Remote Researcher

April 26, 2020

We all are adapting to the new way of working- popularly referred to as WFH (work from home). It’s been almost a month and now I can confidently say that I am used to it, found my own way to navigate through it and discovered what works the best for a design researcher.

Design research means contextual research, user centric research and the best method to do this is meet your user in person, interact with them, use your research tools along with them to unearth their needs and challenges. This requires traveling to their surroundings, immersing yourself in their reality, understanding their activities for you to find meaningful user insights.

With the recent COVID 19 pandemic, our working reality has completely flipped. We can no longer meet users in person. All the research interviews have to be done over video calls or in worse cases, over telephone. This might not be challenging for a UX research project, but for an explorative, ethnographic (for example with patients, customers etc.) it means a completely change in the way of working. This threw up many questions regarding a the craft’s objectives and methods, like:

1.    We realised that users may not feel completely at peace about talking to someone over video calls or telephone conversations. In such cases, how do we gain their trust and establish comfort?

2.    What effective research tools should we use for the virtual interviews and also give us the same result as in field research?

3.    How do we do the visual documentation of the virtual interview?

4.    How to collaborate with my team for the synthesis process & enable the team to achieve the same output remotely?

5.    How do we conduct cross functional team workshops for ideation & co- working sessions remotely?

After few trial & error efforts, I found few methods that have proven to be effective for my work. Documenting few points below. Disclaimer: It might not work in all the cases, but feel free to try and let me know what all has worked for you.

1.    Always show your face in VC:

-      We are all struggling with our internet bandwidth and keep our cameras off for better internet speed. But it crucial to establish connect with the user in the beginning of the call. While starting the video smile and make the user comfortable.

-      Give them a sneak peak into your work space/ desk, notepad etc. This helps develop familiarity with the interviewer. For eg: During the call while enquiring about the lockdown situation in each other’s city, show them the view of the streets from your balcony while talking about it, it works very well as an ice breaker. You can decide what works for your user based on your experience/ intuition. The idea here to not lose out on the nuances of human interactions even if it is virtual. You can choose to switch off your video post the early few minutes.

-      In case of an audio call, ask them beforehand if they have apps like Whatsapp/ hangout where you can do the introduction/ context setting over a video call and later continue the discussion over audio call.

-      Keep in mind of your body language: Avoid face touching during interviews or slouching.

-      Be human and commit some mistakes: It is very important for the respondent to feel  more confident so it is okay if you commit some mistakes just to ease of things. For example, drop a pen or show them some of your other tabs during sharing screen (be very careful  while doing this though)

2.    Use tools that are intuitive to the user:

-      Whatsapp works well for sharing and editing tools. Everyone is familiar with the picture editing interface on whatsapp chat. We have used that during interviews where the users could highlight, circle, write, comment on the tools and send it back to us. This activity was done simultaneously while we were on the call.

-      Online Powerpoint/ keynote is another such tool that can work well depending on the user. A lot of business stakeholders or customers are familiar with Microsoft office tools and you can work with it as long as the tools are simple and explained well on how to use them. eg: using online ppt to do the stakeholder mapping together with the user. Keep the cards ready, all you have to do is move and place them.

-      Use visual cues: Even in the absence of any interactive tool, we have realized that mailing, sending them the visual cues over whatsapp while the interview is going on helps to anchor the discussion.

For eg: If you are discussing the patient journey, make the journey map with each stage marked out and send it to the user just before you are about to start the discussion. While going through the map, you can guide them to focus their attention to each selected stage. The user tends to concentrate more when given these cues.

-      Concentrate more on note taker’s guide. Making a structured note taker’s guide/ framework ensures that even in absence of any specific tool, you know that you have covered every possible area of enquiry mentioned in the guide.  Make sure you have more than 1 note taker to ensure that nothing is lost due to to internet connectivity.

-      Ask your users to click pictures of their environment. Taking photos & recording snippets of the interview at crucial moments is as important as the outcome of the discussion. While this might not be the ideal solution, but asking the user to document  their own surroundings might give you an interesting perspective that you didn’t consider before. You can also ask them to take you on a visual tour using Whatsapp or other video apps. Take as many screenshots of the interview as possible. You can also video record an important exercise. Many VC apps allow you to record the ongoing call or you can use tools like Quicktime for screen recording. Make sure you have taken your user's consent before recording the discussions.

-      Leave behind exercises. You can send your users activities, surveys etc. after the interview is over in case there are things that weren’t covered during the call. This also gives the users more time to think/ reflect upon the questions before answering them. You can get as creative as you want in this activity. It can be anything from creating an online game to using online collaborative tools for this.

3.    Download the interviews together as a team.

-      Using platforms like online powerpoint, keynote, google docs for doing detailed interview downloads have worked very well. Any video conferencing platform works well as long as it allows you to share your screen with other participants.

4.    Embrace the White boarding platforms for Synthesis.

-      Miro has been a boon as far as synthesis discussions go. Their real time feature allows you to create concepts, map user stories or customer journeys, or conduct roadmap planning easily.

-      Trust me, you won’t miss your post- its and foam boards that badly when you are working on Miro. I would recommend using the premium version for ensuring data privacy, but the free one will still work as long as you don’t have to work on more than 5 projects at a time.

5.    Use platforms that are familiar to your participants for collaborative workshops.

- While designers can adapt to new platforms with ease, it’s not always the same your stakeholders and users. Make sure that you give them enough time to get familiarised with the platform. Plan your workshop/activity time accordingly.

- Include simple exercises before the main activity that helps them explore the platform features. This would be similar to warm- up activities we do at the beginning of any workshop.

- Make sure there is always more than 1 facilitator so that in case of any internet connectivity issues, the other one can take over.


Expect Delays: It is very important while conducting the interview that you don’t react due to the delays happening while the research is going on. Do not skip points or cut off the respondent. If the delays are manageable, analyse the lag and make sure your probing doesn’t cut of the user while self-reflecting.

Conducting a research interview is just opposite to what you do during your general office conferences. All that MBA Psychology 101 has taught us to be powerful and commanding during video conferencing, but the idea behind the research is to make yourself less powerful or intimidating to the respondent. It is very important to remember this and let the user be confident and the expert for the subject he is talking about. Please note that this doesn’t include research that needs simultaneous translations. We will crack it too when the need arises. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Happy WFH folks!