Remote Research Illustration

User Research in a Post-Covid World

Addressing the advantages of, and issues with, remote user research and user testing methods.

Written by Mark McNally

Being a UX design innovation agency that carries out user research around the world, at Frontend.com we have had to modify our approaches to how we conduct our research due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, now that the pandemic is coming under greater control, and restrictions are starting to be eased, what does that mean for how we will conduct user research in future? Will research methods return to how they were in pre-pandemic times, or will the changes made during the pandemic persist?

Advantages of Remote User Research

When Covid-19 impacted in early 2020, Frontend.com had to cancel research trips to Switzerland, Canada, and Hungary. Work that we normally carry out face-to-face now needed to be conducted remotely. Luckily, we had a lot of (pre-pandemic) experience of delivering remote research and an awareness of the advantages and limitations that come with it. However, as the pandemic restrictions persisted we have, along with many others, come to appreciate these in a lot greater detail. While virtual communications have become almost second nature to us, conducting effective research requires a specific set of conditions. It’s worth taking a close look at how research works in a remote context. There are a lot of positive aspects to remote research:

  • The ability to include participants from a wider geographic area, which can be a benefit in itself, while also making it easier to recruit from groups that can be more difficult to reach. This benefit also applies to those viewing the research sessions (such as our clients).
  • The fact that participants use their own devices and are situated in their own homes or workplaces can provide an extra aspect of authenticity to user tests and research.
  • There can be savings in overall costs as there is no need for a dedicated research/viewing facility.
  • It can be easier to schedule participants as they do not need to travel.
  • Remote research allows for several unmoderated research methodologies.

Issues with Remote User Research

However, it’s not all smiles in the land of virtual interviews. While unmoderated methodologies work well there are limits to conducting moderated sessions with participants. Some of what we have learned includes:

  • For contextual research you cannot get the breadth and depth of detail that you would when attending in person. We have explored ways to address this, such as getting participants to video their work environment as they complete tasks. While these can provide additional information (anything is better than nothing), it’s no substitute for the real thing.
  • Group research is much more challenging in a virtual environment. The technology, while always improving, still makes the interactions between the participants less fluid.
  • It is far more difficult to pick up on subtle observational feedback. Body language can be particularly tricky to observe when all that you can see are head and shoulders within a Zoom window.
  • Technical challenges persist. These issues can be greater for the less technically-proficient and this can unintentionally exclude people from the user research. It can also impact on the efficiency of research sessions, using up precious time.
  • Practical issues such as arranging consent and payment is often more cumbersome, and there is a higher risk of no-shows when conducting research remotely.
  • There are fewer efficiencies around effort, time, and participant management than most people expect. Indeed, the effort involved in organising remote research often matches that required for in-person research.

The Future of Remote User Research

So considering all of those factors, how do we see it working in the future? Without a doubt remote research is here to stay. The benefits it offers in access to participants, reduction in travel costs, and ease of access for those viewing, make it a compelling option. We find it especially useful when working in Agile Sprints where we need to carry out testing and research more frequently.

However, it is still a somewhat compromised approach, with stricter limitations on how you interact and observe. The loss of contextual insight and more importantly the restrictions around physical interaction in a virtual environment can rule out remote research as a viable option in many cases.

Moving forward, remote research will be a viable option in many scenarios, but it will never be the default. There are still too many useful benefits to conducting research face-to-face. Most often in contexts where you need to strictly control the test protocol. This will especially be the case in regulated medical research that is of a summative nature and also in cases where the research scenario involves interaction with other physical devices. In those cases, the ability to direct the participant focus, combined with the additional information gained from observing in-person, means that you can more effectively capture specific information, and in sufficient detail, to truly understand what the issues are. Face-to-face research will also be required in situations where participants are less technologically able or tasks are more contextual in nature.

It is important to note that there are some potential issues around safety to consider when returning to in-person research, as it seems that Covid-19 will be with us for some time yet. You will need to carefully consider the physical set-ups for any user research to ensure that they conform with all the relevant local rules and regulations and to ensure that all participants feel safe and relaxed within the environment. You will need to give similar consideration to the viewing areas. It may be advisable to conduct a risk assessment when considering carrying out in-person research, at least for the time being.

Ultimately, we are now moving into a period of blended research styles, with many methods and options to choose from. As long as we begin by focusing on the goals and the requirements of each research project it should be easier to identify the ideal methodological fit to deliver the needed answers.