Advantages of remote research and why you should incorporate this powerful tool

Remote research is not just a viable option to be considered but an integral part of the process of doing good research with some important benefits that you may not have considered. Of course, with the current world situation of travel bans and many of us working from home, (With self or government-imposed confinement), there is even that much more of a reason to consider incorporating Remote Research into your research practice.

How can we make the most of this time working from home while keeping the business moving forward? What impact does this have for UX Researchers both inside and outside the big tech companies?

My hope is that this article will help answer these questions and provide you with a framework for when and how to incorporate Remote Research. Here’s an outline of the different topics that I’ll be covering in this Article:

  • What is Remote Research?
  • Remote Research in the Context of Remote Work
  • Remote Research Methods and When to Apply Them
  • Advantages of Remote Research
  • Why Use Remote Research?
  • Important Considerations When Selecting a Research Methodology

What is Remote Research?

Good question. I’m glad you asked! Like conventional User Experience research, Remote Research is research that is conducted from just a little farther away... be it from home, from another office location, from another state or even another country away from your participants. Remote research can be location-displaced and time-displaced.

During a typical in-person research study, you meet your participants face to face. You go to a lab and the participants come to meet you there and you conduct the research. In other cases, such as an ethnographic study, you visit them in-person in their homes. In a more rigorous ethnographic study, you may even visit users in several different cities around the country to get a wider cross-section of views and behaviors.

Remote research changes the location of the research from In-Person to Virtual/Online.

I want to pause for a minute here to situate Remote Research in the broader context of Remote Work. I’ll come back to Remote Research shortly.

Remote Research in the Context of Remote Work

Thanks to the development of Information Communication Technology (ICT), the physical divide of location and the widespread availability of Information online allows us to consume Information and communicate ideas quickly and effortlessly. At the same time, the world has become smaller and we have become more and more connected. Thus, we have seen a proliferation of remote work and research is just part of the work that can be done remotely.

We have also been seeing a theme of the importance of remote work over the past several years and many of the top tech companies offer flexible working hours and remote working options. Scott Berkun even wrote a book about his year working remotely called, The Year Without Pants. Working remotely allows you to be more successful with the rest of your life, rather than having work take over your life.

In recent LinkedIn article, Companies Who Adopt Remote Work will Replace Every Company who Doesn’t, Chris Herd even likens the modern office as the, “Worst place on the planet:”

Remote work is the biggest workplace revolution in history and nothing will deliver a higher quality of life increase in the next decade than this. Workers having more flexibility to decide their work schedule, able to operate when they are most productive rather than a fixed day, enables a far better future of work than the one we currently experience… Being handcuffed to an office and expected to live in a high cost of living city with a low quality of life is a remnant of the industrial revolution. The devolution of offices into almost factory-like conditions as distraction factory adult kids clubs is complete. The office has become the worst place on the planet to get the isolation and focus you need to do deep work.

I know from my own experience of Working Deep and Shallow that setting aside time for Deep Work is really important… and that distractions are all too easy to come by. Distractions cane be in the form of digital distractions, such as checking your email incessantly or checking Social Media for that dopamine hit of someone liking your photo, or distractions can come physically as well. For example, the equivalent of a coworker coming by your desk to chat or those incessant coffee breaks. It’s really easy to be distracted if you’re not motivated to work. And while Remote Work may have other challenges, such as getting enough time to be around people, the tradeoff is that if you’re working from home and you have a routine of working from home, you can turn off your internet and actually DO that Deep Work.

Since jumping off a cliff and starting my UX Research Company, Amplinate, I’ve been able to work remotely, that is, from home, all the time. And I’ve loved it. I have found myself more productive and able to focus much better on the things that matter. Much of my work can be done remotely, and that’s part of how we can live in Paris. The work can be done anywhere and the only part of my work that has been in person is when I conduct a study in a lab or in participant’s homes.

However, there are plenty more options available to conduct research when you open up to the idea of Remote Research. Let’s come back to the topic of Remote Research and talk about what they are now.

