Remote user studies

To keep our design approach adaptive and people-first, we employ a variety of research and design techniques to conduct field studies, interviews, iterative testing, and co-design workshops.

However, with the coronavirus pandemic and numerous lockdowns, some of our favourite methods were put to the test. The biggest challenge we faced was to stay user-centric in our processes even as we went remote.

To retain the same value research we achieved pre-pandemic, and continue to anchor all our work to user-centric insights, we explored new ways of engaging with our users.

Here are some guidelines we've used over past few months:

1. Trust, but also screen

We try to avoid professional respondents and make sure our process is as authentic as possible, especially when we're onboarding users remotely. To that end, we deploy a screener ahead of the session to ensure that the participant is a good enough representative of the potential user for that particular project.

2. Recreate reality with the right digital resources

A part of designing a study involves identifying the right tools to use based on the participant group's available infrastructure. With our physical channels of interaction completely shut, we also account for external variables and the group's familiarity and comfort with technology.

We experimented with video conferencing tools, remote testing tools and alternative workarounds such as Jitsi, Meet, Zoom, and WhatsApp call. Now, we rely on a mix-and-match setup that's mixed and matched based on each project's requirements.

3. Enable flexible fidelity

With usefulness testing, the right amount of fidelity helps in communicating concepts effectively. While high fidelity concepts that involve interactive prototypes do offer rich information, participants don’t always have great connectivity. Therefore, prototyping must be flexible to these new realities of going fully remote.

4. Accompany prototypes with digital artefacts

Pairing prototypes digital artefacts helps participants bridge gaps in their imagination and situate themselves in the context of users.

5. Account for longer studies

The digital medium has its own quirks, and accounting for time to navigate through those becomes important in remote studies. We ensure that the studies have enough time both in-between and during the studies, for us and the participants to get comfortable with the medium.

6. Administer mock runs

Role-playing adds immense value in identifying areas that need improvements. As a rule of thumb, we now conduct extensive mock runs before to the study to understand how it might pan out. This not only gets us accustomed to the new tools and medium but also orchestrates conversations with our participants. Granted, all humans interact and behave differently, but as a practice, this helps with getting better feedback in a controlled environment.

7. Be ethical and register subtle cues

The absence of body language as a cue means we need to tune in and ensure early on that participants are comfortable and candid in sharing their thoughts through the interview. We make sure to take explicit consent at every step, whether it's to take notes or record or live stream a session.

8. Create a safe space

We find that in remote studies, it is important to facilitate sessions with more care and patience. At every step of the session, we ‘hold space’ for the participant to experience the interface and reflect on it. We also encourage candid feedback to help better next steps.

9. Aid participants with supporters

One of the primary roadblocks we knew we would face was conducting remote testing on mobile devices with first-time smartphone users. In such cases, recruiting a participant support—any family member, caretaker, or friend available to help with tech difficulties during the study—is key. After all, a friend in need is a friend indeed!

10. Take collaborative sense-making online

Going digital with the process of sense-making meant refining our documentation to make remote collaboration easier and more participatory. From note-taking to synthesis, we use systems we designed on Figma to make intra-team collaboration efficient. An added benefit is that clients get to participate and get key insights in real-time!

In addition to these, a decent alternative to being present in the physical context is to learn second-hand from people who know these contexts well enough to describe them. To make sure we're as flexible and versatile as possible, we'll continue to build up our capacity to switch between user study methods, even in a post-pandemic world.

Collaboration Guidelines