Ground Control to Major Tom: How to Excel in Remote Research

Lo Wheelwright ·

There is never a ‘good time’ to do research, but we can at least all agree when and why it is necessary for strategic product decisions. What happens when the only research you can fit in your project is remote – with participants and with a co-located team? Before you cringe, pull your hair, or just laugh – here are some techniques we learned during our recent engagement with DailyPay.

What Type of Research?

At Carbon Five, we believe that to make a successful product, you need to talk to your users often. What, when and how, always looks different as each project has unique circumstances, assumptions, and goals. In this blog post, we will specifically talk about user interviews and usability studies. Both methods are great tools to help validate assumptions, interactions, and prototypes. 

Remote Research Tips 

Phase: Research Scheduling

Tip 1 – Create Two Calendar Events

There is definitely a reason why recruiting and scheduling is often its own role on large research team — it is really hard. There are so many little things that can go wrong from contacting prospects, managing time zones, identifying open slots, last-minute changes, and internal office calendars. 

We recommend once you’ve selected a time slot for a participant –  create two calendar invites: one for the participant and you, the other for the internal team members who might want to sit in. The reason being, the language in the two invites is often very different – and you might want to share out internal note taking links in the team invite. 

Tip 2 – Choose the Best Remote Conference Call Tools for Your Participants

To decide which conference call tooling to use, think about what is easiest for the participant pool you’ve selected. Are the participants using a restricted work computer that won’t let them download good ol’ Zoom? Try to adapt to their preferences beforehand. At DailyPay, we had some scrappy success using Google Hangouts. This will help with the initial five minute onboarding to the usability set up and test. 

Phase: Conducting Research

Tip 3 – Still Do Your Pilot Run – but Keep It Remote 

You have your protocols, script and you’re all set to go? Bummer your teammates aren’t just a desk away to help you run that pilot, huh? Even more reason you should still do that dry run. Bonus points if you can have your pilot participant also call in from another room. 

Think of the pilot run as the best way to work out any kinks – whether that be in the script, prototype, timing, or technological setup. This is the way to test your test and also prepare you as the facilitator the real deal.

Tip 4 – Use Rainbow Spreadsheets in Google Sheets

At Carbon Five, we love our Rainbow Spreadsheets for notation. These spreadsheets are an excellent digital tool for remote observers to take notes in real-time together. It also helps in the organization of raw data and the translation of those observations into insights. 

The good news is – even with a large team – rainbow spreadsheets are still a great win for co-located team members listening in. Have more than one observer on the line? Just create a second column for their notes. 

Tip 5 – Take Breaks, Breaks, Breaks

In most study scheduling, you want to bake in break times between participants for yourself, the team and those sessions that always seem to go over.  This is even more important in remote co-located testing, as the number of variables – from conference technology to dropped calls – increases. We recommend at least 30 minutes, ideally an hour, between research sessions. This will be hard if the team is in dramatically different time zones. Get comfortable with the idea of talking with just a few users a day, rather than doing a single marathon research day. 

Phase: Synthesis 

Tip 6 – Create an Affinity Diagram

After each session, or at the end of the study, you are ready to synthesize. How in the world might you do this when you aren’t all in the same room? We still used stickies – but our digital kind. With good co-located conference etiquette, affinity diagramming is still possible. We suggest booking more time for these sessions as we found the digital experience impacted our recall ability.

Tip 7 – Have Each Person Dial In Individually

The golden rule for any co-located team (especially if a couple of people are in one office and one person is solo): have each person dial in on a separate line. If you’ve ever called into a conference call with some remote individuals and a group in one big room, you know the pains of side conversations and garbled audio. Prevent this by equalizing the playing field so to speak. Bonus points if each person uses a headset, so you get a nice, crisp audio feed.

Special thanks to John Toews and the DailyPay team. Check out their work here.

Illustrations by the author.

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