Remote Research Methods and When to Apply Them

Just about any form of research can be performed online/remotely (I’m going to use these two words interchangeably). The first method you are probably thinking of is Surveys, though.

Surveys are a great tool for remote research. They give you a high N (in the thousands or even tens of thousands if you have the budget for it) and they can quantify the attitudinal thoughts your users have about your product or topic area. Surveys are very well suited for remote research because all you need to do is send the link out and your screening criteria in your survey will do the rest of the work for you. The participant just needs to receive it somewhere… likely their email… and they are filled out online anyway.

Surveys are a great way to validate insights from qualitative research with a lot of people. I do not consider surveys to be qualitative research, (though you can have questions with open-ended responses that must be analyzed qualitatively) as their strength really lies in the high number of users and in pairing with another qualitative study methodology.

Speaking of…. let’s talk about some remote qualitative methodologies.

Remote Interviews are probably the easiest to start with and to perform. An interview can take place simply using a phone. It’s about talking to your users about what they think about a certain topic and understanding their current behaviors and practices. Remote interviews will be much richer (and thus, much better) if you include video. Being able to see the participant adds a whole other layer of meaning and connection. Because if you want your participants to share their deepest desires, you have to make them feel comfortable… and the best way to do that is to see them so that you can have a more intimate connection with them, even if you are in another country.

An interview will still only help you understand what people SAY. It’s not that great at helping you understand what people DO. And if you’ve done research for a while, you understand very well that what people do and what they say can be completely different things.

Users say they want that feature… they say they perform that task “every day…” and they say they prefer X over Y… but does it align with what they do?

Users want to make the researcher happy. They want to tell us what they think we want to hear. And they want us to think that they are a good participant. So, they might stretch things a little bit. They might misremember the facts because something feels like they do it all the time, but maybe they don’t actually do it that frequently. They aren’t trying to lie, they just don’t remember past events the way that computers can track past events.

And this is why Observation is so important. Which leads us to our next remote research methodology: Remote Usability.

Remote Usability is wonderful because you get to watch users perform the tasks on their own computer and in the comfort of their own home! I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit here, but one of the biggest advantages of remote research is that the participants are using their own hardware and in their own spaces. It normally wouldn’t make sense to go to people’s homes to watch them perform tasks on your website (for many reasons, the primary reasons being that it’s easier to do usability in a lab and it’s better to take advantage of contextual insights when you’re in someone’s home over watching them perform tasks). But with remote research, you can watch things happen live or time-displaced (recorded earlier and you can watch it later on).

This brings up another important dimension of Remote Research: Moderation. There are excellent tools out there that will let you conduct research moderated in real time AND unmoderated. In unmoderated research, the tool itself actually runs the study for you by giving the participants the tasks and recording their screen while they are being performed. Since the tool itself can guide the users along, the research can be performed at any time… and the user gets to choose that time. As the researcher, you just have to watch the sessions and code them afterwards, but it makes the collection of the data incredibly fast.

Focus Groups can also be conducted online and they are also incredibly quick to perform. Similarly, they can be moderated or unmoderated using different types of tools. One fellow researcher once referred to an online focus group as a, “Firehose of data,” all at once. You share you screen, ask participants to rate the idea and then type some text about their initial response to the concept.

You can also do something Focus Group-esque using online message boards where participants will be led through a series of tasks, respond to stimuli via text or video, respond to survey questions, and even interact with each other to discuss relative strengths and weaknesses of a concept. You get a lot of data from a lot of people very quickly.

Diary Studies and Longitudinal Research are also great methods to utilize the strengths of remote research. Essentially, these are just ways of tracking participant feedback over time. It could be over the course of a week or it could be over the course of a month or longer. You set up the system at regular intervals to check in with the participant on what they are doing, how they feel about it, problems they encounter, and things they wish your product would do better or differently.

This is a great way to approach any kind of deprivation study or having users try out your new, unreleased beta ahead of time. For example, say you have a product with some fierce competition in the market.

