggest that you should constantly update discussion guides and prototypes. You need consistency to ensure that the data you collect is accurate. However, if you find you’re not gathering the type of information you need, it’s much easier to update a slide deck than a physical prototype.
  • The need to fill every second of every day during a research trip can be both physically exhausting and a logistical challenge. Not only are you at the mercy of your stakeholders’ busy schedules, you’re also reliant on having enough of them in a certain area to make the trip worth the effort. A no-show or schedule change can easily wipe out half a day of productivity, while a cancelled remote interview simply requires an updated calendar invite.

Though remote research does allow a level of improved agility, it doesn’t necessarily require less planning. Be aware of common pitfalls and other growing pains. Some participants may not be entirely comfortable using certain software, so prep them in advance and be prepared for a learning curve. If possible, use a software they are used to, or encourage them to download yours ahead of time. Perform internal dry-runs to perfect the flow of the interview and iron out any kinks.

Use the tools you already have in place

One of the biggest benefits of utilizing remote research is that you likely have much of the infrastructure in place. As working remotely becomes more ubiquitous, most companies have already invested in one or more video conferencing options. If you’ve ever had a video conference with your own team, you have the bare minimum of what is required to perform remote research.

Most video conferencing services also allow meetings to be recorded (just be sure to ask for permission from the participant). These recordings can be sent to transcription services or reviewed in detail by the research team.

When you need to get more in-depth than a video chat, the barrier to entry for remote research is extremely low. Most of the collaboration services mentioned above offer free trial versions with paid subscriptions at either the individual or enterprise level for access to premium features.

Remote research is more than just a backup solution

When used strategically, remote research can be a powerful tool. It is important not to think of it as a one-to-one replacement for contextual or ethnographic research but as a standalone option with its own strengths. Play to these strengths for researchers to get maximum value from their efforts.


About the Author

Sam Moon – Design

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”