5 Key Considerations for Remote Research
Remote research is any type of research which is not conducted face to face, and is normally conducted over a computer or phone, with software which enables the participant to share what they are seeing with the moderator. Remote research is situational but can be a very cost-effective way of interviewing participants that might live in different countries or cities and can be a great alternative to in-person interviews if you can’t meet up with participants or if you are time-constrained for recruitment and need to get lots of participants on-board quickly.
Remote research generally works best with a recruitment profile that has good computer literacy, for example, students or professionals. This is for 2 reasons, the first reason being that they will need access to their own equipment to join the research session, and the second reason being that during the session they might have to overcome challenges like enabling their microphone, sharing screen, and opening chat boxes on unfamiliar interfaces.
In this article, I have compiled 5 top considerations to help you get remote research right the first time:
- Is is appropriate?
- What will you need?
- Choosing software
- Practice makes perfect
- When things go wrong…
Is it appropriate?
Before deciding whether you are going to use remote research methods for your project, you should first ask yourself whether it is appropriate for what you are trying to achieve. You should account for what your objectives of the research are. If the objective is to discover how your participants might interact with something in their natural environment, then remote methods could work quite well. This can be done in multiple different ways, for example: surveys, card sorts, remote usability testing.
However, if your brief requires extra analysis such as eye-tracking visualisations, or anything that would require you to be with the participant to set-up tech, or to record the data to achieve this analysis then this might not be an appropriate methodology for your objectives.
What will you need?
Assuming that you have decided to go for a remote moderated usability testing method, the first thing that you will need to find in order to have an effective and focused remote interview will be a quiet space. This should be a room where you won’t be disturbed and has good soundproofing, as echoes can cause distracting feedback into the microphone which can make it hard for the participant to hear your questions.
Other things that you will require include:
- A desktop or laptop depending on where you will be conducting the session
- Any peripherals (e.g. mouse, keyboard, etc.)
- Quality microphone so that the participant can hear your questions clearly
- Quality speakers to ensure that you can hear the participants’ answers clearly and any observers of the research can hear them too.
- A webcam so that the participants can see you when you first join the call as seeing your face will help to ease the participant into the usability session when welcoming them.
- A power cable if you are using a laptop – you don’t want the laptop to run out of battery mid-session!
If you have all of these things available to you, then you should have all you need to conduct a remote research session from a hardware perspective, but what program will you use to actually get a hold of your participants?
If you are going to be simply creating a survey or card sort, there are many different tools you can use to create and share these. Some examples include Google forms for surveys or a tool like Optimal Workshop. These tools will allow you to do things like creating card sorts, take notes, and easily distribute links for these to participants.
However, when doing a remote moderated usability session, you will need software that you can use to call the participant, and that they can share their screen with you.
Skype for business is a good tool as many people are familiar with Skype’s interface. However, if you are conducting sessions with participants from different countries, then slow internet speeds can be a problem. If a participant’s connection is too slow, the call might cut out mid-session, and sometimes Skype has issues calling the participant in the first place.
A good alternative to this is Zoom. Zoom is a tool that allows you to create meetings where you can share your screen with other people, as well as chat to them by text. You can even host meetings with multiple participants, but for the sake of this article we will presume that it is a one-to-one session. Unlike Skype, Zoom establishes a more secure connection to the participant which means that the call won’t just cut-out and that you can always join the meeting even on a poor connection.
Another positive of this tool is that it has easy to follow instructions which means that the participant can click on the meeting URL (which you should share with them before the session) and the application will automatically download to their computer. The meeting will automatically boot up, and the participant does not even have to create an account before joining the meeting, so it’s really easy for them.
As not all participants will be familiar with this software, it is recommended that you brush up on the controls on Zoom so that you can easily explain to participants how they can enable their microphone and screen sharing when the time comes to it, but this shouldn’t be too hard to explain unless there is a language barrier. You can also prepare written instructions with screenshots and a step-by-step guide on how to use Zoom to send over to participants in an email along with the meeting link to ensure they know how to get onto the software and to give you peace of mind.
Practice makes perfect
As with any research session, practice makes perfect and we recommend that before diving into the deep end you practice with a colleague or friend to ensure that you know the timings of your session, as well as iron out any challenges that you might face with technical issues along the way. A lot of things can go wrong with remote research, for example slow internet, participants turning up late, or spending precious minutes trying to explain how to get a microphone working or share the screen. Furthermore, you need to be prepared to conduct a session when a participant is not in a quiet space, as sometimes they will not have this available to them and they might have to call you from a café or area with a lot of background noise. The best thing that you can do as a researcher is try to put yourself through these problems, so that when it does happen in a real session you know what to do.
When things go wrong…
Ok, so now it’s time to conduct the session and you sit there anxiously waiting for your participant to join the meeting. 5 minutes pass and the participant still hasn’t joined. You can feel the valuable time of your session that could be spent discovering findings slowly slipping through your fingers like sand. If only you had a plan B!
When things like this happen, it’s imperative that you have the participant’s contact details to hand. That could mean a phone number to call, an email address, or even a skype. There is a good chance that the participant might be having tech problems but has no way to contact you to let you know, and the best thing you can do here is to pick up the phone, give them a call and make first contact so you can save any time that you might otherwise lose.
Another problem which could occur is that if you have a third party in the session, for example an interpreter you will need to check what their time schedule is before conducting sessions and try to book in an hour or so before the session to brief them on what the session is about, what your expectations are from them, and to allow them to familiarize with the script you are using. Communication is key and will mean that you feel more comfortable leading the session knowing that the interpreter is mindful of leading questions when translating to the participant.
Like an in-person session, sometimes things might not go your way, but to prevent freezing up in the moment we recommend that you write down a plan B, and even a plan C in the event of a disaster!
Overall, remote research is a practical and cost-effective way of doing research and is a good way to add another notch to your belt in methodology if you haven’t done it before. However, planning and preparation is key, not just in practicing your session, but researching the tools that you are going to use to conduct it to best fit your participant’s needs. With all that aside, have fun!