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  • Matthew Doty

Some Things I've Learned About Remote Design Research

In these unusual times of social distancing, we all need to get creative about how we work. For those of us who believe in and practice Human-Centered Design, understanding and empathizing with the people we design for can be challenging! We may even feel the pressure to abandon efforts to observe our audiences for a time. Yet, even in the face of the new, temporary limitations we face, "[we] cannot say that [we] are human-centered unless [we] have regular and direct access to the humans [we] are designing for"

Enter remote design research!

I'm a huge fan of doing remote design research (and have been for quite some time... even before we kinda had to be). In fact, dscout recently asked me and a few others to contribute to a post on their blog that offered "advice for methods, management, and mechanics" for remote design research. While the demand for this capability has exploded, there are some things you need to consider before diving into your first remote research project.

This post outlines some of the remote research lessons I've learned over the last several years.

Check Your Motivation

One of my first questions to anyone looking to start a remote research practice would be "Why?" Remote research carries with it many inherent benefits such as increased efficiency, reduced costs and increased reach. At the same time, it can be tempting to view remote research as a way to cut corners or otherwise eliminate critical aspects of gaining human-centered insight.

The answers to "Why" can help reveal and resolve these types of misunderstandings. For example, because remote research is so convenient, it is easy for organizations to want to "put all of their eggs in that basket" and do all research remotely. By taking this approach, however, these organizations unwittingly cut themselves off from the benefits of live observation.

Tighten Your Toolkit

Remote research, depending on the methods used, requires certain capabilities (e.g. cameras, apps, screen sharing, strong/consistent internet connection, virtual collaboration tools, etc).

Since no singular tool can do it all, and any tool that claims otherwise will disappoint on at least one of these fronts, you need to experiment with what combinations of tools work best for what you're trying to achieve.

As an example, my remote research suite looks like this:

  • Dscout: Foundational platform for diary studies and live interviews. 

  • Optimal Workshop: Organizational/perceptual exercises

  • SurveyMonkey: Quantitative attitudinal feedback 

  • Mural: Collaborative post-it-like exercises for remote workshops

  • Zoom: General conferencing/screen-sharing

Get Ready for the Rigor

While it's true that remote research eliminates certain complexities of live, in-person research, it still requires serious effort and rigor when it comes to accurate analysis of observations as well as synthesis of insights into clear, meaningful recommendations that inspire stakeholders to action. You will need to invest serious time, energy and talent in these areas. Below are 3 important items to bear in mind.

  1. For heaven's sake, do a dry run! This may seem like a no-brainer, but as we get more and more confident as researchers, this is something that can fall by the wayside (often in the name of efficiency). With remote research, we introduce a whole host of new "things that can go wrong", so do not skip this step. 

  2. Get ready to spend some serious time reviewing/analyzing responses! The first time I did the analysis for a diary study, it took me about 3x longer than I originally estimated. Give yourself the space to really dig in. you'll also want to carefully manage the expectations of others on the project so this activity gets the time it deserves.

  3. Set clear analysis objectives and hold yourself accountable to them. The good news about remote research is that you get a plethora of rich insight. The bad news about remote research is that you get a plethora of rich insight! Without a clear set of analysis objectives, it's very easy to get lost in all that richness. 

Bring Others Along for the Ride

Just like you would invite key project stakeholders to observe interviews or focus groups from behind the glass at a facility, get those same people "in the room" with you during each remote session. Whether the observers are physically in the room or virtually dialed into the session you're running, having observers will help you glean critical insights in the moment that would have otherwise been lost. Observers will also help you pivot tactics and improve from session to session.

Conduct analysis with a few trusted partners on the project who represent key perspectives. While this may seem counterintuitive to saving time in the short term, it will pay off in spades in the long run. Specifically...

  • The others "in the room" can also help hold you accountable to analysis objectives.

  • The extra hearts and minds will come in handy later in the project when you need advocates for the customer's perspective.

  • The extra people will perceive critical insights in the moment that would have otherwise been lost in translation. 


I'm a huge fan of doing remote design research, especially in these unusual times of social distancing! Before engaging in your remote design research efforts, however, check your motivation, make sure your toolkit is tight, you're ready for the rigor and you bring others along for the ride. You'll be glad you did.

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