  • Week 1: You can recruit users who are loyal to your competitor (or even dual users who use your product and your competitor at the same time) and have them track their activities over the course of the first week.
  • Week 2: Introduce your new beta version (or, even just your released version) and say, “Ok, now use this for the next week,” and have them track their usage and feedback over the course of the week.
  • Week 3: Give them the choice of what to use, and then ask them along the way why they did what they did.
  • Week 4: Close out the research project with a survey to the group of users about their experience and perhaps a focus group so you can hear from them in real time about their experience.

This entire study can be performed remotely!

Granted, there are parts that might be better in person, like the Focus Group at the end… or perhaps one on one interviews with some of the most interesting participants, but they can also be moderated in real time so you can get all the interesting follow up questions in.

Remote International Research. Yup, remote international research is also a possibility. How so? Well, for one (the most obvious case): surveys are easily translated as are responses. But, I’m sure you already knew that.

What about remote qualitative research? ALSO possible. Machine transcription and translation has gotten pretty good these days and some tools can even build it into the process! Of course, there are cultural nuances that you might miss, but you’ll catch all the big issues with your product regardless.

A Note on Tools: I’m intentionally being Tool-agnostic in this post since there are many excellent tools out there. I have some favorites, but the purpose is not to endorse a specific tool, but to broaden the way that you think about conducting Remote Research in general. As always, the research question should dictate the methodology, and thus, the tool you select to use and not the other way around. I’ll discuss more about that thought process below.

The One Thing Remote Research will Never Replace

I hope this has started to open you up to some of the research that you can do remotely. Essentially, you can do just about anything remotely that you can do in person. I say, “Just about anything,” because there is one big, important thing that remote research can never replace, and that is Context.

Conducting research remotely will never replace being there in person. You get so much rich data from being in someone’s home and seeing them in context with the rest of their lives and the systems around them. The dog barking. The children coming home from school. The piles of mail ready to be opened, the books on the shelf, and the pots in the sink. You see more than you think when you’re there in person-things that the participants won’t show you that have nothing to do with your study, but have everything to do with their lives and the interactions they have with the other people, technology, and tools around them.

If your research questions call for this type of data, you cannot replace it with remote research. Remote research can be a step along the journey to understanding your users and maybe even a great starting place, but remote research will never replace in-depth ethnographic research.

Advantages of Remote Research

Ok, now that I’ve convinced you that remote research can pretty much replace every part of the research process, let’s take it down a notch and discuss some of the strategic advantages of Remote Research so that you can use it intentionally to maximize its strengths while being aware of the shortcomings. AKA don’t draw the wrong kinds of conclusions.

I came up with so many advantages to Remote Research that I’ve broken them down into four major sections: Environment, Time, Recruitment, and Methodology.

Advantage 1: Environment

The location that the research takes place in plays a factor in your research. You can also call this a threat to the internal validity of the study, since it can affect how your users perceive your product. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also called the, “Hawthorne effect.” The idea is that participants will change their behavior if they know they are being observed or part of an experiment.

Nothing takes users out of their own reality like coming to a lab in an office building and being told to, “Do what they would normally do.” The physical location is not the same as they are used to, it takes the directly out of their reality, and just knowing they are being observed-even if only by the researcher themselves-is enough to cause them to think differently about their own behavior. This brings us to our first environmental benefit of Remote Research.

Users are in their natural environment. During a remote study, users are in their normal (Or, Natural?) environment while they are going through the study. They are not in an artificial laboratory environment which constantly calls attention to itself as a place other than their homes. Using remote research, your users are at home, exactly where they would normally be. And if you’re doing a mobile study, you can ask them to go where they would normally be at and then take photos or a selfie video of them where they would be at.

You actually get to observe the user where they actually perform the task and not just hear them talk about what they remember they do. And, as we discussed earlier, what users say they do and what they actually do are different things. Create the opportunities for users to be in the place they would normally be and then observe them do the thing they normally do. It takes out a lot of the artificiality of the location and makes it more realistic, which in turn, is a huge benefit to conducting remote research.

