Connecting with people through remote contextual research
Wednesday, January 12, 2022
|Joy Wong Daniels|
Joy Wong Daniels, head of UX research at Punchcut, talks about connecting with people through remote contextual research, UX designers losing research from social distancing, and how their team created a method for acquiring contextual inquiry without being physical with the participants.
In product research and design circles, a contextual inquiry is a fancy term for doing research in a user’s natural environment while they go about their typical activities. It’s an essential research methodology product designers and user experience designers rely on, a type of field study that involves in-depth interviews and observations with a small sample of users. The goal is to gain a deep understanding of their practices and behaviors by accompanying them wherever their experience is most accurate (in family rooms, during morning commutes, at the grocery store, in classrooms, and workplaces). Typically contextual inquiry takes place during the exploratory (or early) research phase. Both in-person conversation and observation enable researchers and designers to peek into people’s everyday lives. It’s where we learn about who they are, what they do, how they do it, and why, and also examine all of the feelings and emotions in between.
Connecting with people through remote contextual research
When the pandemic hit, social distancing prevented us, researchers, from having the intimate encounters we're accustomed to. So, our team developed an effective way to replicate contextual inquiry without being physical with participants.
In this article, I’ll share tips and provide guidance on how companies can conduct effective and insightful research with product users, even when research can't be done in person due to social distancing, whether caused by the pandemic, or the lingering remote work practices and that have likely become the norm as the pandemic begins to loosen its grip on society.
As a research director at one of the leading digital design agencies, I’ve collaborated for years with clients and design teams to transform research into actionable insights for emergent technologies. The recommendations in this article stem from countless research methods and tweaks I’ve used to better understand the human experience, then apply those insights to help major brands like Samsung, Google, Toyota, and Visa adjust their user experiences and product or service design accordingly.
So let’s dive in. Here are just a few of the ways we’ve successfully replicated contextual inquiry without physically being with participants. I hope you can apply many of these steps to your own UX and product design research efforts, to inform product and user experience decisions in times of flux.
You can speed up the recruitment process using online research platforms like dscout, Ethnio, and User Interviews. These tools enable you to see and hear from participants before beginning your study. Doing your own outreach through social media or partnering with a panel provider, the recruitment, screening, and scheduling process can take weeks. Using online platforms can actually cut the timeline down to less than a week or just a few days. You can do this in conjunction with the phone-based screening.
Things to Keep in Mind:
• Beware of pitfalls: There is an inherent selection bias when it comes to using these platforms because they draw from a pool of mostly tech-savvy, educated participants who are familiar with video conferencing tools and are comfortable being on-camera. If you’re looking to get to know niche or underrepresented users, an alternative recruiting source (e.g., local community outreach) would be more appropriate.
• Evaluate the Number of Participants: Try to avoid going overboard on the number of participants. Be diligent and be mindful about how many people you need to talk with. Think carefully about how much value will be added if you include extra participants and consider how that decision will impact the depth of your analysis. When you collect and analyze qualitative data, keep it manageable so that you don’t end up getting overwhelmed by data points that may prevent you from uncovering deeper and richer insights. Go for quality over quantity.
• Be Aware of Personal Situations: COVID is still impacting people’s lives in many different ways. People are experiencing financial hardship, parents are trying to manage to work from home while simultaneously schooling their children, while others are experiencing a usual level of stress and anxiety. We’ve learned that we need to be flexible and give participants extra time and space when they participate in the research. Similarly, make sure to accommodate any device constraints participants might have. Does the participant have access to a computer and/or smartphone? What can be done over the phone? Can a participatory activity be done without a screen share? Oftentimes a laptop doesn’t have the mobility (as a phone does) to maneuver and show the researcher the full context of the participant’s surroundings. Depending on the activity, work with the participants to ensure their devices can support their involvement.
Preparing for Remote Contextual Interviews
Once you select participants, reach out to them individually and inquire if they have any questions (prior to doing a user interview or running the diary study) as a way to establish a good relationship from the start. It’s also important to introduce the video conferencing tool and set expectations for the activities in pre-interview communication. Internet connectivity can be an issue, so making sure that the participant does a test beforehand is key. The participant should also sign the consent forms prior to the interview so the moderator can jump right into the sessions without having to waste precious time dealing with paperwork and logistics. It can also be helpful to let participants know what they can expect during their session with the researcher by providing instructions and an agenda ahead of time.
Things to Keep in Mind:
• Do a Little Pre-Work: Send out a pre-interview questionnaire to gain insight about the participant prior to the remote interview. This information creates a preview about the participant and enables us to craft customized questions related to their specific or unique behaviors, as well as document an inventory of personal items or devices they may own.
• Do A Dry-Run: With remote research, there are so many things that can go wrong (beyond technical difficulties) which is why it’s even more important to practice the session before going live. Doing a dry run can help you anticipate the timing and duration of an interview. In addition, the moderator can get feedback about the interview structure, question types, and overall flow.
