User Research & Testing: How to “Get out of the building” when you’re on lockdown.

Entrepreneur, Steve Blank said that to understand your customers you need to “get out of the building” and speak to them face to face. But how do you do this while on lockdown?

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Your intuition will get you so far but for most of us involved in making products and services, we are not our end user. To understand your customers’ needs and how they interact with your offering you need to get close to them. How do you do this while social distancing?

When carrying out testing we usually invite research participants to our usability lab and bring stakeholders and the wider team together in an observation room to see how users react to what we are working on. COVID-19 means that we can’t do this at the moment. So how do we go about getting the feedback we need to create products that are efficient, effective, satisfying and in line with user’s needs when we can’t physically meet them?

Remote research to the rescue

Our team has been carrying out remote research for a while now but usually client’s customers are far away and budgets don’t cover flying people halfway across the world. Historically, we used this as a second-best option when face to face wasn’t possible. Now that face to face interaction with users is completely ruled out, we have moved to doing all user testing 100% remotely for the time being. Testing remotely might initially seem like a barrier but it actually presents some interesting benefits.

Meeting users in their natural habitat

In a controlled lab scenario, we are taking the user out of their environment and into an artificial one. This means we can control the environment allowing for a smoother testing process but it can have an effect on how users react. They are out of their context and this can influence the feedback we get. With remote testing, we are effectively visiting them in their own home. This is their natural environment and in many cases much closer to the actual context they will be using the product in.

More participants to choose from

We are usually limited by geography and can only recruit from those who can physically make it to our lab on the day. Thanks to remote testing techniques geography is much less of an issue. We can widen our net and have a broader range of participants to choose from. With a larger pool of users to choose from, we can align our participants to be closer to our user personas and collect more relevant meaningful data. Being confined to their homes, many people also have some extra time and are happy to take an hour to help out and make a little bit of money at the same time.

Observe Asynchronously

Digital recording tools mean that we can take notes asynchronously. Sessions are recorded and are viewable at any time from a centralised location. This means that not all team members need to be there to observe in real-time while the test is taking place. Some of the tools we use also allow you to playback tests at a faster speed so it can be much faster to review. Notes, usually taken on dozens of post-it notes, are centralised, collected in one place and pre-digitised making them easier to sort and review.

Watch out

While there are many advantages to remote research there are some challenges that you should be aware of. Being out of the lab means that you don’t have full control over the situation. As people are at home they are subject to interruptions from crying babies, pets, the postman and all of the other things that home life brings. They are sometimes trying to squeeze the session in between their other commitments. This adds to the reality but can defocus the session. It is helpful to be aware of this while planning.

Another major drawback and factor that is out of your control is wi-fi connectivity issues. This is difficult to predict and can fluctuate throughout the session. Patchy wi-fi can completely derail a test. To get around this it is worth asking participants in advance about their wi-fi connection and letting them know that it is important for the test to go ahead. You should also book more people than you need just in case one of them needs to be abandoned due to wi-fi issues. Having one or two people as a backup is good practise whether in-person or remote as there will always be last-minute cancellations or sessions that just don’t go well for unforeseen reasons.

Something not to be overlooked is asking for consent from participants. In our lab tests, we will always ask participants to sign a waiver and give their permission to record them. In a remote test, this isn’t as straightforward. To get around this make sure to ask participants to clearly, verbally give their explicit permission on video.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that remote research will ever fully replace face to face interaction with users. The current restrictions have caused major disruption to most businesses but it doesn't necessarily mean that we can’t continue to improve our users’ experience. In fact, there are lots of benefits to remote research. Access to participants, the context of their home environment, team collaboration and access all contribute to gathering valuable feedback. It’s not just design research that translates well to the remote world. Modern tools mean we can still do most design activities, from workshops to collaborative prototype building from dispersed locations.

If you are interested in learning how remote research, usability testing, prototyping or design workshops can keep you moving forward when you can’t physically get in a room with people get in touch with us to see how we can help.

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