This kind of, “Show and Tell,” research allows you to get a genuine snapshot of a person’s life. It’s not everything about them, nor is it their entire life, it’s just a snapshot. But you can put a few of these snapshots together to get a more holistic view of each user on their own and the common themes across your users.

Reducing the Hawthorne Effect. I also have a hunch that the physical distance of conducting research remotely and specifically, the technological barrier between you and the participant (the fact that the research is mediated through technology) creates enough of a social distance as to reduce the Hawthorne effect.

For example, you’ve all heard about or been witness to internet trolls. Why do trolls troll? Because of the anonymity created by the Internet. You can be on the other side of the country and you can act differently online than you would if you were in front of the person. Just read the comments section of any political article these days and you’ll see what I mean.

Computer-mediated communication creates a distance between us, but in the case of remote research, this distance can be used to our advantage: we can use it to make users feel more comfortable about opening up to sharing what they really feel.

We aren’t sitting in front of them and they didn’t drive an hour to some lab just to be there and get paid for the research, so it doesn’t affect them as much to say they don’t like something because they have less of a stake in the reaction. The technological distance can increase honesty in our participants because they have nothing to lose.

I don’t have data to back this up. This is just my hypothesis based on my experience conducting research online and in-person. I’m very curious about what the rest of you think on this topic.

Empathy for Remote Teams. Working remotely can help you develop empathy for remote teams. If you work in the corporate headquarters, then you are in the center of where the decisions are made. But if you work in a remote office, it can be much harder to have access to the same people, or even know who all the key decision makers are. When you are remote, you develop more empathy for international subsidiaries who deal with these kinds of problems all the time and it can help shift your perspective to help them out when you see opportunities and breakdowns of communication and process that naturally happen when information isn’t shared as freely with others.

Research environment. While I’m sure most of us researchers are pretty comfortable in a lab setting, I’m sure that our homes (or remote office) might be a more comfortable location for conducting research. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a better place to do your best work because, just as your participant gets to be at home during the study, you, the researcher, also get to be in a more comfortable environment of your choosing. You get to choose the best place for you to be fully present, undistracted, and focused on your research.

When you can focus on planning or conducting research well (in the case of a remote moderated session) or you’re in a place where you can truly focus on analyzing and synthesizing data (in the case of an unmoderated session), you have the power to turn off your email, social media, your phone notifications, and truly dwell in the data.

Your research output gets better simply because you’re in a distraction-free place where you can do your best work.

Focus Time. If you’re like me, then dwelling in the data is actually the most interesting part of doing research. Having the time and space to think and to let the ideas settle, to develop frameworks, to dig into mental models, and to synthesize what the data means… this is what makes research the most interesting profession in the world. You’re on the forefront of new ideas and innovations all the time.

If the concept of Focus Time is new to you, then I would highly recommend the book, Deep Work, by Cal Newport. You can also listen to this interview with Cal talking about Deep Work. I used this book as a basis for experimenting on myself a few years ago and wrote about it in my blog posts, Working Deep and Shallow” and “Fail Harder.”

Location and Time are so closely related for me that I put Focus Time in the environment section. Each one enables the other to happen. But now, let’s take a look at some more advantages of Time.

Advantage 2: Time

Aside from the advantages of environment helping you to create the space for Focus Time, there are some other benefits to Remote Research which are related to Time.

Research is on the participant’s time. They choose the time for a moderated session, but they don’t have to go anywhere, so it doesn’t take them time to travel. In the case of an unmoderated study, it’s completely up to them when they perform the session. The research is literally on their time, not yours.

Take advantage of time zones. Next, you can take advantage of time zones to catch people outside your workday (when it’s best for them to participate) while still working during your own workday. For example, if you live on the West Coast of the USA, you can conduct a session at 9 am to catch the end of the workday in London (5 pm) or Paris (6 pm). This makes it easier for your participants to participate in the research because it’s outside their workday and it’s at a more normal time for you as well.

