How To Do Remote User Research
The beginning of the pandemic last year has fundamentally changed the way we work. Meetings and all kinds of workshops had to switch to a remote environment. If you found yourself working remotely for the first time, you might have wondered how you could conduct remote user research effectively. Well, the good news is that there are many research methodologies that can be done with the help of online tools.
There is a lot written already on how to conduct remote user research sessions. In this article, we’ll look into some best practices and tools to help you run moderated or unmoderated studies the leanest way possible.
So, why do you need this?
The value of doing good research cannot be overstated. Research helps you make sure you’re building the right thing and for the right people. Here are some new benefits you might discover when doing your research remotely:
You can easily explore new markets since you are not bound to your location. You can scout interview candidates from any place.
Remote testing might end up being cheaper than setting up an onsite testing lab. All you need is a stable internet connection and a bit of equipment.
Interviewees might be more willing to join your research sessions, as doing it online requires less effort from their side. For example, they don’t have to spend time commuting to get to your research point.
Moving research sessions online (credit: Anna Shvets - Pexels)
How to get started with remote user research
Here are some step-by-step tips on how to validate ideas remotely and gather feedback.
Double down on your research plan
Before conducting any research, you need to start with a good research plan. This plan outlines all information needed to keep your research focused. You usually share it with the team involved, and it includes the following:
Problem outline with the assumptions and goals you are tackling with the research
Interview script containing the list of unbiased questions
List of stakeholders or other relevant contacts
Research timeline and expected deliverables
Description of the target persona you’re aiming to interview and a list of potential contacts for interviews
Any relevant links (for example some previous research or project documentation)
Having a research plan in place makes it much easier to execute the interviews. The interview script serves as a clear guide to conduct interviews so that you don’t have to think about formulating questions on the spot. Instead, you can focus on listening to your users. You can find some great tips on creating good research plans here.
Test your questions and prepare a prototype
Pilot test your questions before going to your actual users. Pilot testing means running a test session to see if your study is smooth and easy to understand. It allows you to solve any inconsistencies and fine-tune unclear questions.
If your study includes any kind of prototype, make sure to include all the main user flows that you wish to test. You should also ensure that your prototype is easily accessible to the users outside of your organization. Tools like Marvel or InVision might come in handy for that.
Contact users and schedule testing sessions
To find your research interview candidates, look into your existing user base, or do cold outreach over LinkedIn or elsewhere where your users are. You might also get them through a recruiting tool - this is an especially cool approach if you want to conduct your research anonymously. Services like TestingTime or UserTesting offer just that. Here are some things to keep in mind when recruiting users for your interviews:
For discovery research, aim for as many people as possible (we’ve done some with 30-40 people included). For usability testing, start with fewer people but in more iterations.
If you’re recruiting people for quantitative research such as surveys, then you need a bit more work to determine what is a good sample size to get significant data. You can calculate it here.
Ask interviewees to sign an NDA if needed.
To make your remote user research as efficient as possible, send an email invitation with a brief description of the interview purpose and the tools that will be used during the session. This helps prepare users and avoid time wasted on technical difficulties.
Conduct your remote user research sessions
After pilot testing the questions and setting up online meetings with candidates, you’re ready for the most fun part of the research - talking to your users! If you are doing any moderated sessions, keep in mind the following:
Bring an observer/notetaker on the call. They will listen to the user and take notes while you facilitate and ask the questions you prepared.
Ask the interviewees if it is okay to record the call (they have the right to refuse).
Observe the user's behavior and make notes of what they say.
Feel free to always ask “Why” to gain a better understanding.
After each session, quickly regroup with your observer to discuss and interpret user behavior and what they said:
What was the user the most vocal about?
What were the most positive or negative takeaways?
Was the user’s behavior inconsistent with their words?
Write down the main takeaways after every interview session. If anything is unclear, revisit the recording. After a couple of sessions, you will start to see the patterns in the user's feedback. Here’s a great template you can use to handle notes.
What tools are out there?
While field studies are not really possible with lockdown measures, you can still use a lot of other research methodologies both moderated or unmoderated. You can do individual interviews, usability testing, focus groups, online surveys, or card sorting. I included below a list of tools to help you do your remote user research.
General communication tools
Zoom, Slack, Teams, or similar. When it comes to conducting moderated sessions, there are a lot of general communication tools that you can use to your advantage. After roughly a year of lockdown, you should be familiar with these tools. They allow the interviewee to share their screen while you can still observe their face/body language in the corner. The tools also give you the option to record the sessions for later reference.
Prototype testing tools
Invision, Marvel, or similar. If you have the prototype ready in one of these tools, you can share the link to it with interviewees on the call. They can then share their screen while they’re going through the testing scenarios you’ve prepared.
Maze.design, Preely.com. If you want to test your prototypes in an unmoderated way, you can easily import your Sketch or Figma prototypes into one of these tools. Then you can set up and share your testing scenarios so that users can take them at their own pace. The results will be saved inside these tools along with analytics.
Prototype testing through an unmoderated study. Tasks are set up on the prototype with an introduction and a follow-up question.
Usability testing tools
UsabilityHub, Lookback.io, UserZoom. These tools provide a full suite of methodologies and features to do both moderated or unmoderated research. They also provide an easy way to keep all your research in one place.
Optimal Sort. This is a great tool for card sorting. If you need to test your website navigation or have any dilemmas around information architecture, try it. You can also use it in moderated studies to observe users while they do the sorting and ask follow-up questions.
SurveyMonkey, Typeform, Google Forms, or similar. They allow you to easily build and send out surveys. This is the easiest way to gather quantitative and qualitative data. The drawback is that you will often not be able to dig deeper or follow up on “why” if responses are unclear. So, it’s important to craft surveys well.
Example of a survey with responses to different questions.
No matter which tools you choose, explain to your interviewees how the tools work. This will remove any friction that might influence your findings during the interview. Also, make sure your users will join from a suitable device. You don’t want your interviewees to join from a phone if you’re aiming to test a web application during the session. The best thing to do is to send an email before the session to explain the tools you’ll be using and how interviewees should join the session.
Doing proper remote user research is sometimes hard. Luckily, there are a lot of tools that can help you to do it. If you want to dive deeper into the research topic, there are a couple of books I would recommend:
That's all folks
If you're feeling generous why not spread the words on Twitter.
Have a good one!
Join our 400+ growth hackers and get
practical tips right into your inbox