• Make It Contextual: Ask participants to capture (either ahead of time or during the interview) their space, devices, personal belongings, etc. through photos or video walkthroughs. Ask them to “Think Aloud” and describe in detail what they are showing and doing and where. Ensure that the participant is located in the authentic context of their activity.
• Document the Session: Record the interview and transcribe the meeting (Rev.com); Tools like Zoom and dscout feature automatic transcription.
• Invite Stakeholders to Join: Although remote interviews sessions are recorded so anyone can view them afterward, it’s beneficial for stakeholders to commit to watching them “live” and guarantee that they hear directly from their customers and understand where they are coming from. By observing their customers firsthand, they’re more inclined to advocate for the people and processes involved in designing their products.
Facilitating User Interviews & Building Empathy
It’s much more challenging to gain trust and get folks to open up through a screen. At the beginning of an interview, try showing your own vulnerability (“My kids are doing Zoom school in the next room and might pop in…") or share more about yourself than you might share if you were in person. It’s a moment to step away from the research and be just a real person the participant can relate to. It’s best to keep the introduction lightweight and inviting.
Things to Keep in Mind:
• Personalize the Discussion Guide: Take the time to tailor interview questions in a way that has personal meaning and context for each participant based on existing information from screener responses or diary study entries. Again, this allows you to continue building rapport and encourages participants to talk more freely about their thoughts and opinions
• Be Patient: It’s hard to read body language behind a screen, so pay particularly close attention to facial expressions and non-verbal cues. If someone seems confused by a question or becomes uncomfortable at any point, either restate or rephrase the question or gently move on to the next topic.
• Plan for Technical Difficulties: Make sure to have the participant’s personal contact information (phone, email). If a session is dropped or interrupted by a tech issue, have a plan to immediately reconnect or reschedule for a later time/date.
• Don’t Let The Technology Or Tools Be A Blocker: Avoid participant frustration and technical hiccups by limiting user-controlled activities. It’s better to simplify their tasks and keep the burden mostly on the moderator who can talk a participant through a card-sorting, prioritization, or journey mapping exercise. The moderator can move digital or physical assets on behalf of the participant.
• Collaborate Behind The Scenes: While the moderator is expected to facilitate the interview, it’s helpful when notetakers and observers can contribute follow-up questions in case the moderator misses anything. Use a chat tool like Google Chat or Slack to keep communication open.
Observing from Afar
In place of direct observation, a diary study can capture a participant’s “in-the-moment“ experiences within the context and location of wherever they naturally occur. The key to being a part of the participant’s real-world context is that it can reveal behaviors for which you might not be aware or even consider. As participants go about their everyday routines, they can use an easy-to-use mobile app (e.g., dscout, LookBack, or Indeemo) to log their activities using photos, screenshots, video clips, and written diary entries. Diary studies require active engagement for an extended period of time which can range from a few days to a month to even longer.
A less time-consuming way to see and understand the context of a participant’s environment is to ask them to conduct a live virtual tour in their physical space during the remote interview. This could be at home, en route, shopping, etc. They can show us items related to our discussion by holding them up to the video camera and demonstrating how they are used.
Another way to understand context is through a photo study where you give participants a prompt and ask them to document aspects of their lives or artifacts they encounter (e.g., photos of living space, checkout counter, favorite personal item, etc.). They can either submit captions or talk through the photos during a follow-up interview. This research method lets you view real-life experiences that you may be unable to observe firsthand.
Things to Keep in Mind:
• Self-Reported Data: With diary studies and photo studies, you rely on participants to self-report their behaviors and opinions in response to specific prompts and tasks we determine. This means participants may not accurately report on their true behaviors and actions. What they do versus what they say they do is oftentimes very different. Sometimes participants also feel pressure to tell you what they think you want to hear. This can happen when doing either traditional contextual interviews or remote contextual interviews.
• Embrace Spontaneity: One of the things we appreciate about diary studies and virtual tours is that participants can be spontaneous and bring up topics that weren’t part of an interview. Surprises like these give the opportunity to view things through a different lens, one that helps to look past your original line of inquiry.
• How to Manage Lots of Data: Diary studies yield loads of useful qualitative data (and light quantitative data) because it covers an extended period of time. However, don’t underestimate how long it may take to review and analyze all of those responses since you’re gathering data over time vs. one instance. Without clear analysis objectives, it’s easy to get tangled in the mess of so much data. Revisit your initial research questions, dig into the diary entries you’ve collected, and find the answers. It’s also easy to get overwhelmed by hours of video footage from virtual tours and walkthroughs, which is why it’s useful to keep time-stamped notes and tag key moments. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need because it can be difficult when you get ahead of the data you’re collecting.
Though we’ve had great success with this approach, we are continuously learning, experimenting, and enhancing our remote research practice. We miss the genuine connection we make when we’re physically together in a participant’s natural context, and we look forward to the day when we can safely return to in-person research. Yet, in the here and now as we forge ahead, we hope these tips are useful for you and your team in your efforts to keep research efforts flowing seamlessly, no matter where your research subjects are located, in an effort to design the most cutting-edge products and user experiences.
This content is made possible by a guest author, or sponsor; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of App Developer Magazine's editorial staff.
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