This brings us to the next advantage of remote research: getting the best users for your study.

Advantage 3: Recruitment

Being able to find the right people for your study is of paramount importance to conducting good research. Here’s why:

  • Bad users = bad data
  • Bad data = bad conclusions
  • Bad conclusions = bad recommendations
  • Bad recommendations = bad Research

Wow, that escalated quickly, right? But, it’s true. Your research is only as good as your ability to ensure that the people you are conducting the research with are the right users for your product. They have to PERFORM the action you are testing or HAVE THE PROBLEM your product purports to solve.

Finding your exact users. Remote research ensures that you’re able to find the precise users who have the needs you’re looking for no matter what part of the country they are in! This is a massive benefit. And since you get to stay where you’re at while you’re conducting the study, it’s extremely cost effective, too.

Recruit across the country. Additionally, you can actually get users from a wider cross-section of the country than you’re used to. In-person research typically allows you to conduct research with your users in one location. Maybe, in cases of doing a few Focus Groups around the country, you can conduct research in up to three different representative locations around the country.

What if you could conduct research across the entire country… in the same study… and all remotely? When you’re not limited by geography, you open up to hearing more diverse ideas and seeing potentially different behaviors. This makes the research better, too.

Research Outside the Tech Hubs. The next difficulty with finding the right users is that you have to select a location to conduct the research…. either where you are, or you go to another location to find more, “Normal” users outside the big tech hubs.

It was pretty much a constant fear in my former companies of basing all our product decisions based on people that happened to live in the Seattle area. If you live in one of the big tech hubs of Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, or New York, you’re probably familiar with this concept of going to other locations around the country to find people that don’t live in the tech hubs and aren’t as tech savvy as everyone else around you.

Remote research allows you to get participants from all over the country and avoid the tech-bias of the tech hubs.

Advantage 4: Methodology

Methodology is one of my favorite topics because it is the great fusing of the creative side and the scientific side of my brain. Remote Research can play a role in every part of the Design and Software Development processes because it’s so flexible and fast.

The Tip of the Iceberg. The thing I appreciate most about Remote Research is that it helps you move quickly and learn something interesting. You can take a first step and then decide where to go next. Remote Research helps you start to dig and uncover how much more is underneath. You won’t see the entire iceberg from a single study-but you wouldn’t see that entire iceberg from a single in-person study, either. You can get a good lay of the land and then choose which area(s) to go deeper on. Or, you can find out which areas are not interesting and move on from there. Remote research is a great way to quickly find out which way to go if you’re unsure.

Simple Questions. Sometimes, research doesn’t have to be big and grandiose. (I know I’m making all the academics out there probably freak out… just give me a moment here). After doing research, “In the industry,” (aka NOT academia), for over 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of good and bad research questions and topics. Some of them have been interesting and others have been rather pedantic. And every once in a while, you have to do something to see if the hypothesis has any endurance over time-to see if there’s something valid or if it’s just a crazy idea.

Remote research comes to the rescue! Believe me, I’ve tested my fair share of crazy ideas and I wish Remote Research had been a valid option back in the day-it would have saved me a TON of time! When I was a much more junior researcher, I was assigned a product area to perform research on. It was my primary job responsibility at the time, so I did what I had learned to do in school: I performed some interviews and concept studies in the lab to learn about the feature. There was some initial reticence to the idea (because it was crazy), but the team (Or, the Lead PM, really) was really enamored with the idea because it had a tie to increased revenue. So, I kept doing more research on it… in person… in the lab… and as the product developed and changed, I learned more and more about exactly what was wrong with it because it broke user Mental Models about how things should work all over the place.

I learned several thing from this experience. Mostly, I learned to trust my gut. I learned to believe users when they have hesitation and to emphasize that quite a bit more-because a little hesitation externally actually means a ton of hesitation internally that they aren’t verbalizing.

