remote user research concept illustration of zoom call with man and post-it notes

How to broaden your reach and reduce participant barriers with remote user research

UX Designer Winnie Ho shares how we worked out some of the kinks encountered with remote user research and virtual engagement.

One of my first experiences with facilitating a remote user research session happened a few years ago. We wanted a quick turnaround, so rather than fly over on a plane to meet our participants in person (and deal with the associated logistics), we had decided to hold the sessions remotely. After figuring out how to get consent forms signed online, sending out an information package to participants, and doing a test run in our office, we felt pretty confident. And for the most part, everything went smoothly. 

During our test runs, we felt the audio from Zoom may be impacted by the internet speed (ours and our participants’) so we decided to use a separate phone number for audio and use Zoom only for screen sharing. While this was outlined in the information package and the meeting invite, one participant used the default Zoom phone number anyway. When they joined the session, we couldn’t hear each other. We tried using the chat function to let them know what number to call but they didn’t notice it. At the end, we resorted to holding up a post-it note with the correct dial-in instructions up to the camera. A minute later, we were finally talking with our participant.

Illustration showing a hand with a note with fake phone and conference numbers

Despite this hiccup, we were able to get the insight we needed to move the design and project forward, and complete the usability testing quickly. Flash forward to today with the COVID-19 pandemic and our new virtual norms of engagement. Our team was able to quickly adjust because of our past experience, but it kick-started our thinking on the other benefits—and challenges—that could come with conducting remote user testing. I’d like to share some of the lessons we learned that could help you as you facilitate remote user research in your own projects.

Always be prepared (it’s not just for Scouting).

Considerations for remote user research

Preparation goes a long way to ensuring a successful remote session. The following tips can help you get started on the right foot.

  • Send an information package to participants ahead of time with information on how they can set up their devices before the session and who they can reach out to for assistance. This reduces potential technical hiccups on the day of.
  • If consent is required, remove the obstacles around old methods of printing and signing a document by using online software that facilitates form-filling and signing, like Adobe Sign
  • Do a test run with a colleague to make sure that the technology is working on your end, and address any issues beforehand.
  • Add an extra 15 minutes to each session, just in case any technical issues come up.
  • Have a backup plan. Sometimes the technology you choose doesn’t work for everyone. For example, if someone isn’t able to, or isn’t comfortable with, signing a consent form online, then provide them the form through other means.

Remote user research opens opportunities

Increased geographic representation of users

The users you’re designing for may be all around the world and it’s not always possible to travel to conduct in-person sessions. In reflecting on our practice, I realized we often host user research activities and workshops in our office, which is located in an urban city centre. This unintentionally skewed recruitment towards those who reside or can easily travel to the city centre. In doing so, we missed out on the perspective of those from more rural areas. Engaging users remotely allows you to broaden your reach, giving you the opportunity to engage with those who are in rural regions, as well as a more expansive geography beyond the location of your office.

Illustration of a BC map with regional dots representing remote user research

Reduced logistical and physical burden for researchers and participants

You can mitigate some of the bias of urban-centric engagements by traveling to rural areas—but the planning and effort that goes into this can be a big undertaking for the research team and participants.

Once, when we were conducting usability testing in a rural area of BC, we had asked participants to meet us at our client’s office for the interview. When one participant arrived, they were drenched. We later found out they had to ride their bike for an hour in the rain to get to the office, as the bus came too infrequently and the taxi would have been too expensive. We felt bad for having the participant go through that experience for our interview.

Facilitating remote user engagement takes the burden caused by travel out of the equation. It’s an alternative for participants who have limited access to transportation, or have mobility concerns that might make travel difficult. Eliminating the need for travel also allows participants to take less time away from other priorities, like work or child care. 

As a facilitator, you can facilitate sessions in one place while still being able to talk to people from different locations. The time that would have been spent travelling can be used for breaks between sessions, which will help you to rest and regroup. 

Reduces barriers to mobility

Access to transportation and traveling to a location aren’t the only barriers to mobility. Sometimes in-person sessions may have unintended consequences for your participants while on site. During one usability testing session, a participant came to our office in a wheelchair. Unfortunately our office had a lot of tight corners to turn and the building washrooms were not designed with accessibility in mind. Their experience navigating in our office was not ideal.

For user research activities that don’t require a physical presence, offer the option to engage remotely. This gives participants the choice to engage in the manner that’s most comfortable for them.

Lessened financial impacts for participants

In our transit-related study for TransLink, we interviewed riders across the region. One of these participants, a freelance editor who shared a living space with their sibling, described how they managed their budget. They had to plan their meal and travel budget carefully. Their errands had to be planned and completed within the 90-minute window of a single transit ticket. We wouldn’t want to disrupt that or place any additional financial burden on them. In hindsight, this could have been an opportunity where we engaged with the interviewee online and reduced the potential economic burden for users.

Even though compensating participants for their time is a standard practice when conducting user research, attending an in-person user research session does come at a cost to the participant (such as the cost to travel, or the cost of child care). Joining user research activities remotely can reduce these costs and can be a better option for some participants.

Remote user research comes with its own challenges

While remote user engagement can connect you with different populations and offer participants better options to connect, it can also exclude others.

  • People who don’t have access to technology. Participants must have a certain level of access to technology (equipment, internet connectivity, software) in order to join, which may not be available to everyone who you want to engage.
  • Some people are less technically savvy. Participants may not be able to navigate the technology, even if they have access to it.
  • People with hearing impairments may not be able to see your face to lip read while looking at another screen at the same time (for example, in usability testing).
  • Also consider visual and cognitive challenges when planning your remote user research sessions.

Be aware of these limitations and address them either by reporting the gaps as part of your research findings, or by using a combination of both remote and in-person methods to round out the research.

A virtual approach to engagement will let you gather insights from a wider audience.

Getting user feedback throughout the design process is critical in testing assumptions, validating design decisions, and gaining key insights. While it would be ideal to engage users in-person so you can observe more visual cues, sometimes it’s just not possible to arrange that.

Remote user research can provide you with an alternative method to connect with users. Even when in-person engagements are possible, complimenting them with a remote user engagement option allows for participants to choose which one best meets their situation.

Remote user testing allows you to engage in a more accessible way with your participants, which will only broaden user feedback and ultimately lead to better outcomes.

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We can help facilitate your remote or in-person user research, whether that’s interviews, usability testing, or workshops. Contact us to learn more.