Remote research opens the door for richer, higher-fidelity insights

7 min read Dr. Chris Marmo

As a researcher with 15 years’ experience, I have made use of the traditional, face-to-face interview hundreds (if not thousands) of times. It’s a basic tool in the researcher’s toolbox for a reason: it allows you to build rapport and understanding quickly. Over time, however, I’ve found ways to improve on it, ways to enhance its strengths and counteract its weaknesses. These ways are incredibly well suited to remote research, and I hope that any organisation pivoting to remote research now will be excited about the possibilities that have opened up to them.

In traditional, face-to-face interviews, participants often feel pressured – they’re in someone else’s office, being asked to reflect in ways that are new to them, by someone who’s paying them. They’re outside of their comfort zone and may find it hard to tap into what they would “naturally” do when, say, accessing a website. Participants want to be helpful, and this often means telling you what they think you want to hear. 

Similarly, the research team can feel pressured to get everything they need out of an interview because they know it’ll cost money and time (both of which may not exist) to get back in touch to follow up.

The traditional research interview takes a Q&A approach: you ask a question, they give you an answer, and then there’ll be a follow-up question and answer. The downside to this approach is that your research insights are limited by the assumptions you walked in with. You might be able to confirm or disprove your hypothesis, but you’re unlikely to get much insight beyond that narrow scope.

The methods made available by remote research shift you away from that Q&A dynamic to one where you collaborate with the participant over time to build a shared understanding.

Asynchronous responses are fresher responses

When you interview someone at a pre-arranged time, you’re asking them to remember incidents or events that may have happened days, weeks or even years ago. It’s human nature to forget situations or misremember details. But asynchronous communication allows a participant to tell you about something immediately after it happens.

In a recent research project with Atlassian, we spent an hour interviewing each participant over Zoom, just like we normally would in-person. But we also created ways for participants to report back to us what they were doing, why and how, and what they thought about all of that, no matter when or where it occurred to them. (We paid participants for their extra time.) 

We wanted to know how participants were collaborating with their colleagues, so we gave them a structure to instantly report an actual moment of interaction with a colleague, what it was about, and how it happened. This also took pressure off the participants because they didn’t have to remember — they could just tell us what they literally just did. This allowed the interviews we conducted with them to run more smoothly, and it gave the research team an opportunity to follow up with their own questions.

Pre-interview: ‘priming’ participants with small tasks or questions ahead of time

In research, we talk about ‘priming’ participants, where you give them a task or a question ahead of time for them to complete or think about. This is commonly accepted as leading to more productive, relaxed conversations.

Preparing a pre-task of some variety is a great way of empowering participants with richer storytelling tools. Instead of relying on their memory or on an off-the-cuff response to your question, you might prepare a diary template for them, request that they bring certain objects or artefacts, or ask them to think about specific examples a week or two before the interview. This is a great way to help participants help you. It gives them more time.

At Paper Giant, we have had the privilege and opportunity to conduct research into grieving and memorialisation a number of times. One example of ‘priming’ in these projects is to ask people ahead of time to find a photo of a loved one who has passed away. Our research in these contexts is often emotional and challenging, because we’re interested in the challenges that people have faced when navigating the administration or bureaucracy when someone close to them has died. By asking them to find a photo to show us ahead of time, it primes them to talk about this person in a way that is less likely to trigger negative emotional responses. It also allows them to tell their story in a more meaningful way, so that we better understand their perspectives.

Remote research is ideally suited to asynchronous activities, where the researcher doesn’t need to be observing in real-time. Thinking about things that people can do before and after your interactions with them can help your research uncover deeper understandings.

During the interview: Giving people more tools to express themselves with

When you move away from the face-to-face interview as a default mode of data collection, you give participants more choice on how they present information to you. Pre-task become highly valuable tools to use during the interview, to externalise a participant’s experience and allow them to reflect on it.

Sending a small survey ahead of time, or asking people to prepare some material for the interview, not only primes them to talk about something, but it also helps them tell their story. In a project with a cemetery client about the experience of grieving, we asked participants to bring a photo of their loved one and a photo that shows how they memorialise them. Both of these photos helped the participants externalise a tough topic, but also express themselves. 

If your pre-task is a survey or diary-study, then the interview can be used to reflect on the participant’s responses. When participants see their own experiences laid out visually in front of them, it sparks new and deeper reflections that you don’t get when you’re asking them to draw wholly from memory.

Post-interview: Continuous engagement lets you validate and deepen your insights

Remote research creates the conditions for more collaborative knowledge-building between yourself and the participants. It’s more of an open dialogue over time — you’re not just relying on that one hour that you have to get everything you need from a person.

In our Atlassian project, we had our ‘official’ research interactions, but then we maintained a relationship with that person for about two weeks afterwards. That allowed us to do synthesis on the data as we normally would, and then also play back some of that synthesis and validate it with participants. It gave them the opportunity to correct our understanding if we hadn’t got it 100%, or tell us new things that our synthesis brought up for them.

I think we’ve all had times when we look back on an interaction and think “Damn, I should have said…” or “that’s a way better way to explain it…”. In our experience, participants appreciate the opportunity to come back and clarify their thoughts with us.

Collaborative research interviews leave the participant feeling validated

At their worst, Q&A-style interviews can leave participants feeling used or drained, like their experience has been taken away from them. But when you give participants the time and tools to respond in their own way, they describe the experience as cathartic, occasionally even therapeutic. They feel like they’ve been given a platform, and that what they have to say is worthwhile.

Researchers work for the client, but we also have a responsibility to the people we research with. It’s our job to represent their voice back into the organisations that have hired us, and to get the most true picture possible of their concerns and stories.

Remote research opens up a huge number of ways to empower participants and to give yourself a better chance to have a valid understanding of what’s going on.

Paper Giant writes about research, design, innovation and ethics in our fortnightly newsletter – subscribe here.