Doing a ton of in person research over the course of a year on this project was fascinating, but I look back now and think about how much time I could have saved by doing remote interviews for the first several rounds and then doing one or two in person studies later on. This brings up my next area: iterative research.

Iteration and User-Centered Design. Remote Research can be used to iterate on a concept or idea quickly. I keep saying quickly because it really is quick. The tools out there I use a lot have large databases of users and you can screen for the ones you want using the tool itself, which shaves off weeks of time working with recruitment for an in person study.

You can also incorporate a mix of remote and live research (see the next section, below). For example, staring with a remote unmoderated study and then following up with a remote live study (where you and the participant are talking to each other in real time). You can also use remote research to follow-up with participants previously visited in person or vice-versa. Not every part of the process must be conducted in person. Sometimes, a short survey will even suffice for parts of the process (like perceptions of your product or current behaviors).

Phased and Mixed Methods Research. I am grouping these two things together here because the end product is the same: grouping research projects together to answer the same research question in multiple ways with different methodologies and data types to support or reject your previous findings. But what’s more interesting here is why we, as researchers, should be doing this.

Research doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do your users. Your research findings are only as good as your last study. But as time goes on and new research comes out, things change for your users: both in terms of their habits and behaviors and in terms of the external forces in their lives (and affecting the country). This means that there is never any definitive study that covers everything we know and will continue to be True from now on.

We need to constantly question our conclusions, assimilate new findings, and critically evaluate what (if any) effect they have on what we know.

We should be willing to drop a bad conclusion at any point when new data is compelling enough to support it. And we must remain vigilant in our skepticism and beliefs about our own, “Truths.” This is what a good scientist will do and how they approach Research.

I’m reminded of Thomas Kuhn, a favorite Scientist and Philosopher of Science, who wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

The most revolutionary thing about Research is its ability to lead to Scientific Revolutions… the kind of revolutions that bring about paradigm shifts in thinking. Another thing I love about this particular quote is that it acknowledges both the communal role of Research (That many researchers bring findings together and build on each other’s work to bring about innovations in thinking) and that Research learnings grow and develop over time (That truly big findings-Scientific Revolutions-take a long time to grow and develop).

If you’re not familiar with paradigm shifts, think back to Galileo. There was a time-not that long ago-where everyone knew the Earth was the center of the universe. We knew this because the church told us so. Man is the center of the universe, the prized creation of, “God,” and thus the Earth must also be the center of the universe, around which everything revolves (or so the line of reasoning went). And for thousands of years, we all believed this to be true.

Then along came Galileo, who not only developed the telescope, he also developed the Scientific Method (something that all researchers of hard and soft science are greatly indebted to!). When Galileo turned his telescope towards the heavens and started to track the movements of the moons of Jupiter, things didn’t make sense because of the very complicated theory of epicycles of moons that seemed to go backwards! But, if you put the Sun in the center of the solar system (The Copernican theory had already been conceived of many years prior), then everything fell into place and suddenly made sense (Confer the idea also known as Occam’s Razor: “The simplest solution is often the right one.”)

Galileo wrote in his journal that he was, “Visually certain,” that the Earth revolved around the Sun. And so started the scientific revolution of the heliocentric theory. Galileo was under house arrest for the end of his life by the church for saying “heretical” things, yet over time, we all came to “Know” that the Earth revolved around they Sun.

This is an example of a paradigm shift. And going back through the history of Science, there are many more examples we can come up with, (Like, when we all used to know the earth was flat until Magellan* circumnavigated the earth proving definitively that the earth was, in fact, round).

Note: Technically, since Magellan died on the trip, the Basque mariner Juan Sebastian Elcano who took over the expedition after Magellan’s death and returned to Spain three years later should be credited as well, though it was Magellan’s expedition that proved it.

What does this have to do with Remote Research? Everything.

When you allow for research to live and breathe and exist over time as part of your journey seeking the Truth, you allow for your learnings to reshape and develop further. When you build on findings from previous research, incorporate new findings from other researchers, incorporate your own findings, and work closely with your Data Scientist in a Mixed Methods study, what you are doing is opening yourself up to learn. To being proven wrong. To constantly evaluate and reevaluate your conclusions with every new data point and finding that comes out.

Remote Research adds to this journey. It’s a step that can be used to help you understand more about your area of inquiry and can be combined with other qualitative studies and other data types in a Mixed Method study to get a broader, more comprehensive view of reality.

Why Use Remote Research?

As one of my favorite PMs once told me: “You can have it fast, it can be cheap, or it can be good. You get to pick two of the three.” Essentially, this means:

  • You can do it quickly and cost effectively, but you risk rigor and quality
  • You can do it in a cost effective way that’s rigorous, but it will take a while
  • You can be extremely rigorous and quick, but it won’t be cost effective

Every research methodology (And, by extension, Product Design and Development) is a trade-off of these factors.

It is every researcher’s job to understand what methodological trade-offs they are making in order to answer their research questions in the best way possible.

Closely related to this idea is the importance of understanding what types of conclusions you can draw from each type of data and methodology. For example:

  • You can’t conclude that everyone has a problem that 8 out of 10 people in a usability study had… but you can feel pretty confident that the problem was common enough that it should probably be fixed.
  • Likewise, you can’t say why less that 1% of the traffic to your page didn’t click the link to the widget you wanted them to click… but you can make hypotheses about why and then go investigate them in future research.

The issue I’m talking about here is evaluating qualitative data quantitatively (the first example) or evaluating quantitative data qualitatively (the second example).

Just like when you’re drawing conclusions from data by type of data, it’s also important to consider how you’re drawing conclusions from the methodology of your study. So, if you’re testing a new app and you bring users in to try it out in the lab (or remotely!) for the first time… all you are getting is their initial response to your product. You can’t make conclusions about how often they use it (or will use it in the future), how their other behaviors change (or will change), or how their sentiment will be different after the introduction of your new product onto the market next month.

It’s extremely important to be careful about the conclusions you are drawing from your data and to ensure that they are not only conclusions that can be drawn, but also that your study methodology and data type support those conclusions.

Remote Research is no different. If your research questions are best answered by an ethnographic study, then by all means, go visit people in their homes. But if you break apart your research questions into smaller chunks, there are chunks that can be addressed remotely in such a way that you create a phased approach to your research where you can learn and iterate as you move forward and build up a series of studies using different methods and data types along the way that create a holistic picture of your research questions (and users) with built-in time for product iteration and innovation so that you can keep moving your product forward.

If you can’t tell already, I’m a HUGE fan of this type of phased research approach. And remote research plays a key role in this, because so much of this can (and should) be conducted remotely so that by the time you’re conducting research in-person, you know so much about what matters that you can be laser focused with crisp findings.

The really sad thing is that no one is really doing research this way. It’s probably something everyone knows should be done, but for some reason, many companies don’t take the time to really dig into questions in such a deep and methodical way. (At Amplinate, this is how we prefer to work).

Important Considerations When Selecting a Research Methodology

Ok, Let’s say you’re interested in conducting some studies remotely… what should you be thinking about to plan your study?

There are many ways to conduct remote research (And, research in general) and many types of methods you can use. These have been covered already, above. In this section, I’d like to cover the key dimensions to think through when planning your research. Your answers to these questions will lead to the type of study you select.

I’ll break it out into Strategic and Tactical Dimensions. And, for the sake of this section, let’s say you already have your research questions in mind and know what your stakeholders want to answer about your product.

Strategic Dimensions of Research

Strategically, where is your product at and what questions do you have to take your product to the next level?

Strategic vs. Tactical Research questions lead you to the type of study. Are you looking for where your product should go based on insights from out in the industry? Or are you looking for at more tactical questions like, “Can our users figure out how to use the new widget?” What part of the Design or Development process are you in? Early on, you need strategic research. Later on, prior to shipping your product, you need a tactical study-like a Usability study or a Benchmark study-to give you confidence that your product is ready to go.

Note: See A Fundamental Truth of User-Centered Design that is Simple, Yet Forgotten for more on selecting what type of methodology to use in the UCD process.

Relationship with other Research Activities: Mixed Method/Phased Research vs. One-off Study is an important dimension to think through ahead of time. Is this the first project in your topic area? What other work has been done already? Are you going in blindly, or are there already deeply held beliefs about users that are informing things you don’t know about?

Preference/Sentiment vs. Observation: Does your study need to focus more on what people say about your product (Preference or sentiment) or should you build in an observational component so you can watch what users do to understand how usable your product is?

Data Type: Qualitative vs. Quantitative Data answer different types of questions. With a qualitative study, you’re looking more at HOW and WHY questions whereas with a Quantitative study, you’re looking more at HOW MANY. Again, see the article I linked just above for more detail on this topic as well.

Tactical Dimensions of Research

By, “Tactical,” I mean the more practical aspects of planning your research. Where will it be? When will it be conducted? How will it be conducted?

Research Location: In-person vs. Remote. In an article on the advantages of Remote Research, this might initially sound silly, but it’s a valid question. You do have to think through what remote research is good at and then ensure you’re using a Remote Study for the right reasons and in order to address the right kinds of questions.

Research Temporality: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous modes of research have very concrete limitations for your study. If it’s in real time, “Live,” then you and your participant have to connect at a specific time (and in a specific place for in person research). Whereas in an asynchronous study, timing (and thus also location) are not factors to consider.

Manner of Conducting: Moderated vs. Unmoderated. I’m including this for completeness, but at this point, it should be pretty clear…. Moderating a study means you are doing it live in person or live remotely whereas in an unmoderated study, it’s remote and moderated by the system, that is, the tool you are using and not you.

And, per my note on Tools above, I’m not endorsing a single tool. There are many out there that allow you to perform many of these types of studies. What matters more than the tool is that you let your research questions drive the selection of the tool that you use (and not the other way around!).

Start with what you want to know, then figure out which tool will help you get there the best.

Framework of Research Dimensions

Because I like to come up with frameworks to visually represent my ideas, I put this together to help illustrate some of these dimensions to think through:

Conventional Research. The Top-Left quadrant is for conventional lab-based research where the Researcher, Participant, and Team are in the lab and the research is taking place in real time.

Live Streaming. On the Top-Right, we have research that is being conducted live, but with some members of the team-or the researcher-being in a different location. Thus, the research is streamed from one location to another location and consumed in real time. There are two nuances:

  • The Researcher and Participant can be in the same location and the session is streamed to the Team that is physically somewhere else in the world
  • The Researcher, Participant, and Team are all in different locations and the research is streamed and consumed entirely remotely

Both of these options are good. There may be a slight benefit of having the Researcher and the Participant in the same physical location as it does make the interaction between the two of them more natural, but then again, the computer-mediated distance might help the user to be more honest about things they don’t like.

Unmoderated Research. The bottom-right quadrant is for unmoderated research, which is conducted by the tool, performed at any time the Participant wants, and consumed at a later time. The difference is that unmoderated research is not moderated by the researcher, whereas sharing a video of research previously conducted by a Researcher is what I’m calling video sharing.

Video Sharing. This is when the research takes place live/in real time, it’s recorded, and then the recording is shared after the fact so it is consumed at a different time than when the research was conducted. It’s less interactive, since it already happened, but this is a way that research can happen. You can always watch a previous video to learn about what informed the decisions that have been made.

Closing Thoughts

I hope that you have found this article useful in thinking through when and why to incorporate Remote Research into your future research plans. Remote research is a wonderful tool and, when used correctly and in conjunction with other research methods and data types, can yield powerful results quickly to help your product move forward.

If you’re interested in talking to me about how to incorporate Remote Research or talk about how Amplinate can help, send me an email at josh at amplinate.com.

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